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Virtual assistants help franchisees tackle tedious tasks


Working with virtual assistants hasn’t always been simple, but new methods are validating the promise of efficient work without the hassles of working across time and language barriers.

Would you hand off your business email account to a new employee making $9.50, or let them set up the process that guides your business? Those two unnerving possibilities are exactly the kind of jobs that can be done by virtual assistants: far-flung workers taking care of the distracting tasks so business leaders can focus on the critical big-picture work only they can do.

A practice that was widely popularized in the viral business book “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferris, the system promises to unleash business owners from the tedium of running a business. An entire industry rose around the term. Today, there are thousands of virtual assistants on various freelance work sites and dozens of companies built around the idea of remote workers doing the tedious tasks. But it’s also a volatile industry; there is high turnover, sometimes-impenetrable language barriers and the risk of handing off key business data to strangers in far away places.

Paul Tran says he learned about the virtual assistant world from Ferris’ book and found an elevated version, dubbed a virtual systems architect or VSA. Tran is an 11-unit franchisee of the fast casual Halal Guys concept, operates two Cauldron Ice Cream locations and runs a consulting company for emerging brands as they grow and franchise.

His VSA handles tasks such as responding to broker emails asking for more information about potential real estate options and light bookkeeping. Tran said the key is his VSA was trained to create systems out of whatever information he supplied.

“Let’s say I were to create a video and just walked through my restaurant, and say this is how you open a store and just narrate what I’m doing. After that five-minute video and in one day, they’d create a step-by-step standard operating procedure that would have taken thousands of dollars and weeks to develop,” said Tran. “And if you want to change part of that, let’s say you get a coffee machine, you just whip out your phone again and send them a video again and they just update the process for you.”

His VSA—a woman based in the Philippines—used the same process for his style of bookkeeping, which she has since taken over. She also developed a process to manage the endless task of handling requests for more information from real estate brokers based on a couple of emails Tran sent out. Tran said within the restaurant industry, the only major innovations lately have been third-party delivery and cloud-based point of sale, but VSAs struck him as a real efficiency innovation. His VSA does the job of three to four people in the U.S. without workers comp, the cost of hiring or payroll taxes.

“I’ve been able to take care of a lot of work that a $15 minimum wage worker can do,” said Tran, who operates in California. “That’s how I’ve been offsetting rising wages and low work ethic.”

There are numerous companies that rigorously train virtual assistants or VSAs, but Tran partnered with Pro Sulum because, as founder and CEO Dean Soto explained, it’s a rigorous training and vetting process.

“They’re what I call blank slates, I don’t want people with a lot of background; we have a system where they go through six tiers of weeding people out. They’re going though question after question after question. If they answer them wrong they’re terminated from the prospect list,” said Soto. “Generally, they’re college educated, some have some experience but most don’t. But they’re extremely detail oriented. During the hiring and training process they’re being trained to do systems documentation at the same time and they have to be perfect.”

Soto said it’s essentially the same process Google uses to hire people: weird questions designed to see who has the mental gymnastics capability and a detail-oriented mind.

Those who make it through the process are ready for input, almost like a systems-building robot trained by cellphone videos.

“Because you’re able to create these videos so quickly, you start seeing you can do all these if/then statements, just like if you were programming something,” said Soto.

He said that turns the traditional idea of hiring on its head. Instead of hiring on whatever potentially embellished background is on a candidate’s resume, it’s hiring on potential.

“In the States, you have the traditional way of hiring: if I need a copywriter or need someone in marketing or lead gen, I’ll find someone with that skillset. Because we go at it the opposite way, we’re looking for someone who can document and be detailed oriented and learn the way you want them to do something,” said Soto.

As for the language barrier, it’s not as insurmountable as it once was when the virtual assistants industry was born. Soto said some clients use VSAs to do the first round of interviewing for new locations.  

“Their VSAs, they have two, one of their primary duties is actually being the first line interviewers for all of their franchise stores. So they’ll hop on a meeting with a set of questions and a system of how they judge the person who applied,” said Soto. “They go through 40 to 70 people a week, so the general manger of the store, all they see rather than them having to do 10 interviews a week, they only see that hey, these two people passed and they’ll schedule the interview for those people.”

It might not be intuitive, but at about $9.50 an hour to shed duties and tedium from key people’s lists it could be time to look overseas at the new world of virtual assistants.

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