Did I just get blackmailed by my VA?

Late last year I went though a horrible experience with an online contractor.   I hired this person through one of the major freelance websites. This post is a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when working with virtual assistants, what red flags I missed and what I should have done differently to ensure a more positive experience.

Day #1

I had recently launched  an online shop using the Magneto platform.  The site had been live for a couple of days when I had a customer email me about a technical problem they were experiencing whilst using the online the checkout. Unfortunately I was not able to   troubleshoot the error myself so I posed the job on the freelance website in the hope of finding someone to fix the issue urgently. Fortunately the site was still able to accept Paypal payments but the credit card facility was down.

In my job description I posted the exact error message that the website was generating and also mentioned the urgency of the project.  Within hours I received a high number of applicants,  yet one particular contractor from Europe stood out.  I will refer to the contractor as Bob as I do not wish to identify him personally. He had fantastic feedback, got top scores on all the magneto tests and after a few interview questions back and forth he got the job. Bob said he is very familiar with troubleshooting Magento errors and has seen this error many times before.  He agreed to start the job as soon as I accept his application. Bob accepts the contract offer 5 minutes later and I assume the work has commenced.

After a few hours I emailed Bob to see how he is progressing. Ordinarily I wouldn’t follow up so soon on a project, yet as the project description stated the time sensitive nature of this project it seemed appropriate. Bob hadn’t started yet.

Day #2

Due to the differing time zones, communicating often meant lengthy delays. The first morning after hiring Bob  I woke up to find a message asking me to backup the website as Bob didn’t want to ‘break it’ if he made a mistake. I wasn’t sure how to backup a magento site but 30 minutes later and a quick google search it was backed up. 

Day #3

I was expecting the website to be fully functional today – I was very wrong. The whole website was a mess. The theme was corrupt and the text was all distorted and the images missing. The site is still technically live and I didn’t want any potential customers to see this.  Bob had corrupted the theme trying to fix the error and has left me several frantic messages to restore my shop.  I wasn’t sure how to restore the site but yet again a google search proved helpful.  During the day I have to explain to the contractor  how to fix a common magento error which he has caused.

Day #4 Early hours

It’s about 1.30am. I am too nervous to sleep so I decide to stay online incase I need to restore the website again. This time the internal restore doesn’t work.  Then things turn ugly.

3:00am

 I am still too nervous to sleep. I receive a message from Bob letting me know that he is not able to complete the job with the budget given as there has been too many delays waiting for me to restore the website. He wants more money and a down payment now. I reluctantly agree. I am sleep deprived and my shop is in tatters and my sanity has been torn to shreds.

3:15am

Bob decides that he wants the extra money split into a second job posting so that he can get more feedback and raise his profile. I agree and open a new project.

3:30am

Bob doesn’t like the way I worded the new project and sends me a message of how we wants the project titled. Before I accept him on this new project however I first need to close the other project and leave him feedback.

4:00am 

Bob disapproves of my feedback and informs me that if I write a more concise feedback it will encourage him to do better.

7:00am

After a mere 2 hours sleep I  wake up still annoyed at myself for giving in. However the 2 hours sleep has proved very beneficial as the  solution finally hits me. My amazing website host provides website backups every 48 hours and within 2 minutes my site is back to the way it was before I hired the contractor. The initial checkout error is still there but I no longer have to rely on this contractor to do anything. I change my shops passwords and end the contract.

What did I do wrong?

So you might be thinking, why the heck did I let it get this far? You might also be thinking that I made a bunch of mistakes to. Looking back I cringe. The whole experience   was so completely out of character for me.   All I can put it down to was a very stressful time in launching a new  business in December, the busiest trading month of the year, and the sleep deprived state I was in surely didn’t help. I expected the contractor to follow my standards yet I did’t communicate to him what my standards were I just expected him to know. Below is a list of some things I should have approached differently to get a better outcome.

Never write urgent in the project description

Avoid writing the word ‘urgent’ in your project title or description as it puts you in a position of vulnerability. A better approach would be to simply shorten the length of time that your project is open for applications. You can address the issue of the commencement start date and time of the project when you are actually interviewing shortlisted applicants.

Don’t use vague timeframes and set specific progress deadline

Using non-specific timeframes such as ‘immediate’ and ‘urgent’ was a big mistake on my part. A more effective approach would have been to ask the contractor what time he would be able to commence the project and ask him to check in with me at a prearranged time to advise an estimate of how long the job would take to complete. If the project was likely to take a few days setting up a daily progress email would have saved me quite a bit of anxiety.  I should point out that you should always make it as easy as possible for your contractor and refer to times in their local time zone.

Make expectations clear

This was my first experience hiring someone to troubleshoot an error so I had no idea what the procedure was and didnt believe I was expected to restore any errors caused by the contractor. Whilst I now believe it is important to have a backup of your website for your own peace of mind I do not believe that an employer should have to micromanage and do constant restores each time a hired contractor requests one . The next time I hire a contrator I will make this very clear upfront.

 Don’t place too much importance on feedback reviews

I am beginning to learn that feedback scores are not a very accurate measure to judge the quality of not only  online service providers but products in general. Reviews and feedbacks can easily be falsely generated. Was I the only employer that this specific contractor had manipulated to get a better sounding review?  

Don’t take communication outside the website’s internal communication tools

When I first hired, Bob wanted to communicate via email rather than the websites internal messaging system . I refused as I prefer to keep all communication on record  via the hiring website initially. This ended up being very useful when the project reached the mediation phase as the freelancing website could review the past conversation threads and ruled in my favour.

 I am not meaning to imply that you should have so much distrust over a contractor that you should keep all communication inside the freelancing website. Not at all,  I have communicated with many contractors over email and other third-party messgaing services. However, I do think that for quick one-off projects and in the early states of a new project it might be best to keep everything recorded on the freelancing websites messaging services.

Take a screenshot before nay work commences

These days before any project begins on any of my sites I take a screen shot as a reference for both the contractor and myself. This is a tangible reference image of what the site looked like before any work was done.

In hindsight…

At the end of the day I could have avoided this whole experience by taking the precautions I mentioned. The irony is, after  I ended the contract with Bob I found the solution to the original error I hired him for and resolved the technical issues for the shop in less than 10 minutes! Thanks Google!  All I needed to do was disable a conflicting module that was causing the Paypal module to act up.

Despite being throughly relived a part of me didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!