Learning for Virtual Assistants

I am drafting new sections of our company wiki, and one of the foundation topics is “learning to learn.” It discusses heuristics and anti-heuristics that team members can use to learn more effectively.

We've included this article for our wiki because learning is fundamental to our enterprise, and equipping our team with the tools to learn is essential to successful client programs. In the context of a hyper-accelerated work world, learning solves the problem of understanding through the lenses of IT-enabled service delivery: people, process, and technology.

While we handle virtual assistance somewhat differently than other providers, there are standard features to this kind of work:

  1. the task list is relatively dynamic based on changing requirements
  2. the person who performs the work usually handles client communication
  3. problem-solving is part and parcel of the job description

Learning organizations answer these demands. Here are some thoughts on we pull that off.

Background for Virtual Assistant Learning

Permanent Beta

The concept of permanent beta is so pervasive that we don’t think about it these days. You may recall the primordial ooze of software updates heralded by much pomp and circumstance (to justify the expense of upgrading); these events defined change as the exception rather than the rule.

Today, apps update automatically, announced by a new version number or, perhaps, an innocuous desktop notification or email. Permanent beta describes the relatively new yet widely accepted notion that everything is in a state of rapid flux.

Lambent Learning for Virtual Assistants - Reid Hoffman Quote

Reid Hoffman, of LinkedIn fame, bangs the gong of a personalized flavor of permanent beta: “[it] forces you to acknowledge that you have bugs, that there’s new development to do on yourself, that you will need to adapt and evolve. It is a lifelong commitment to continuous personal and professional growth.”

The theme of constant change reigns supreme in many of the programs we operate. They inhabit a continual flux as clients refine their business model, circumstances change, interfaces morph, procedures grow obsolete, and so on.

Like ancient navigators, program managers must continually course correct. This quality is particularly evident with virtual assistant work. It seems that the smaller the team, the more susceptible the program is to change.

Another take on this is Mike Tyson’s version of von Moltke’s observation that no plan survives contact with the enemy. His spicier version, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth,” illuminates the simple fact that processes must accommodate all manner of unexpected conditions.

Outsourcers must use fresh tactics to handle unexpected cultural miscommunication, prospects that remain elusive, content that doesn’t connect, Google algorithm updates, and mercurial clients.

Learning is Management’s Job

Outsourcing businesses are, at their core, process custodians. Beyond infrastructure, quality providers must find the right people and prepare them to execute processes to meet client objectives.

Lambent Learning for Virtual Assistants - Andy Grove Quote

As Andy Grove notes in High Output Management, preparation is both critical and a management function.

Training is, quite simply, one of the highest-leverage activities a manager can perform. … This assumes, of course, that the training will accurately address what students need to know to do their jobs better. This isn’t always so—particularly with respect to “canned courses” taught by someone from outside. For training to be effective, it has to be closely tied to how things are actually done in your organization.

The more experienced and capable people you can focus on understanding the details of a client program to handle process design, automation specification, and subsequent documentation, the better that program will run.

One of the benefits of our boutique size is that it makes staying close to our programs easy: we’re never more than three layers away. Management always learns the program, creates documentation, and delivers training.

Start With People Willing to Learn

We do two things, build remote teams for work and provide virtual assistance. Both require people who work “well and creatively with intelligent machines,” as Cal Newport describes one quality necessary to compete in an ever-changing global economy.

Lambent Learning for Virtual Assistants - Cal Newport Quote

His book, Deep Work, expands on this concept with his theme that deep work is necessary for success:

To join the group of those who can work well with these machines, therefore, requires that you hone your ability to master hard things. And because these technologies change rapidly, this process of mastering hard things never ends: You must be able to do it quickly, again and again.

As we build teams that execute well, we endeavor to develop quality learning, so they have the best foundation for knowledge work. A key ingredient lies in selecting people with an aptitude for learning and helping them become effective lifelong learners. In fact, this is probably the most essential skill we develop.

Lambent Learning for Virtual Assistants - Erika Andersen Quote

Erika Andersen elaborates on some of the qualities needed for constant learning in her Harvard Business Review article:

…resisting the bias against doing new things, scanning the horizon for growth opportunities, and pushing yourself to acquire radically different capabilities—while still performing your job. That requires a willingness to experiment and become a novice again and again…

Her discussion focuses on creating a sustainable competitive advantage for organizations at the executive level, but those qualities must be present throughout any service organization operating in today’s supercharged environment.

How to Build Learning for Offshore Virtual Assistants

Ask the Right Questions

Both online marketing and CX, where we generally play, are rapidly evolving disciplines. As a result, our virtual assistance is a constantly expanding catalog of highly customized processes. We take our assignment — often a bag of ad hoc, un-interrogated tasks — and fashion a holistic, coherent, and documented program.

The work of client onboarding sees us reaching into our existing bag of tricks to blend our frameworks with client-specific requirements. During this process, we also raise the periscope to review new tools and investigate others’ best practices.

Once we arrive at a general workflow, we need to design, test and document the process with all due haste. The documentation begins with these questions:

What are the objectives of outsourcing?

We seek to understand the essence of our client’s objectives and build processes that serve them. In this way, we’re always creating value by making their operations more efficient, fault resistant, and less costly in terms of time and effectiveness. This is because we spend time learning about our client’s goals and remain aligned with them.

Each engagement starts with a good understanding of the client’s expected outcome to place the program’s goals and consequences front and center in the learning documentation.

This approach looks below the surface to understand the “why” of the program. Understanding the client’s motivation helps the entire team connect with the value this endeavor brings. Because these motivations are often aspirational, they create an emotional connection that unites the team behind the client’s goals, driving performance and quality.

What are we asked to do?

