How to Utilize Freelancers for Your Ecommerce Business: By Mike Michelini

Asian Freelancer

Managing RFQ procedures and day to day communication with your supplier, can be very time consuming. Especially when you consider the time zones. Before, the only option would be to hire a procurement agent, and adapt to their procedures (and perhaps even use their suppliers).

Or, setup your own office in Asia – which is not a realistic prospect for startups and small businesses.

But things have changed. Today, you can go on Upwork.com or Freelancer.com, and tap into a huge pool of freelancers, that you can pay by the hour or on a per project basis.

A Freelancer, that will likely be based in Asia, can keep up to date with your supplier, coordinate shipments – and even negotiate prices, while you spend your time doing something else (rather than calling your suppliers at 10 PM).

In this article, the Shenzhen based founder of Global From Asia (www.globalfromasia.com) shares his best advice for hiring and managing Freelancers, and how they can free up hours of work, every week.

How have you been using remote workers in your businesses?

I have been using remote workers on my team even before I read the Four Hour Work Week in 2007. It started with customer service for my e-commerce business when I hired “military spouses” who wanted to work online as their spouse (normally husband) was traveling often for work so they couldn’t get a “normal job”.

I was blown away (this is 2006) that I could have a work at home professional customer service rep help me at all hours of the day or night. These were “moms” based in USA (Kansas and Texas – Michelle and Janet – you rock) who really were moms of my business.

The hardest part about working with remote workers is the setup of tools and systems – which is a ton of upfront work.

Once you get a good flow with you and your remote team, it is like working next to them.

I have used remote workers for almost every part of my various businesses now for over 10 years – starting with customer service to graphic design, video production, web design, app development, community management, marketing – basically every kind of role except meeting clients face to face (waiting for the teleport technology to develop more for this).

Basically, if a task can be repeated, it can be delegated. If it can be delegated, 95% chance it can be done by a remote worker. The trick again is the upfront training and tools, and then the ongoing management.

How can freelancers help Importers save time?

There are so many ways. When you break down the process of dealing with importing from China – it is a bit mechanical right?

The biggest key to working with remote teams is to have tasks broken down into manageable tasks and then documenting those processes.

So for the manufacturing and importing process, let’s break it down right now. You have the sourcing part- which a ton can be done online.

And this kind of tedious work and digging is perfect for an online staff to do, give them clear instructions (either text or video – both even better) of the steps of searching various online manufacturer directories. Get them to fill out a Google spreadsheet and a Google doc with raw research.

Make a clear specification – which I am sure here at Chinaimportal.com you cover in detail.

Having a clear RFQ (request for quotation) is critical in the sourcing process, and this I don’t recommend outsourcing.

But once you have this clear document, it is “repeatable” in that your remote team can send it to those suppliers they believe are capable.

More data collection and reporting. Build all of this up into another tab in your Google sheet, and have summaries written out. Get your remote team a company email, and have that a dedicated email for your importing procedures.

You should also be able to login and see what is going on, or use a help desk system if you’re willing to invest in software (recommended!)

So much of importing from China is communication. This is what sucks up so much of our time, like email management and customer service – and these time consuming tasks are perfect for a remote staff to handle.

Having them follow up on the process, and give you a status report is a huge time saver and stress reliever. For each step of the process, you need to have them prepared with a task overview and expectations.

Do you think a remote worker in, say, the Philippines can be trained to managed day to day operations with Chinese suppliers?

Definitely. As we know, English is more and more commonplace in Mainland China, and in the Philippines I’m still amazed at the quality of English there. I don’t even think of them as an “outsourced worker” – I think of them as a part of my team.

Providing them clear enough directions and the basic concept of what their roles and responsibilities are – they will be an asset to your China supplier management.

You may need to train your Philippines team on Wechat though – as we know in China the majority of chat and communication is done there – and Wechat can become pretty complex with groups and other functions.

And what kind of tasks can they do?

The skills in the Philippines still blows my mind – and it keeps getting better.

Part of my blog’s mantra is that the world is flat and internet and technology is making it true. Filipinos are very creative and want to learn – and so long as you are clear about what you need them to do, they can execute.

The mistake that many business owners make though is they think there is the one worker that can do it all. To succeed with remote teams, you need to have clear job roles and hire for those specific tasks.

But for China supplier management, I would say a lot of it can be done by a “general admin virtual assistant”, meaning someone in Philippines with good English skills and common computer software skills. Tasks I would say you can hire in 1 role would be:

  • Searching online marketplace directories
  • Compiling supplier research reports
  • Taking a spec sheet and getting quotations
  • Bargaining with the supplier
  • Assisting with the purchase order
  • Dealing with on the ground 3rd party service providers (still believe we need third party inspection, etc)
  • Assisting with booking the logistics
  • Following the order process
  • Communicating to the receiving country logistics center(s)

Tasks that you would need to either hire out on a project basis or do in house would be:

  • Creating 3D CAD
  • Making PCB designs
  • Creating supplier contracts

As these are very specific and specialized tasks that a “General Virtual Assistant” in the Philippines should not be expected to have experience in. Notice I was very granular in my list of tasks above, this helps your remote team understand the process and each step along the way.

Each of those items listed would come with a video and a text document for them to reference as needed.

How can I best prepare my freelancers for working on the procurement side of my business?

Your job as a business owner, I called it CEO – customers, employees, and owners (partners). You need to make sure all of these people are educated and have the tools and confidence they need to engage with you and your company.

