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The Key to Virtual Assistant Success: Effective Standard Operating Procedures

by: Robert Dela Cruz

You don't like wasting money on things that don't work. That's why you're still here. That's why you're still in this game we call running a business. Congratulations on making it this far!

Now that's clear to everyone – but most importantly, yourself – I want to ask you something. Would you still hire a virtual assistant if you knew you weren't setting yourself up for success? You'd be wasting money, and a successful business owner like you does not do that.

How do you avoid wasting money on a virtual assistant? Televangelist Robert H. Schuller summed it up nicely with the line, "Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation." Creating effective standard operating procedures is that unspectacular preparation. And it can give your VA experience a spectacular outcome.

I hope that's gotten you excited to do the boring stuff so you can see amazing things happen. If it has, then this article will walk you through how to do that. But before we get there, let's go deeper into what SOPs are and develop a more thorough appreciation of their value to your business.

What are Standard Operating Procedures?

Think about the tasks you perform in a particular way because you've found that they produce the best results. Now, break down these routines and arrange them into steps or in a flowchart. As rudimentary as it may be, that step-by-step instructional document you produce is a standard operating procedure.

SOPs may seem similar to the process documentation that gives you a high-level overview of the routine operations you perform to create your product. But what sets them apart is granularity. While processes detail what to do, SOPs convey the specifics of how to do it. Give a sufficiently skilled individual your SOP and ask them to follow it. They should produce a result that is a very close, if not exact, copy of what your output would be.

You might believe that someone with the right skills shouldn't have trouble replicating your results from a more general instruction. But consider this: You arrived at your approach by refining your starting hypothesis. As a result, the method you use today is unique to your business, whether you think so or not. You have, by trial and error, weeded out what doesn't work and improved what does.

Without telling a virtual assistant how to do what you do, you open him up to the same mistakes you made. You also reduce his potential to achieve the results you expect. VAs, unfortunately, aren't telepathic. They can't access your brain to obtain the know-how you developed through years of experience. But they can access your SOPs to learn the ins and outs.

The Benefits of Effective SOPs

Aside from being an insanely good tool for transferring distilled knowledge, standard operating procedures also provide many more benefits. We could probably make several articles listing all the different advantages they offer, but let's look at only the most compelling ones here.

Carefully prepared and easy-to-follow SOPs help you:

  • Streamline training – SOPs offer a uniform source of process knowledge that you can easily reuse. That one document remains useful whether you're transitioning existing team members into improved routines or showing new hires the ropes.

  • Save time – In a 2015 study, 44% of employees polled reported inefficient processes as a leading cause of wasted time. The proven and streamlined process you developed over the years helps your virtual assistant finish more in less time.

  • Save money – Having a standardized way to do a task reduces the risk of deviations that result in defective outputs. With fewer defects, you avoid costly reworks of mistakes, reduce the need to allocate resources to deal with customer dissatisfaction, and more.

  • Enhance communication – SOPs give you something you can reference to answer the questions that get asked over and over again. Your team stops having to repeat itself. And so, value-creating conversations surface, develop, and progress much more readily.

  • Define delegations clearly – SOPs help you break down the activities that drive your business into well-defined chunks. These are easier to divide among your team. Each block also gains distinct start and end points, reducing the wasteful overlapping of responsibilities.

  • Determine who is accountable – When someone makes a mistake, the quest for accountability in a disorganized team often devolves into an exercise in finger point. Demarcated task boundaries make identifying responsibility for a mistake straightforward. You can then spend your time finding out how best to tackle the issue and prevent repeated errors. Well-defined tasks also make evaluating the performance of your virtual assistant much easier.

  • Reduce liability – In industries such as healthcare and law, SOPs also reduce your entire organization's exposure to third-party liabilities. Easy-to-follow instructions with built-in verification steps help virtual assistants complete tasks while keeping risks low for everyone involved.

Which Business Activities Should Have SOPs?

In an ideal world, every activity within the scope of a business would have an SOP. However, the real-world interactions and situations we encounter are inherently complex. And complexity is the one thing that can cause standard operating procedures to crumble. This is especially true in the context of a small- to medium-sized enterprise.

With that in mind, you should have SOPs for activities that fit one or more of these criteria:

  • Routine – Does the activity happen often enough to justify the time and resources you will use in creating an SOP for it?

  • Unique to your process – Have you refined the activity enough from what is "standard" in your industry that it has become an asset that sets your company apart?

  • Divisible – Is the activity breakable into distinct steps or diagrammable in a flowchart?

