Why would I bring a virtual assistant on board when I already have a team on location? This week’s post brings the answer to that question. There’s no need to overburden your team with temporary projects outside of their scope when you can hire a virtual project manager instead.
Here’s how Hailey, a virtual PM extraordinaire, helped an e-learning startup close the feedback loop and improve internal communication between the product team and the marketing department.
Let’s play pretend for a moment: You’re the leader of a small and nimble tech company working on significantly restructuring your headlining product. We’re talking the kind of changes that could shift roles throughout your business and notably impact your revenue. This is the important stuff.
(Cue Rocky-style montage of you on video calls, scribbling on whiteboards, and feverishly coding, your brow furrowed and a few tasteful beads of sweat dripping down your face.)
You want your research team to build the right thing, your marketing team to have the verbiage to talk about it confidently, and your customers to go gaga over it.
In short, this next pivot needs to be anything but mediocre!
The only thing you need to make it happen is access to your customers for regular feedback.
But there’s a catch (there’s always a catch, right?); you have nothing in place to make this happen.
All of your employees are rocking it in their respective wheelhouses, and it’s imperative that you spend your time orchestrating things (read: you don’t have the manpower to pull this off).
For any organization that relies on regular customer feedback to build and improve upon their products, this scenario spells disaster.
Letting this process fall by the wayside means depriving your team of data necessary to make critical product decisions. The wrong choice could mean major financial losses, a dip in team morale, and wasted focus and energy as the business course corrects.
(Cut the music. Fade to black.)
So what’s a leader to do?
This problem is the very situation a small e-learning organization found themselves in earlier this year. With about 20 employees in offices in San Francisco and Chicago and another dozen working remotely across the United States, the company found themselves in trouble when the manager of internal projects left to take a role at another organization.
This is the story of how they worked with a virtual project manager to confidently take this change in stride and successfully move forward.
Why hire virtual project manager?
Here are a few reasons why this company decided to hire a virtual project manager instead of adding an in-office position for this role?
Fewer startup costs
While the hourly cost might be similar between a virtual PM and an in-house PM, there are a few other factors that still make adding a virtual project manager most cost-efficient.
For organizations that spend a considerable amount of time and energy vetting prospective employees, interviewing and hiring adds up to a significant amount of time! Since a virtual project manager is a contractor, the interviewing process is usually shorter, costing fewer people less time.
Lower ongoing costs
Bringing on a virtual PM costs fewer resources on an ongoing basis, too. There’s no need to find them a mentor within the organization, pay for health insurance, learning opportunities, vacation time, or office space.
There’s an end date
A significant concern for hiring is mapping out what that person will do past the initial need. Project management roles are not usually tied to revenue; so they can be hard to justify. With a virtual PM, there’s an end date for their involvement, so no need to fret about what that person will do after the first project is done.
Adaptability and problem solving
Virtual PMs brings tons of adaptability and problem-solving skills to the table due to the variety of experiences they are exposed as they carry different projects at different organizations. Bringing on a virtual project manager is an excellent way to infuse some creativity and fresh thinking into your organization.
Masters of asynchronous communication
Most virtual PMs are also solid writers and proficient in said technologies, and know how and when to use each. That aptitude means they save time by calling fewer meetings (A WIN FOR EVERYONE).
As a bonus: If you are trying to make your culture around communicating more efficiently, having someone proficient in this communication style serves as a useful study in your case for change.
In this case, this client is a referral from another client – my clients know that I like tech teams who work remotely and get all there is to love about working with a virtual assistant.
So when I met this e-learning company, they had no qualms about bringing on a remote resource to help them.
A 5-Step Process for Working with a Virtual Project Manager
1. Uncovering the ROI
Before starting, I always speak with the client sponsor (whoever is ultimately responsible for the project’s success) and ask these five questions:
- What problem are we trying to solve? (Or what opportunity are we trying to take advantage of?)
- How painful is this problem? What would happen if you didn’t address this? (Or what would it mean to miss out on this opportunity?)
- How would a successful tomorrow look like?
- Could other solutions get you to a successful tomorrow?
- So is a project necessary? Or would something else get you to “success” more efficiently?
These questions help me frame up the problem in a way that gets to the actual ROI of my work and helps solidify this project’s importance in my client’s eyes.
