Brokerage

Help! I Need Somebody

Hiring a Personal Assistant Can Improve Productivity and Profits.

Hiring a personal assistant to help boost productivity may sound appealing to many commercial real estate professionals. Given that everyone starts off with the same 24 hours each day, using every minute allows only 1,440 minutes a day. Take away eight hours of sleep and two hours for meals and you’re left with 14 hours for family, work, leisure, exercise, commuting, meetings, research, religious activities, clubs, hobbies, friends, and other responsibilities. With so much to do and so little time, a personal assistant may help you increase sales time or improve the quality of your life by allowing you to use your time more efficiently.

However, consider what you are willing to hand over to somebody else — in terms of monetary compensation and work responsibilities — to increase your economic productivity. If you can learn to work more efficiently alone, that may make more sense than paying someone else to help you.

But if you already operate at peak efficiency, an assistant may help you increase sales time — your main income-producing activity. Very few people actually are with customers more than five hours each week, making the actual selling time worth a great deal. For example, with a yearly income of $100,000 a year, actual selling time is worth about $400 an hour, assuming 20 selling hours a month. Thus, if hiring a personal assistant frees up 10 more hours a month for selling, you could boost your income to $150,000.

It’s important to think of assistants not only in terms of increasing your personal economic output, but also as improving the quality of your life. Hiring a personal assistant is a natural extension of an efficient delegation of tasks, such as hiring a graphic designer to produce your company’s brochure or a computer specialist to create and run your Web site. Handing over such responsibilities to people who can do them more efficiently reduces your stress level and gives you more time to spend with your family and friends.

Technology as an Assistant
Before hiring an assistant, look at whether you use technology to your full advantage. Are you e-mailing polished proposals with graphics instead of mailing hard copy proposals and spending time at the local copy shop or in the copy room? Are you spending time delivering film to be developed and picking it up when you could be using a digital camera? If proficient typing is not one of your greatest skills, have you looked into using voice-activated software? It transcribes up to 100 words per minute, but you still must edit your documents.

Once learned, these skills save considerable time and cost very little compared to an extra employee.

Hiring an Assistant
If you need to look beyond technology for help, keep in mind that the more organized you are, the easier it will be for you to assign tasks to a personal assistant. Also, understanding how to use relevant databases, software, and business machines is a good idea with or without an assistant.

The next step is to think about whether you need an administrative assistant to help you with office work or a sales assistant to help you cover the market. Big differences exist between these types of assistants, yet many people hire without considering this important distinction.

Sales assistants typically are being groomed to go into sales. Personal, or administrative, assistants help salespeople make better use of their time by assisting with any and all tasks up to the point that a prospect turns into a buyer, as well as handling meeting logistics. They are not involved in negotiating. Licensed sales assistants may quote prices and terms, while unlicensed personal assistants may not. However, both types of assistants likely do other similar types of tasks to assist the salesperson. The following focuses on administrative personal assistants.

It makes sense to hire an assistant with the specific skills you need. If you need somebody who can write and format a document, it is important to hire somebody with those qualifications. If you need someone to help you with presentations, it helps if you hire a person who knows the software you use.

To develop a job description for your assistant, write down tasks that you can delegate to a personal assistant and those that you cannot. Examples of tasks that can be delegated include:

  • database research;
  • help with presentations;
  • document proofing;
  • bill paying;
  • setting up meetings;
  • filing;
  • learning new technology and then teaching you;
  • following up on certain parts of an escrow; and
  • personal errands such as getting your car washed and serviced.

Work that usually cannot be delegated to a personal assistant includes:

  • time with customers;
  • time with other sales associates and managers;
  • meetings with partners;
  • making presentations (listing and selling);
  • attending conventions and sales meetings; and
  • property financial analysis.

In a general sense, writing, organizational, and motivational skills are the three most valuable skills for which to look. Other desirable traits include good typing skills, the ability to multitask, and the ability to get along with other workers. If your assistant for any reason does not get along with your clients or other people in the office, you will hear about it. Be aware that others will interpret your assistant as an extension of your professional image. Do not undervalue the assistant’s ability to get along with others.

Think about starting your assistant on a part-time basis as you determine how to delegate tasks. You can increase the hours as the need for the assistant’s services grows. It might make sense to hire someone who already is working at your office, such as a secretary, if the person wants to work after hours, come in early, or take work home. Other options are students or former office employees; many people want to work 10 to 30 hours a week. It’s important to be flexible. Another option is to share an assistant with another broker.

Considering people you already know and using word-of-mouth are good ways to find assistants before placing an ad in the local job listings. For instance, one of our three part-time assistants previously managed our office but wanted to work fewer hours per week.

