About a month after his first and only day on the job, I got an email from Mr. F asking if I needed anything done. He made no mention of the mysterious monthlong hiatus. I told him to stuff it and asked to speak with his manager. When the manager emailed, I asked for a refund. (Oh, did I mention I’d prepaid for 40 hours? Yes, I did. Because that was a better deal, and I am always looking for a good deal.) The manager explained that a refund was “not possible,” but he’d be happy to set me up with another assistant.
Let’s call the second assistant Mr. P. In an email, he introduced himself as my “Dedicated Graduate Virtual Assistant,” which sounded like something out of a George Saunders story. Like Mr. F, Mr. P also promised to “put in my best efforts to ensure that all your tasks are executed 100% efficiently.”
Mr. P was not a total wreck, but that was mostly because I’d been so chastened by my experience with Mr. F that I gave the new guy only the most mindless tasks I could think of. I asked him to call up American Airlines to find out how I could use a credit for a flight I’d missed. He got an answer within half an hour. I asked him to call up my bank to ask about a charge on my account. For security reasons the bank wouldn’t give him any answers, but I appreciated his effort.
But any time I gave Mr. P a task that was just slightly difficult, results were disappointing. One morning I asked him if he could transcribe an hourlong interview I’d done with a source. “Yes! Sure, I can do transcription,” he replied enthusiastically. I sent him the recording, and a few hours later, he sent me an email to say, “I have done with the transcription task, But need to do some corrections again.” When I looked at the transcription, it was a mess—a 12,000-word tangle of words that didn’t make any syntactic sense together, with only a handful of paragraph breaks inserted arbitrarily. Here’s a sampling: “And my reaction was always always universally will wire. He really asking the Swihart you asking your own what they think about what you're building a few….”
It was obvious that Mr. P hadn’t really transcribed the interview—instead he’d fed it through transcription software, something I could have done myself. When I angrily complained, he said, “I got your email, ok I will do the transcription again manually.” It took him about 8 hours to do the hourlong recording. He didn’t insert any paragraph breaks.
By the end of my time with Mr. P, I was having trouble coming up with tasks to give him. Pretty much everything that I’d find truly helpful—looking through my email to politely decline invitations and requests I’d been sent, or to figure out whether and when I could take certain meetings, or to remind me to reach out to so-and-so for such-and-such—was off-limits. These tasks were either too delicate, requiring more deftness with the language than he seemed capable of, or too personal, requiring more knowledge about my work, industry, and life than I wanted to share.
At some point it dawned on me that I’d stumbled upon the fatal flaw inherent in any virtual-assistant relationship. To be truly useful, an assistant needs to understand everything about your life and work. An assistant is a confidant. But it’s impossible to develop a deep, trusting relationship with a guy you know only by email—a guy who communicates with you in canned professional-ese, who must be monitored by security cameras to make sure he doesn’t rob you. TasksEveryDay’s assistants were pretty terrible, but even if they’d flawlessly handled every task I’d given them, they wouldn’t have been nearly as good as a local person. That person would cost a lot more. But it’d be worth every penny.