After asking these five questions of the project sponsor (in this case, the CEO), I was able to uncover some additional points to the ones above that made success imperative:
Disjointed communication was causing disunity; The client management team wasn’t aware of communications that the product team (research & marketing) was having with customers and felt out of the loop.
Inconsistency was slowing things down, sometimes the product team would have enough opportunities to get feedback, but often they wouldn’t. They never knew if or when they’d have a chance to speak with customers, thus delaying their research.
So a strong process in place would not only give this organization a chance to make the right product decisions but also more consistency and transparency between teams, which is also crucial to the health of any business.
With this all uncovered, it was time to get started with the actual work!
2. Kicking off the remote project
First order of business was organizing the troops around the goal. In one short meeting and a few individual follow-up calls, we uncovered the basics:
Project Objective: what are we doing?
Reward and/or cost of delay
Deadline: when do we need to be done by?
Quality standard: when are we “done”?
Resources: who/what can we use to complete this?)
Throughout kick-off, my personal goal was to help my team understand what success looks like for the organization and how this will help them, too. Because we all want to know WIIFM (what’s in it for me?).
This team did a great job making an auspicious start. Kick-off was simple as everyone involved was already invested in the success of this project. After the basics of getting access to materials (logins, contacts, etc.), we focused on creating a plan to leverage the tools and little bits of documentation already in place.
3. Keeping an eye on the goal
The goal was to set up a process to schedule 2-3 customer interviews and one in-person observation a week and to share the findings with the customer management team each time.
This set up would generate enough opportunities for feedback and allow the product team to test what they were building out each sprint.
The customer management team was also happy because they’d be “in the know” and their customers wouldn’t be too overwhelmed with request to talk.
We used tools already accessible to the team (or were free).
I chose HubSpot because it was already being used for other marketing communication and housed most of the client contact information.
I pulled all the necessary data into a simple Google Sheets file and used that as the primary product document. This workbook ended up housing the entirety of this process allowing me to track who was contacted, when they have been interviewed, what compensation was given; etc.
4. Being aware of the challenges
As with anything in life, nothing ever goes entirely according to plan (or is that just the life of a project manager? ;). Whenever problems arose, I aimed to calmly and quickly manage damage and adjust our processes to prevent that particular problem in the future.
Once such case involved a large customer asking that we stop offering incentives to their employees for giving feedback (as a government-run organization, they couldn’t accept compensation from vendors). Even though it was completely innocent (we were offering a small gift card to all those who participated in our research, not just to them), it was against the rules of a large grant they were funded through.
So working quickly, I partnered up with the customer manager for that account.
We came up with a gameplan where he would manage communication with the client, and I would handle internal communications. While he smoothed things out with the customer, I alerted the team and then halted all interviews until we could verify that this wouldn’t cause problems with other customers.
Once things were settled, I quickly scheduled other interviews to fill missed slots and made updates to the documentation so we wouldn’t be caught in this position again. The crux of our fix was timely, well-written communication which is the foundation of proper project management!
Successfully navigating challenges means being able to respond succinctly and buffer your team from impediments to their work (all while keeping them in the loop)!
5. Analyzing the results
So what was the result of phase one?
Thus far, we’ve completed 21 interviews and four observations over the last 12 weeks. We’ve found a system for checking in with the needs of the product team and sharing discoveries and notes with the customer management team efficiently.
I was able to take the little bit of documentation provided and beef it up – including communication templates, internal and external timelines, budget tracking and more.
Anyone can run the entire process with that documentation (which should be the goal of all proper documentation!), so the organization has complete control over how things evolve from there.
The teams were able to pinpoint a major feature that their customers desire and are making it a banner feature for the next launch in the fall.
This game changer is in addition to the dozens of other small tweaks the product team has been able to make to the existing product due directly to the feedback collected. Since this checks all of our objective boxes, we’re calling phase one a success!
Overall, this project was a win largely due to organization and preparedness. This business was able to successfully leverage a virtual project manager to keep the startup from building things that no one needs which in turn keeps them top-of-mind for their customers.
Project management for the win!
Have you ever worked with (or as) a virtual project manager? What was your experience like?
Hailey is the head Project Manager & EA at BrainSpace Optimized. She and her team are obsessive about helping tech leaders become more available, generous, and accomplished. Want to get in on that? Get in touch! At home, Hailey is wife to a talented carpenter and mom to one wily toddler. Hailey spends her free time reading fiction, traveling and weightlifting.