A new breed of services called virtual assistants let you outsource just about any task overseas, as long as the work can be done with a computer and a telephone.
Virtual assistants are contract workers, generally paid by the hour, who perform menial tasks. The more mundane the job, the better--finding flights and hotels, paying bills, or buying birthday gifts for relatives you'd rather pretend you didn't exist. Think of virtual assistants as old-school secretaries, except that they can't drop off and retrieve your dry cleaning or take your vehicle to the car wash because they live 7000 miles away.
That's a shame, because following our tests of four such services, we'd feel a lot more comfortable handing over our dirty clothes to these operations than entrusting critical business tasks to them.
Focusing on how a small business might use virtual assistants, we gave each service the same three tasks in succession (so that they could focus on one task at a time), of varying levels of complexity.
1. The Spreadsheet: First, we asked the virtual assistants to take a complicated Excel spreadsheet and convert it to Google Docs, retaining as much of the original formatting as possible. We also asked them to create a new Google account that would own the file, and to share the file with two other, existing Google accounts.
2. The Business Trip: Next, we asked for a two-day proposed itinerary for a business trip to Tokyo. We specified a traveling party of four people requiring hotel rooms, sightseeing options during downtime, and lunch and dinner ideas with at least some English-speaking staff and--the kicker--at least one gluten-free dining option because one of the four travelers suffered from celiac disease.
3. The Website: Finally, we asked for research into e-commerce Web hosting options for an existing website, with particular attention to the costs involved. We said that we were especially interested in something that could build on a WordPress site, though we would listen to other ideas if the price was right.
Pricing: Plans vary; overages and weekend surcharges apply; seven-day free trial to start.
Total amount spent: $36.80 for 2 hours, 50 minutes ($13 per hour)
GetFriday was the first outfit we approached--and the slowest at getting its work to us. Promptness definitely wasn't GetFriday's strong suit; and with minor exceptions, its results were middling.
Service setup was long, slow, and involved, requiring telephone verification, a faxed contract, and days of waiting for completion of the various preliminaries. After that, we received multiple telephone calls from the India-based company--first from our primary contact, Snehil, and then from our designated assistant, Alex. Copious email follow-ups ensued, including one with a 30-page user manual attached.
When we sent GetFriday our list of jobs, the results were hit-or-miss. Alex set up a new Google account as requested, and he sent us the login information we needed in order to access the spreadsheet that we had asked him to convert from Excel--but the uploaded file went pretty much untouched after the Google Docs conversion.
We were pleased overall with the Tokyo trip planning. Though this assignment took GetFriday several days to complete--far longer than any other service--the results were thoughtful, though a bit off the mark. The data on hotels (largely luxury chains) included a spreadsheet of addresses and phone numbers (but no rate information). We also received a credible but brief sightseeing spreadsheet complete with embedded photos. Unfortunately, the restaurant planning fell flat: Alex simply checked with each of the previously suggested hotels to see if they had gluten-free food; still he called most of them via telephone, which no other service did. Unfortunately, he didn't offer any other restaurant recommendations. The total time spent on this part of the job was more than three hours, which seemed excessive.
Finally, in response to our request for an e-commerce system recommendation, GetFriday didn't answer the question; instead, it attempted to upsell us, offering to implement a shopping cart plug-in and configure our products at a service rate of $20 per hour. It didn't suggest any other options.
Overall, GetFriday was about average in our estimation--though we're not sure that the investment was worthwhile, and the long delays were problematic for getting real work done.
Pricing: Plans vary; on-demand service costs $3 per week plus $12 per hour.
Total amount spent: $51.
Within a half hour of our signing up online with AskSunday, our virtual assistant Felcy called, describing her background (she was just out of college, as near as we could understand) and providing a dedicated 800 number that we could use to reach her. She said that she worked a five-day week--Monday to Friday--and suggested that we call in the morning, India time, so that she could finish jobs the same day.
AskSunday was generally quick and responsive, and it did the best job of the four services we tested on the Excel project, taking the time to improve the imported chart's legibility rather than leaving the chart in its Google-smushed default form. AskSunday also created a new Google account as we asked, and did the best job overall of handling this admittedly easy task.
Things took a turn for the worse the next day when we expected to get a response to our Tokyo trip request but instead received a list of attorneys destined for "David" by mistake. We were shocked that this could happen and were equally nonplussed when we were billed for this job, as well as for the time AskSunday spent sending us a "Welcome to AskSunday" message.
The Tokyo task results, when they arrived, were uneven: AskSunday provided six budget hotel options, with rates for each, plus a meager four URLs to Tokyo tour guide operations. Felcy suggested ten restaurants, but she said that she could find no information about gluten-free options. All of the information appeared in a very simple spreadsheet, and AskSunday billed us for just an hour and 15 minutes of work.
Next page: Two more services, and a chart to compare them all...