  • Organized – Is the activity sufficiently free of the chaos that you don't have to write complex branching decision trees for it?

Before we finally dive into how to create SOPs, let's circle back to the thought on complexity I introduced at the start of this section and define the qualities of good SOPs.

The Qualities of Good SOPs... From the SME Perspective

Yes, I added the distinction of this being "from the SME perspective" on purpose – and for good reason! Why? The wider business world seems to think standard operating procedures should be complex. Or at least they often end up writing their SOPs that way.

The problem with convoluted SOPs is that they require you to allot significant resources to extensive training. Then, after all that training, employees still fail to follow SOPs. As a result, companies have to invest even more resources into monitoring compliance.

When budgets are tighter, relationships are closer, and the involvement of team members in core business activities is higher, that kind of overhead is unsustainable. It also reeks of distrust, which is significantly more counterproductive.

So, what are the qualities of good SOPs for small- and medium-sized enterprises?

  • Simple – SOPs should be easy to understand and follow. Training a new virtual assistant on the SOP should not demand significant resources. Having simplicity in mind also helps you avoid the trap of micromanaging. You avoid becoming overly strict and granular in your approach, which can sap creativity and stifle innovation.

  • Intuitive – There should be no question as to why the steps in your SOP are as they are. Unintuitive SOPs encourage the search for shortcuts. Shortcuts are a common reason for non-compliance and can have considerable adverse effects. If a dangerous shortcut seems more intuitive, rewrite the steps or include a clear warning stating why a shortcut carries risk.

  • Unambiguous – Write each step so that there is no room for misinterpretation. Vagueness is a recipe for disaster.

  • Standardized – Using a common format across all your standard operating procedures makes them more navigable. Standardization also makes it easier to keep the documentation up to date.

We've done the unspectacular preparation needed to help you understand standard operating procedures so you can write them well. We're finally ready to discuss how to create SOPs for your virtual assistants!

How to Create SOPs for Your Virtual Team

We can divide the task of creating an SOP for your virtual assistant into eight simple steps. Compared to the previous sections, we are free to make this a lot more concise and easy to follow, since we covered quite a bit of ground preparing you to take this section on.

We practiced what we're preaching here, and as you'll see when you finally hire a virtual assistant, it makes a world of difference.

1. Identify a Task to Delegate

Look at your daily tasks and identify an activity worthy of being documented based on the criteria we discussed earlier. You can describe almost any activity that's routine, unique to your process, divisible, or organized in an SOP. Incidentally, almost anything you can transform into an SOP is a prime target for delegation to a virtual assistant.

2. Determine What the End Result Should Look Like

The output created by following an SOP is the metric that dwarfs all others. So, having a clear description of what the final result is has a direct impact on the success of your SOP. For example, if the output you want to create is a blog post, you can use an exemplary blog post as your determiner of the desired result.

Using your desired outcome as a guide, identify the qualities that set it apart as exemplary. Knowing these qualities can help you identify the crucial steps someone else should follow to create something that meets your expectations.

3. Select the Appropriate Format

Five SOP formats are suited to small- and medium-sized businesses. These are:

Step-by-Step Written Format

This format is your basic enumerated or bulleted instructional guide. The steps follow a continuous progression, such as Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, and so forth, such as in the example below.

Hierarchical Format

This format is like the step-by-step format but with one major difference: steps can branch to accommodate decision-making or distinct substeps. For example, a three-step hierarchical SOP might have the following entries: Step 1a, Step 1b, Step 2a, Step 2b, Step 2c, and Step 3.

For clarity, use this format when steps can branch but always return to the trunk. Avoid it when the branches must branch out further later.

Flowchart format

The flowchart format uses an illustration, such as the example below, to guide the reader through a branching process. This scheme is particularly convenient when the SOP branches into many outcomes at definite points throughout the process, as you can see below.

The flowchart format also supplements the illustration with text to support decision-making. Text can also break down points in the chart into activities that you can describe better in another format.

Checklist format

The checklist format is appropriate when you have a set of items that a virtual assistant does not need to complete in any particular order, such as in the example below.

Video format

The video format is great when the tasks you need a virtual assistant to perform are easier shown than described. You can also use it alongside written SOPs to help drive the points you are trying to make a home for visual learners.

Starting with a video format is also something you can do if you don't have a lot of time to create a written SOP. To create one, work on a task as you usually would, but record yourself as you do so using software such as Loom. As you perform the activity, narrate what you are doing and why you are doing it that way.