During the hiring process, brokers should be upfront about their expectations of assistants. For example, if you’ll sometimes need help with personal errands, make that clear — you don’t want an otherwise capable assistant to resent you for requesting such tasks. My assistant once dropped my dog off at the kennel on the way home when I was headed out of town. It was not a problem because we had discussed our mutual expectations in the beginning. Give examples of the different kinds of tasks you may need help with so your assistant does not take offense in situations when you need to reallocate your time.

Retaining the Assistant
You also need to make sure the assistant is someone you want to retain. The expense of an assistant continues, even if the deals are not coming in. After hiring an assistant, schedule reviews at 30, 60, and 90 days and make the position temporary for the first three months. After that, set up a six- or 12-month evaluation period. Commit your evaluation plan to writing and go over it with your assistant. Be sensitive to the assistant’s comments and feelings while recognizing what works for you. It’s important to be able to have a frank conversation without feelings being hurt. Explain that at times you will have to level with the assistant and that it will not be personal, it is about getting the job done.

In addition, you’ll need to work to retain the assistant. First and foremost, pay more than the minimum wage. Other things being equal, assistants often are more loyal to employers who pay more. Paying well can generate top-quality work, flexibility, and a positive attitude. Some brokers who pay poorly get worse than poor results, never can find the right person, and generally keep repeating the process.

If you expect quality work, you must be willing to invest in it. Consider giving your assistant bonuses. If you share nothing, after a very brief time, usually less than a year, your assistant will have learned from you and moved on to a better paying position.

Another way to keep assistants happy is to offer flexibility in work hours. Give them the day off when they want it. Give them a vacation. If you’re not earning enough to afford this added effort, then maybe you really don’t need an assistant.

Good assistants are people you can depend on, so occasionally go beyond the expected pat on the back and do something out of the ordinary to express your gratitude. Once when another broker and I were sharing an assistant, we treated her to a manicure, pedicure, and facial to show our appreciation for her extra effort on a particular deal. Another thing I do is invite assistants to fun functions to which traditionally only salespeople are invited. These little extra efforts are the building blocks of a long-lasting relationship.

Job Status
Early in my days of trying to find someone to assist me, I tried to spend as little cash as possible. It worked until the assistant’s hours increased to the point that I had to start acting like an employer. I then used the independent contractor status for my assistant.

The Internal Revenue Service looks very closely at the independent contractor status today, and classifying assistants as independent contractors when they really are performing as employees will cost you IRS fines and penalties. The IRS currently uses 20 factors to determine employee or independent contractor status (see chart). If the job description looks and feels like that of an employee to a third party, the assistant likely is an employee rather than an independent contractor. Today, I hire assistants as employees with benefits and an employee manual.

Investing in an Assistant
The ways to use an assistant will broaden over time and help to improve productivity, often with less stress. I’ve asked them to do extra jobs when they have applicable skill sets, such as training others or doing research — I don’t require these jobs, but the assistants seem to like the added responsibility. Both broker and assistant will grow as time and training are invested in the assistant. Even if the assistant moves on or no longer is needed, both sides will have benefited from the experience. The best test of how the assistant works out is whether you’re making more money, enjoying your work more, experiencing less stress, and having more time for yourself. If all that is possible, then hiring an assistant is a success.

John A. Shaw, CCIM

John A. Shaw, CCIM, is a real estate broker and appraiser and manages the offices of Moison Investments in Los Altos, Calif. He has been using personal assistants since 1975. Contact him at (650) 854-7231 or jashaw@ccim.net.Employee or Independent Contractor?The Internal Revenue Service developed 20 factors (Revenue Ruling 87-41) that currently help determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor by examining the level of control over the worker. Affirmative responses to numbers 15, 16, 17, and 18 generally indicate independent contractor status, while yeses to the other factors indicate an employee-employer relationship.To better understand your situation with a personal assistant, review these factors and consult your tax adviser.Is the worker required to comply with instructions about when, where, and how to perform work? Is training provided to the worker to perform the job in a certain manner? Are the worker’s services integrated into the company’s general business operations? Must the worker render the services personally? Do the people for whom the work is performed hire, supervise, and pay assistants to the worker? Are set hours of work scheduled? Does a continuing relationship exist between the worker and those for whom services are performed? Must the worker devote substantially full time to the work? Is the work performed on the employer’s premises? Must the worker perform services in a set order or sequence? Must oral or written reports regularly be submitted to those for whom services are performed? Is the worker paid by the hour, week, or month? Are the worker’s business and/or travel expenses paid for? Do those for whom services are performed supply tools, materials, and equipment for the work? Does the worker invest in facilities used to perform the services that are not typically maintained by employees? Can the worker realize both profit and loss? Can the worker work for more than one company at a time? Can the worker make the services available to the general public? Can the worker be discharged at will? Can the worker terminate the relationship without incurring liability?

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