Personal Assistance

Here’s a simple quiz for you:

1) do you often feel like too much of your time is spent on all those urgent but  relatively unimportant administrative tasks?

2) do you ever miss reading an important e-mail because it got “lost in the crowd”, or because you got too busy to check your in-box?

3) do you sometimes miss a birthday or anniversary date of someone close to you?

4) do you have trouble remembering when it’s time to replace your furnace filter, change the oil in your car, or have your teeth cleaned?

5) are you and your family challenged to coordinate schedules and plans?

6) wouldn’t you like to be more certain that you have the best cell phone plan for your needs?  the best car insurance?  the best price on that new PC?

7) do you dread reviewing and paying all those bills each month as they come due?

8) last question – wouldn’t it be great to have a trusted assistant who could help with these and many other routine tasks, at very affordable rates?

 The good news is that help is on the way.  In a few years, affordable personal assistants may be as commonplace as cell phones.  And, as this happens, more and more businesses and other organizations will redesign their processes to accommodate remote service workers who can act on behalf of their customers.

 What Is Personal Assistance?

Personal assistants perform a variety of tasks for consumers and for businesses, but they have a common purpose – their goal is to make the life of their assigned client or clients run more smoothly.  They handle appointments, keep track of commitments, arrange travel and meetings, and manage communications of all types.  They will type up and send an e-mail you dictate, find the best price on a new car, make a list of summer programs your child is eligible for, and arrange for flowers on Mother’s Day.  And they will locate and work with a wide range of other teleservices providers as well.

 How Will Personal Assistance Work?

Personal assistants will be available with a variety of skills and coverage options.  Some will perform many of the administrative functions that are now done by office secretaries or receptionists.  Other assistants will perform more consumer-oriented services such as shopping help, family scheduling, or home maintenance. When you sign up for a personal assistant, you will have the option of a dedicated person (or persons – some people will opt for 24/7 coverage) or a share of one assistant who supports multiple clients.  Normally, clients will subscribe to the service, paying a monthly fee for predetermined service levels.  Most plans will also likely have a variable component, where additional time or services can be purchased to supplement the basic subscription.

 I recently interviewed a man whom I know rather well, on the topic of Personal Assistance.  It turns out that this fellow – let’s call him Kyle – is an excellent target customer for this service (in other words, he is terrible at personal organization).  Here is a transcript of the interview:

 me:      Hi Kyle, good to see you again.

Kyle:   Yeah, me too.  Hey, sorry I’m late.  I got a little lost trying to find the place.

me:      No problem.  Shall we get started?

Kyle: Great.  This is about me hiring a really cheap secretary who I’ll never actually meet, is that right?

me:  And who will change your life in countless wonderful ways.

Kyle: Oh yeah, that too.  You know, I don’t really write a lot of memos any more.  I’m not sure I really need a secretary.

me:  Well, you know, it’s not actually about “secretaries”.  We call them “personal assistants”.

Kyle: They write memos?

me:  Yes, as a matter of fact, your personal assistant could write a really nice memo for you.  But that’s not really what it’s all about.

Kyle: Oh, sorry.  Why exactly might a guy like me need a personal assistant?

me:  Well, let’s see.  Who keeps your appointments these days?

Kyle: OK, look, I know where you’re headed with that.  I was an hour late for the party last week because Max said eight o’clock.  I’m sure he said eight o’clock!

me:  Kyle, the e-mail said seven o’clock.  Everyone else was there at seven.

Kyle: Maybe he said seven.  How come nobody said anything about seven all week?

me:  OK, here’s a start: your personal assistant could keep track of your important appointments, and give you daily reminders.

Kyle: Yeah, that would be good.  How would we keep in touch?

me:  How would you like to keep in touch?

Kyle: Phone, I guess.  E-mail too.  Could she go through my mail every day?

me:  No, not yet.  But most of your bills, statements and appointments are available online anyway, and he or she could have access to them that way.

Kyle: He or she?

me:  Could go either way, Kyle.

Kyle: She.

me:  You’re the boss.  OK, speaking of bills-

Kyle: I hate bills.  I hate paying bills.  I just paid a $35 late fee on my credit card for being two days late.  Unbelievable.

me:  She could pay your bills for you.

Kyle: How soon can she start?

me:  We’re not done here.

Kyle: OK, sorry.  What’s next?

me:  Shopping.

Kyle: I also hate shopping.  So I don’t really do shopping.  She can’t help me there.

me:  Uh huh.  How much do you pay for car insurance?

Kyle: A lot.  Too much.  Actually, I’m not sure.

me:  Camille told me she just got you a big rate cut.

Kyle: True.  I hadn’t had my policy updated to show that my teenage son was away at school and no longer driving the car.  We’re saving a bundle.

me:  Kyle, your son is a junior.

Kyle: Yeah, I know.  OK, I should have checked into it a little earlier.

me:  Cell phone rate plan OK?

Kyle: You know, I really could use some help on that one.  There are about a million plans out there, and I’m getting killed by roaming charges and excess minutes, but I don’t have the time to sort through all the plans.  And when you call, they leave you on hold for twenty minutes…

me:  She could do that for you.

Kyle: No putting me on hold?

me:  She answers on the first ring.  I’m assuming you’d go for the premium service contract.

Kyle: Yeah, definitely. OK, that would be useful.  That would be really nice.  Can I assume she remembers birthdays and anniversaries too?

me:  That would be a good assumption.  She’ll even send e-greeting cards.