This question generally gets baked into the onboarding process, but it’s a deceptively important idea. It’s vital to separate the client objectives from any assumptions about processes we think will support the program.

Put another way, we look at our client’s goals and supporting processes through the lens of first principles to figure out how we will execute. This keeps us focused on the “true north” of our client’s program so we can objectively build solutions that work as efficiently as possible to meet the client’s goals.

If the goal is to increase sales, we are really asked to provide more sales opportunities for our clients. This is usually called “lead generation,” with assumptions about mining or buying lead data, content marketing, etc. Those are the conventional solutions to the question of gathering prospects into a manageable list, but those are hardly the only options.

What are the culture gaps?

Program design must handle the disconnects that can create blind spots in program execution.

Learning makes a plethora of assumptions in the name of efficiency. Many premises occupy the territory of common sense. But common sense is a cultural construct and often fails in offshore outsourcing programs. Implicit, common sense notions often need full expression to avoid program gaffs.

For example, offshore customer service agents may prioritize the business rules over customer satisfaction without recognizing that this perspective damages the brand. The mismatch grows out of a set of deep-seated cultural biases and manifests as a tendency for agents to regard themselves as gatekeepers rather than problem solvers. Programs can miss the mark without explicit and significant investment in learning that focuses on this aspect of customer support.

Gaps can be more straightforward as well. These include areas that are simply not within the realm of experience for most staff.

We do quite a lot of work in the Recreational Vehicle industry, but houses on wheels are not a thing in the Philippines (nor anywhere else in Asia, as far as I know). So we use a combination of pop-culture references and explanations to clarify what would be evident in Australasia, Europe, or North America.

How will we do the work?

McDonald’s basically invented fast food as we know it. Their assembly line process called the “Speedee Service System,” grew out of economic pressure to reinvent their business. In a larger sense, they made a deep inquiry about how to do the work at its most basic level to eliminate excess effort, lower costs, and accelerate burgers to customers.

Their simple trick? Lavish effort on understanding the best processes and architect the work environment and the technologies to maximize the flow.

Like the brothers McDonald, we invest time upfront. To build and test a process flow, we look at client objectives such as satisfied customers or more online sales and the corollary processes that support these objectives, like customer support or increased online inquiries. Then we look at tools to automate the process entirely or simplify the work our virtual assistants need to do to make the process smooth and efficient.

Automation is a constant effort since this simplifies program work and drives down the monthly hours our clients need to buy from us. The work we eliminate through automation reduces the cognitive load all the way around to focus on higher value efforts.

If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it very well. Richard Feynman or Albert Einstein or both

Wikiing for Understanding

Our wikis serve as program documentation, learning courseware, and knowledge bases for ongoing program support. There’s nothing particularly unique about the wiki format, and they are web-based, collaborative documents that support a range of media.

Hiring learners, management engagement, going deep into the why and the what — all these lay the foundation for building learning, but the process of building wikis is where we start to understand to program. That’s because whoever is building the actual learning build is executing the associated procedures to document them.

Put another way; this is just another example of the adage that you have to really learn something to teach it well.

Lambent Learning for Virtual Assistants - Richard Feynman Quote

Rules for Wikis

We have three guidelines for learning: management owns learning, keep it easy to understand, and lastly, build fast and revise.

  1. Focus — Learning is the thing outsourcing providers have to get right. This means it needs to be at the top of the executive agenda.
  2. Clarity — For learning to work in an outsourcing environment (or anywhere), it needs to be as transparent as possible. It’s not an easy proposition. As Mark Twain quipped: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
  3. Speed & Change — Quick deployment beginning with the questions listed above and documentation is a universal client expectation. Likewise, revisions need quick turnaround to keep the team oriented toward newly discovered best practices and process updates.

Focus: Leadership Engagement

Leadership engagement is, as much as anything, a stance of tight proximity to program operations, starting with a foundation of operational understanding.

The time investment in program documentation means no one person can create it all, particularly leadership. Still, there are tangible benefits to closely managing this process and, where possible, delivering the learning personally.

Clarity: Clear and Easily Understood Learning

We employ several tactics for this, but the overarching strategy is to learn the program well enough and in sufficient detail to explain it simply. It’s why we seek to understand the basics of the program so we can proactively simply programs by removing cruft and hewing to the underlying client objectives.

One tactic for clear communication is to use several ways to present the information at hand. This depends on the material and assumes that video, screenshots, narrative, and process flows are all part of the learning. We use as many mediums as necessary but no more than necessary to explain a topic.

The heart of this mandate, of course, is that we want to build learning that works well, and the best strategy for helping people learn is to make it easy to understand.

Fast Learning & Permanent Beta: Processes & Libraries for Speed

Fast learning seemingly contradicts our clarity rule, but building momentum around the learning and documentation process is important. To move it along, we treat learning and documentation as a highly defined process in its own right adhering to these selfsame rules.

We use learning frameworks to great effect and typically use a consistent set of applications or classes of applications.

Any program has a degree of customization, say 10-40%, depending on client requirements, industry, lead characteristics, SAAS platforms, etc. Classes of applications like CRMs and helpdesks typically work the same way. Applying the principle of management by exception to learning helps us work more efficiently.

Since much of the material is similar, we create generic process maps for undocumented flows. Much of our systems documentation remains consistent as well.

The Rules of the Game

Every concept discussed is meta. They all fold back on themselves and apply to the business process outsourcing companies, support programs, virtual assistants, outsourcing clients, and the overall zeitgeist of the hyper-accelerated worlds of online marketing, customer support, and the tools that support them. Heck, you can even extend those rules to admin support and its supporting tools.

In this context, learning and relearning complex tasks is the game.