So in today’s article, we are talking about that “E” in CEO – employees. Whether they are in-house in your office or working from a beach resort in Tahiti, they need to be educated on your business, your products, and your processes.

Investing in your team is an upfront cost, but will pay in dividends long term.

This is where so many business owners fail at dealing with remote staff – because they don’t have proper documentation for their business.

They are spoiled with having a team member at the desk next to them asking them questions all day long and learning by “absorbing” this information on-demand. Build an asset. Have proper staff training documentation through videos and text.

Heck, why not leverage the same assets (videos, text training) for your own blog and Youtube channel?

I believe that is what the job of a CEO is – making the business clear through “educating” as well as “attracting” Cs (customers), Es (employees, and Os (owners) with clear processes and systems.

To make this section clear – yes – you need to educate the remote staff on your business and the process of importing from China. Maybe you can outsource this by buying and online course and letting them access it.

But its better if you have your own voice and your own style of training for new staff on boarding.

Isn’t it necessary for freelancers to speak Chinese, if they are to be in touch with my suppliers?

While of course if they speak Chinese it is a huge plus – the majority of the work can be done in English. Most factories have hired English speaking sales staff – and the majority of the task can be done in English.

Just have procedures in place that is keeping proper records of the conversations had with the factory. I have procedures where the remote team takes screenshots of their Wechat chat history for important parts of the negotiation, and asks that part of this conversation be documented in email.

Once you have a relationship with a supplier, I also recommend you visit them in China.

This is something a high level executive in the company should do, as a supplier is a key partner in your product based business.

Buying products is one thing… but then we also need to sell them. How do you suggest that I should work with freelancers when it comes to marketing and sales?

Totally! Though I would not ask the same remote team member to do both China supplier management as well as the marketing and sales. It is a different “part of the brain” and I want to have a focused and specialized team.

You would hire those who enjoy doing customer facing tasks, and in your interview process you would listen for clues on that.

You would also need different online training for your new sales and marketing team, and a different set of product training materials that is more customer facing.

In short, find people who already have experience – or at least the right personality – for the job. I’m often asking the team if they enjoy the tasks they are doing, and as my businesses evolve, I move them around and focus their jobs on the tasks or job role that they enjoy doing. As anything in life, if you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll learn more and work harder.

How can I prepare my remote workers for marketing and sales roles?

Its all about documentation – but like I have been hinting to in this article – you need to document whether you are remote or not – if you want to build a scalable business.

So working with a remote team simply forces you to build the workflows and procedures out in order to truly build a scalable business without your personal intervention.

So yes, writing SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures), making training videos, making an on boarding process, having a list of common questions from inbound sales leads, all of this is necessary to be successful with an online team.

It isn’t necessary if you have your team in your office – but keep in mind you and your “in-house” staff will just be that much more irreplaceable without these valuable assets (documentation) on file at your company.

When you work with remote staff, what kind of software and other tools do you use to coordinate everything?

Getting everyone on the team to “buy in” to the software is critical. I always tell new online team members – if you want to work with us long term, learn the tools and use the tools. Its one of the easiest ways for an online team member to lose their job with us – by not using the tools. So make it that clear when you hire a new team member.

With that in mind, yes, Google Drive and Google Docs is a critical tool in our business.

We have our SOPs and other training documentation inside of Google drive, we use the Google apps for business (or whatever they call it nowadays – they have re-branded countless times!) where we have our own company email on Google just like gmail.

This way, we have sharing set within the company for the documents – making it easy to onboard and “off-board” staff.

In addition to Google drive, we live inside of Slack. It is how our team communicates – and I like it over Skype or other “public communication” tools because when I login to Slack, it is all about my work – not my friend’s birthday party or a client wanting to hop on a quick call.

The last critical tool is a task management and project management tool, and we’re using Asana. There are a slew of others, and I think you can pick one you like the most, the main point is this is how we assign tasks to various team members and it is their virtual “to-do” list.

Signing up for the tools is one thing, but making sure everyone on the team is critical. Even if 1 person isn’t using it – it negatively affects everyone as it crushes the “flow state” of a company.

As you mention, it comes down to standardizing operational procedures. How do you write your SOPs?

So many people get frozen when they think about making SOPs. The key is to just start.

I used to use a complex template where it had version history, flow charts, etc etc – but then it got to be daunting to even start.

The way I have adapted is just make a new Google doc and title it TASK NAME (keyword rich for search) – SOP – Company Name.

Then I write “about this task” and write a few sentences about what this task is, who it is for, and what the goal and overarching theme of the task it. Then, simply write out each and every step of the task – with screenshots and arrows and explanations.

If I have time I make a screencast video and link that there too.

But here is the key – this is a living document – that is why it is so important to use something like Google docs. Let the team be able to add to it, ask questions (comments) in it – and answer inside the document.

When you get a question on the task in Slack – don’t answer it in Slack – go to the SOP and answer it – then tell them to read it there!

Make your SOPs like “Frankenstein” and slowly they will “Come alive” and improve as you improve.

Can you help E-Commerce business owners hire and manage remote staff?

Sure – managing remote staff has been a passion for me, and I created a full in-depth program all about hiring and managing online staff at scalebyoutsourcing.com The core program is my video course with templates and step by step action to make your business scale up by outsourcing.

And my blog for importing and selling around the world is Globalfromasia.com which has a massive library of free blogs and podcasts with our membership program for those looking to get on the inside of our community.

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