How to Create a High-performance Virtual team of Independent Contractors

Business man on phone, working

Members of our editorial or sales team could work from anywhere.

 As the former owner of a construction trade publication that operated virtually, I understand well the issues regarding virtual teams. Because we published on a monthly basis, not a weekly basis, and focused on one major metropolitan area, Atlanta, I could not justify hiring part-time employees. In our operations, except for the sales staff, we basically went flat-out for 10 days; however, we had very little writing and editing activity during the rest of the month. Our entire team consisted of a publisher, an editor, a content director, two sales people, and various freelance writers.

How do you create a high performance virtual team of independent contractors?

To create a high performance virtual team of individuals who were not employees, I assigned each independent contractor a title and provided a well-defined role. I used position contracts to define the role and responsibility and lay out the expectations and deliverables for each specific position. All the independent contractors – excluding the freelance writers – had to sign the position contract. We set up a clear reporting chain, bi-weekly conference calls, team meetings (I.e., editorial team, sales team), and required weekly reports. The person you reported to was the other signature on the position contract.

To keep each other updated we used the phone, instant messaging, and email. IM’ing was the favorite way for the editorial and graphics team to communicate when actively working on the month’s paper. We used monthly calendars with clearly indicated monthly goals and deliverables posted on Google Docs for all to see. That way there was no confusion as to who was supposed to do what and by when.

Hiring requirements for a high performance, virtual team

To build and operate as a high performance virtual team, you must hire self-disciplined people and be very, very clear on the characteristics you need in your team. I did this for the editorial team and only hired people with a strong telecommuting or freelance history. The editor, who was my first hire, actually helped educate me. She had been operating as a freelance writer and editor for several years and helped me clarify the characteristics I needed in the other team members. As a result, operations ran smoothly from the beginning.

My issues in building the virtual sales team

However, I had major issues with the sales team. Before I purchased this publication, I had never directly hired a sales force. I had relied on my business partner in another business I owned, and sales directors or sales VPs in companies I worked for. I was under the grossly mistaken and misguided assumption that all good sales people were self-disciplined! The person I purchased the business from had been an “intuitive” sales person, and could offer little direct assistance.

Bullseye for goal setting

Setting goals and holding the team accountable for achieving the goals ensure your company’s hits the bullseye on an ongoing basis.

After hiring and firing multiple sales people, I realized that my assumption was wrong, wrong, wrong! I also realized that a virtual sales team needs support like everyone else. You cannot just hire sales people and tell them to go out there and bring in the sales. Hah! Like everyone else, what good salespeople need to be truly effective are clearly defined targets, deliverables, and support. I learned this from reading about building sales teams, attending sales training, and the exit interviews I conducted.

I subsequently developed marketing collateral, market niches to pursue, lists of prospects, weekly deliverables, and team meetings. I shared what others had achieved during the week or month. Telesales or outside sales, salespeople thrive on interaction and friendly competition. If I had known this in advance, I would have set this up in the first month. But I didn’t, so this took me 10 months to figure out through trial and error and sales training attendance. But once it was in effect, everything ran smoothly and we had a great virtual sales team.

Note and Summary

The editorial team was spread throughout the south and east but the sales team was located in the Atlanta region because all of our customers were based in this region and actual, in-person contact with our existing and prospective customers was critical.

Question: How have you built a great, cohesive team of non-employees? What were some of the issues you encountered on the way to building that team? Enquiring minds want to know. Please share in the comments below!