Forget Virtual Assistants, Hire a Virtual Coach

This is a guest post by Jeff Popoff Reading time: 3.0 minutes (1800 words @ 600 wpm[1])


  • As busy professionals we face continuous pressure to get more done in less time.
  • Technology that makes us more productive also increases our pace of business.
  • Could the next generation of virtual assistants or virtual coaches be right for you?
Are you ready to take the virtual step?

I Was A Coaching Addict

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I learned the hard way that the old saying is true:
"Good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgement."
I was frustrated by the costs of making mistakes. Especially by the amount of time my mistakes consumed. There had to be a better way. Eventually it dawned on me that I could leverage other people’s skills and expertise and save myself time and money. I discovered the world of coaching. Once I realized that coaches could help me achieve disproportionate gains, I became a bit of a coaching addict (or maybe a lot).

yeah, I overdid it again 
Yeah, I overdid it again

In the beginning, I started out modestly using coaches to help me improve my triathlon technique for the swim, bike, and run (thank you B.Gibbs, B.Chortek, T.Laughlin, Dr. Romanov, J.Friel, D.Scott). Later I branched out and used coaches in weightlifting, nutrition, and executive health (thanks Mehdi, D.McGuff, M.Sisson). Encouraged by my gains from athletic performance coaching, I experimented with a speaking coach and life coach (thanks Beth and Robyn). I have used dozens of business coaches (special thanks to Zig, Lucas, and Ramit) and even a coach for relocation (to the UK) and another for international business practices (China, India, Switzerland). I received coaching on raising venture capital, for hedge funding investing, and even how to do an IPO-roadshow (RKN.TO). I’ve used meditation coaching for stress (Adya) and completed a 12-step program to overcome my poor empathy skills (thank you Sean and CR). Today I coach a handful of start ups[2], receive ongoing peer coaching from a Mastermind[3] group, and use a supervision coach for my own coaching practice. So what’s the bottom line? In my personal development and performance, coaching has yielded a disproportionate return on investment (ROI). Other individuals report a median ROI of 3.44 times their coaching investment. At the corporate level, companies including IBM, Nike, Verizon and Coca-Cola Enterprises, report a median ROI of seven times their coaching investment.[4]

What is Virtual Coaching and What’s New?

Traditionally, individual coaching is done face-to-face and is usually confined to a fixed setting. Now that technologies like smart phones and wireless Internet can replicate the functions of an in-person session, face-to-face coaching is evolving to virtual coaching. Geographical locations and fixed schedules are no longer barriers because virtual coaching can be done via phone, video conference, email, SMS, iMessage, WhatsApp, FaceBook and a myriad of other apps.

text therapy

Current Market and Technology Trends

As a reformed angel investor[5] from Silicon Valley it is second nature for me to spot trends within trends. The mobile web trend was overtaken by smart phone apps, and now apps stand poised to be overtaken by on-demand virtual assistants that use any messaging channel. Why load your device up with dozens of specific apps, when it’s easier to just message what you want? New start ups like Operator, Magic, Swell, Alfred, Zirtual, Kit and others are innovating the interface for next-gen on-demand services for both consumers and business users. Behind the curtain there is a mix of humans and artificial intelligence (think Apple’s Siri) working on your request. Their goal provide you a concierge-like experience, like having your very own virtual assistant. In addition to the above mentioned virtual assistants, the next generation of virtual coaches are emerging as well. For instance, Talkspace – the all-you-can-text therapy start up – just raised a hefty new round of $9.5 million in financing.[6]. Vida – who connects consumers with coaches and doctors – announced Series A funding of $5 million.[7] Health coaching start up Sessions was acquired by MyFitnessPal.[8] Clarity.fm provides on-demand business advice to entrepreneurs. Mindbloom ‘crowdsources’ life coaching services from your group of friends. The list goes on. Of course, this ‘virtual’ trend will have both winners and losers. For instance Google closed its Helpouts service in April 2015.[9]
a coach can help you aim higher
A coach can help you aim higher

What a (Virtual) Coach Can And Can’t Do

Before diving deeper into virtual coaching, let’s taking a moment to recap how coaching fits into the broader scheme.[10]
  • Therapists (psychiatrists, psychologists or counsellors) focus on healing dysfunction from the past.
  • Consultants assess organizations, provide information, and implement solutions in the present.
  • Mentors are experienced role-models and act as advisers to someone with less experience.
  • Coaches focus on future performance and use questions to improve self-awareness, behaviors, and skills.
coach v therapist