If you create a video format SOP because you don't yet have time to write it down, remember to return to it later to turn it into a written document. It's alright to use it in video format, for example, to train your first VA. However, written SOPs are leagues easier to search and update. If you still don't have the time, this is a task you can delegate to your VA, who should now be much more familiar with the process.

4. Gather All Information

After selecting the format you feel works best for the activity you want to document, start collecting all the information you need to write the SOP. This step is where the description of the final result you developed in step 2 comes in handy.

If you have an existing team whose members take part in the activity you are describing, you can also use this step to gather insights from them. Ask them what a virtual assistant should look out for, what needs special attention, and more.

5. Write the SOP

Once you have all the information you need for the SOP, start writing by outlining the main steps. Then, describe the input, output, and each step in finer detail. Highlight any special considerations that your VA needs to take into account. If necessary, provide examples showing what the result of performing the step should look like.

If a step requires decision-making, help your VA understand why the decision should proceed a certain way. Discuss the possible blockers, safety considerations, and ramifications that affect the decision. Use links to point your VA to helpful internal or external resources, such as company policies or laws detailing compliance requirements, where appropriate.

Supply your SOP with these supplementary details as well:

  • Title – The title of the SOP document. Make this descriptive so that your VA knows what procedures the document contains from the title alone.

  • Publication, review and revision dates – These help you track when you created the document, when you last reviewed it for accuracy, and when you brought it up to date with your current process.

  • The names of the document owner, last editor, and last approver – Including these names will help document users identify who to approach for access to a document. It also lets readers know who to alert if an error or inconsistency needs addressing. And it also helps you remember who handles keeping the SOP updated.

  • The name of the role or team the document applies to – Naming the position or team the SOP is for helps with sorting and managing your library of SOPs. It can also make retrieving documents for training purposes more streamlined. You can gather all relevant documents by using filters to narrow your search to a specific role or team.

  • SOP identification number [optional] – This detail is optional when you only have a small number of SOPs. This is the situation most small- and medium-sized enterprises experience throughout their existence. However, as your collection of SOPs grows, there may come a time when referring to SOPs by their titles becomes error-prone. ID numbers become mandatory then.

6. Review, Test, and Edit the SOP Document

Read and follow your SOP to determine if they are clear, easy to follow, and produce the desired outcome. Fix any glaring process, formatting, and grammatical issues.

For existing teams, this is another excellent opportunity to get them involved. Ask them to use your new SOP and report their results. Your document is ready if they reach the desired outcome without complications. Otherwise, use any feedback or direct involvement your team offers to refine the SOP further.

7. Publish Your Finished SOP

Since the end-users of your SOPs need to access them remotely, publish them to an accessible online location. A shared Google Drive or Dropbox folder is often suitable for most small- to medium-sized businesses.

Otherwise, consider using a dedicated platform, such as systemHUB. Such platforms are especially beneficial if:

  • your organization is sizable,

  • you have a lot of SOPs,

  • or you need to control editing and access between different individuals or teams.

8. Revisit and Iterate

Revisit your standard operating procedures every 4 to 12 months. Do this to review them for accuracy and determine if they require updating.

Update the SOP whenever a decision changes the procedures described in the document. Make this a habit – or if appropriate, codify this into an SOP and assign the task of updating SOPs or alerting the document owner to a role.

Finally – and this is something many SOP guides don't mention – archive previous versions of your SOPs so you can roll back to them effortlessly. The ability to roll back revisions is advantageous when an updated process does not fulfill its intended goal. Doing this was difficult in the days of paper documentation, but cloud-based services such as Google Drive make versioning trivial.

Create Your Virtual Assistant SOPs Right Now

Now that you possess the know-how to make effective standard operating procedures for your virtual assistants, start making your SOPs today – or at least as soon as you can. If you use the video format, there isn't much standing in the way of you getting started.

At Addison Consultancy, we recommend creating your SOPs before you hire a virtual assistant. Doing so ensures that you will have SOPs in place for your new VA to follow. These help him get up to speed in his new role seamlessly and improve his chances of success.

Furthermore, it enhances our chances of finding the right person for the job you have in mind. Your SOPs help us identify the specific tasks you want a VA to do. They also guide the crafting of job descriptions that give prospective applicants an accurate picture of your needs. Being able to offer such a picture decreases the incidence of unfit individuals applying for a position for which they don't have the skills. And accordingly, it increases the likelihood that you will have a pool of high-quality applications to choose from.

Addison Consultancy commits itself to the success of your business as you work with our virtual assistants. We do more than assist you in your journey to hire a virtual assistant extraordinaire. We're with you through every step of the process, including offering advice on preparing your business for a VA. Book an exploratory call with us to find out more.

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