Kyle: Forget it.  But the reminder would be nice.  How about scanning the news for articles about, say, wine collecting, or medieval history?

me:  In four languages.  And she’ll send you copies or online links, translated and summarized if you prefer.

Kyle: Dates and locations for Youssou’s next concert tour?

me:  She’ll even buy the tickets.

Kyle: I’m not giving someone in Paraguay my credit card number.

me:  You wouldn’t have to.  You’d have an account with a domestic service provider, and you would approve every expenditure in advance.

Kyle: She’ll scan my e-mails for me?

me:  And summarize them.  Even reply to them if you want.

Kyle: And read them to me over the phone when I’m on the road?

me:  When you’re on the beach.  When you’re in the bathtub.

Kyle: And feed my male ego with patronizing comments about my physique and my intellect?

me:  For a fee, sure.  And she’ll mean it.

Kyle: Hey, I’m only kidding.  You think I’m going to pay someone to compliment me?

me:  Yeah.  Actually, yeah, I do.

Kyle: She speaks English then?

me:  Definitely.

Kyle: She works weekends?

me:  You can get 24/7 coverage if you need it.

Kyle: And this will cost me how much?

me:  Less than you might think.

Kyle: Pretty evasive answer.  That’s not a good sign.

me:  How about $29.95 per month for basic service, going up to $1500 per month for dedicated, round-the-clock coverage.  For what we’ve been talking about, it’ll probably run about $49 per month.

Kyle: $49?

me:  About $49.

Kyle: Not $50?

me:  Well, around $50.  $49.  $49.95, probably.

Kyle: Marketing.  I really can’t stand that marketing stuff you do.  OK, sign me up.  Gotta go.  I have a meeting down in Cupertino.  Or it might be Sunnyvale, I’m not exactly sure.

me:  By the way, she gives great driving directions too.  Anytime, over the phone, wherever you are.

Kyle: You’ve crossed a line there.  I don’t ask directions – it’s part of who I am.  No directions.

me:  OK, no directions.  Maybe some general guidelines, though.

Kyle: Yeah, sure, guidelines.  Like, do I turn left or right off the 101 to get to Kifer road?

me:  Right.  It’s the one after Arques.

Kyle: Right.  That’s all I need to know.  Actually, I’m running a little late.  I like this assistant thing, though - have her call my-. Oh yeah, that's a problem. Bit of a Catch-22 here.

me:  I'll help you get connected. Thanks for stopping by!

What’s Next?

The concept of personal assistants is centuries old.  Even the concept of remote assistants is fairly well understood, as mobile professionals frequently rely on assistants who remain in the office.  Still, affordable assistance services for the broad consumer market is a new concept and will need to be developed and marketed in new ways.  Interesting developments to watch include:

 Bundled Service Packages.  Already, some employers are offering “personal concierge services”, which are provided by trained agents backed by huge services databases, as a benefit to employees.  Watch also for personal assistance service subscriptions from the major Internet portals, who are finding their business models around online advertising insufficient to sustain operations.  And watch for manufacturers of high-ticket goods to find ways to bundle human-provided personal assistance services into the product.

 For example, your next new car may come with a feature you weren’t expecting: a co-pilot.  A live human being who accompanies you (OK, electronically accompanies you) wherever you go.  She monitors the car’s performance, gives you driving directions and traffic reports, warns you when you’ve made a wrong turn, tells you how to find the nearest gas station or Starbucks or Frozen-Yogurt-with-honeydew-flavor, keeps a mileage log for your tax records, reminds you when it’s time to get the oil changed, dispatches roadside assistance, guards the vehicle when you’re not in it, locates it if it’s stolen or even lost in a parking lot (and then lets you in if your keys are inside), and monitors your son’s mileage and whereabouts (even his speed if you want!).  And she’ll also read you your e-mail, take dictation, make a hotel or dinner reservation, check your flight status, play your favorite song, give you personalized, up-to-the minute news, weather and sports, or an update on your stock portfolio.  She doesn’t actually drive the car, though.  Yet.

 “i-mail”.   Read your voice-mail!  Listen to your e-mail!  Send an Instant Message over the phone!  Have all your incoming messages scanned, filtered, summarized, translated, routed, deleted or archived per your instructions, before you ever see them!

 Despite repeated promises of fully automated “integrated messaging”, the actual products have all fallen short of the hype.  Still, the concept continues to attract and inspire us.  The truth is, a personal assistant in the New Neighborhood, with only a rudimentary set of software tools, could make integrated messaging a reality right now.   Who might bring this service to market first?  Perhaps one of the cellular phone service providers, or a voice-mail provider.  Maybe a device company, like Apple or Nokia.  Or even an Internet portal – Google, Yahoo, or MSN?  If you see this service hit the market, drop me a postcard…

 Custom Personal Assistance Devices.  People will communicate with their personal assistants over any telephone or through voicemail and e-mail.  As the market grows, however, expect smart phones to embrace hybrid human/machine interfaces and include design features that optimize this type of interaction. Also watch for small appliance-like devices that double as alarm clocks, doorbells, car radios and refrigerator magnets. 

 Standalone computing “appliances”, once expected to become a major category in consumer electronics, have failed to take hold.  Once these simple, inexpensive devices are able to share an always-on Internet connection in a home or business, however, they will become excellent service-delivery platforms.  The “DSL Doorbell” described in Section One is a great example of such a device. Watch for this one, and many more!

(see a list of Personal Assistance services)