Many aspects of coaching will remain the same whether it is done in-person or virtually, such as:
  • Finding the right coach for your situation.
  • Setting your performance or development goals.
  • On-going dialogue and feedback.
  • Committing to work on your self-improvement.
  • Accepting that coaching may be uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, some factors become more important in virtual coaching versus in-person coaching. Non-verbal communication cues such as body language have to be read through tone of voice or choice of words. A virtual coach has to be able discern attitude through a video call, read between the lines in text message or email, and watch for subtle clues in Facebook or WhatsApp response patterns. Other differences to bear in mind are:
  • Building a trusted bond with a virtual coach may take a bit more concentration.
  • Virtual coaching is a two-way dialogue. It’s a process, not a one-way Tweet to ‘fix it’.
  • Multitasking during a virtual session will reduce its benefits to you.[11]
  • Virtual communications usually occur in smaller bursts. Be careful not to lose the depth or context of the issue being discussed.
  • Virtual coaching sessions are more flexible than “office hours”, but a regular frequency is important to keep momentum (every 2 weeks on average is optimal).[12]

Is Virtual Coaching Right For You?

Which produces a better ROI, a virtual assistant or a virtual coach?
  • Virtual Assistants are a great way to outsource logistics and tactical items.
  • Virtual Coaches are an effective way to increase your performance using mindset and behaviors.
[Photo credit: Got Credit]
Calculate your virtual return on investment[/caption]Which brings us back to the question of ROI.
  • In my experience, virtual assistants yield a linear ROI
    • X dollars buys back Y amount of my time.
  • On the other hand, I find that coaches (virtual or otherwise) give me a disproportionate ROI.
    • X dollars spent produces XY results.
    • The reason why is simple: performance gains made with a coach compound continuously over time.

Coaching Checklist

Admittedly, coaching is not for everyone and information technology is not a panacea. Before deciding if virtual coaching is right for you, first make sure you are on board with the coaching fundamentals:
  1. What is your objective?
    • Are you improving your performance or your mindset? Do you want to overcome limiting behaviors or habits?
  2. Is your coach good match for you?
    • Do you trust them and their references? Can they also act as your mentor? (bring relevant expertise to the table).
  3. What is your commitment?
    • Are you prepared to put in the time, energy and work between coaching sessions to achieve new levels of success?
  4. Are you coachable?
    • Are you willing to do things differently and break away from your patterns that produce average results? Will you hold yourself accountable to your coach and your agreed actions?
coach stats

Virtual Coaching Checklist

  1. The number one factor to consider in virtual coaching is your level of technology savvy. Are you comfortable doing video conferencing or instant messaging by yourself or do you require IT support?[13]
  2. Does it fit your personality type? Studies show that introverts tend to perform well in electronic conversations, and even prefer a healthy distance over face-to-face conversations.[14] (Note: If your goal is to develop your interpersonal skills, this medium is not congruent with that goal).
  3. Can you build bonds and express yourself easily in writing? Aside from audio and video, much of your communication with your coach will be in asynchronous text.[15]
  4. Can your coach keep up with you? Can they follow your train of thought as you shift between phone, text, Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter DM, and a myriad of other apps? Response times and availability are key factors when coaching across multiple time zones and geographies. Is your coach available 7 days a week? Do they offer a guaranteed response time for communications between scheduled sessions?
As I confessed from the start, I am a believer in the benefits of coaching and its exciting to see technology extending these benefits to busy people on the go. I hope you found this article useful, and would appreciate it if you commented below with your thoughts and suggestions.

About the Author

  • Jeff is a successful executive who has served as Vice President in a Fortune 500 company as well as several Silicon Valley startups. He has been a guest speaker at UCLA Anderson and Berkeley Haas and is a graduate of Harvard PON and Stanford GSB.[16]
  • He has figured out how to increase individual business performance using better health in less time. Warning: Unintended side effects include looking better and living longer.
  • You can learn how at The Healthy Executive.
before and after I became a health coach
Before and after I became an executive health coach

  1. Do You Read Fast Enough To Be Successful?, Forbes
  2. SpartUp Accelerator
  3. 7 Reasons To Join A Mastermind Group, Forbes
  4. ICF Global Coaching Client Study
  5. Jeff’s profile on AngelList
  6. Text therapy startup raises $9.5 million, CNN Money
  7. Mobile health startup Vida, Silicon Valley Business Journal
  8. Digital Health Coaching Startup Acquired, Fast Company
  9. Google Helpouts is Shutting Down, Forbes
  10. Harvard Business Review Research Report
  11. The Myth of Multitasking, C.Rosen
  12. Coaching Frequency Study, Coaching Research Institute
  13. p.295 Advancing Executive Coaching, Gina Hernez-Broome, Lisa A. Boyce, 2010
  14. Hubschman 1996, Hamilton & Scandura 2003
  15. Giadagno & Caildini, 2002
  16. Jeff’s credentials on LinkedIn here and Facebook here.

photo credits: Defining targets differently via photopin (license), [ROI photo: Got Credit]

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