In my consulting work, I field a lot of questions about virtual assistants or “VA’s.” This post summarizes some of my experiences finding assistants for ourselves and our clients. My goal is to share virtual assistant pros and cons; things to watch out for, when to hire and when not to hire. Conversely, I’m hoping that freelancers and virtual assistants wanting to get and keep clients will have a read and share their thoughts as well.
This article encompasses my experiences using virtual assistants from multiple countries, across multiple projects. Your experiences may vary. To add perspective, I’ve included a few external links at the end of this post. Each external link represents a particular viewpoint on the virtual assistant question.
Our company first started hiring and working with virtual assistants in 2006. Between then and now, I have worked with over 30 different virtual assistants from all parts of the globe. Our company continues to contract virtual assistants of various types, durations, and purposes. Some of our VA projects include:
- Building basic WordPress sites
- Conducting basic research
- Installing and configuring plugins
- Creating procedure lists and documents
- Light web and social media marketing
- Video creation and editing
- Assisting with various information products
- Creating reports
- Graphics creation and editing
- And a bunch of other stuff…
Overall, my VA experiences have been mixed. Many I no longer work with, or worked with only briefly for a particular project. Others we regularly use for project work and recommend to our consulting clients.
Types of Virtual Assistants
- Concierges. Examples include RedButler and American Express Concierge service.
- General office assistants (document formatting, light research, secretarial, etc.) Examples: AskSunday,
- Marketing and social networking (link building, social media profile management and the like)
- Light technical work and web/blog management
- General “do a little bit of everything” VA’s
Avoid This Common Misunderstanding
It’s important to distinguish virtual assistants from professional web designers, programmers and videographers. While some talented VA’s can do these things for you (with varied results…) it is unrealistic to expect it. If you have speciality web, programming, video, or social media needs, be sure to include a lot of Q & A in your interview process. Your requirements may warrant a freelancer specialist. Avoid trying to fit a virtual assistant with generalized skills into highly specialized or complex tasks.
Pre-VA Questions to Ask Yourself
I recommend analysis and a bit of caution before making the plunge into VA hiring. Take a step back and ask yourself a few hard questions before writing up your first project description.
What exactly do you need the VA to do? Can the project or task be broken down into distinct, ordered steps? Are the steps clear? Goals and objectives realistic? Do you understand it well enough to do it yourself — if you had to?
Will the task(s) take longer than three or four hours? If so, a VA might be worthwhile. If not, re-evaluate.
How many different things do you need the assistant to do? Are any of the tasks frequent and repeatable? (Repeatable tasks are well-suited to generalist virtual assistants.)
What is your budget? Can you afford someone who will do the job right?
What is the business impact if the task is not done on-time/correctly/at all?
If the assistant cannot complete the task — for whatever reason — how quickly can you change course?
Time zone matters more than you think. I recommend working with assistants that have at least two (four is better) overlapping hours with your business day. There are just too many situations that require some type of interaction via email or chat. (Depending on the project.) Over time, VA’s and their clients can become disconnected and isolated if their time zones are too far off.
Which Service Model? Service Company or Individual?
There are two major models for finding/hiring VA’s: service companies and _individual/solo providers.
Service companies manage teams of virtual assistants using project managers and software tools. In the service company model, you contract your work to the company and the company owns the responsibility of getting your work done. Depending on the company, you may or may not ever meet the actual VA doing the work. Most if not all of your interactions will be with the project manager.
Individual/solo providers work for themselves, or their own small company. In this model, you work directly with the person providing the service. He or she is directly in charge of getting your work done.
I’ve worked extensively with service companies and individual assistants. Many consultants and independent business owners like the “safety” of working with a company rather than an individual. In my experience, working with individual providers has yielded more consistent results with less “re-do” work. I would rather work with one individual and his/her personality style, than with a large service company.
Companies can put several layers of administration between you and your assistant. It’s important to understand that many (though not all) virtual assistant companies put project managers in charge of your work so they can translate your native language and project requirements to the actual VA’s who do your work. If your assigned provider(s) has to leave the company or work on another project, then the knowledge transfer adds yet one more layer of translation. (Task translation, language translation, or both.)
NOTE: VA and freelance brokerage services such as Elance and oDesk are somewhere in the middle. They broker for both individual providers and service companies.
Suggestions for Buyers
Don’t look for the cheapest provider. At the end of the day, working with VA’s is still about improving your life and your business. Telling someone multiple times how to do the same thing, or not having your work delivered correctly and on time will cost you much much more than anything you’re paying the VA. In competitive marketplaces such as oDesk, providers may aggressively underbid each other. Resist the temptation to go for the lowest bidder. We generally shop somewhere in the middle of the scale, depending on the project.
Hire strong language skills. Communication is key, much more so than raw technical or administrative skills. Working with virtual assistants requires mutual understanding and common goals. Many popular VA hiring services rate VA’s based on language proficiency. Most of the time, the VA will rate himself/herself higher than their actual skill level. Be sure talk to your potential VA for a while first — on the phone. In fact…
Over the years, I’ve developed a rule for working with VA’s. If I can’t talk with them on the phone while conducting a normal “flowing” conversation for at least half an hour, I don’t hire them. When talking with prospective assistants, practice giving them little bits of information or task descriptions. Can they repeat the task back to you? Do they understand it the way you do?
When considering potential candidates, focus more on attitude coupled with a diverse range of project/task experience. You want flexibility, “can do” and “I’ll figure it out for you” capabilities in your VA. A smart and eager VA can learn most anything with a bit of training. I always look for VA’s with an attitude that says “I may not have done it yet, but I’ll figure it out and get it done for you!”
Start with very small task assignments. I recommend a single task with no more than 5 – 10 steps. You want a task big enough to challenge, but small enough to manage and finish in a reasonable time.
If your budget allows, hire two VA’s, assign the same task and see which does better.
If you deciding to hire a VA for time or cost savings, be sure to include the cost of your own time to write out job descriptions, post jobs, interview, manage, pay, and fire the VA. ALL of those things have to be calculated into your cost equation. Doing this can actually save you a lot more time and money than hiring the wrong VA and re-doing all your work.
Make your instructions crystal clear. You want to avoid endless communications about task details. Assistants are not mind readers, but the good ones will get close to anticipating tasks and how to do them.
Document and save your instructions. If this VA doesn’t work out, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel for the next one.
Don’t base hiring decisions solely on VA portfolios or test scores. See additional details above. I’ll cover the specifics of hiring and managing in Part 2 of this blog series.
Suggestions for Virtual Assistants
Read the previous section about “Buyer Suggestions.” Know what your buyers are looking for and provide it.
Read your client’s requirements carefully. If the job or project description asks for something specific, then provide it. If a client asks you to do something you haven’t done yet, it’s ok to say so. But then quickly follow up with a plan to learn the task and get it done. I can’t stress this enough: employers care about results, timelines and budget. They are not interested in excuses. Always find a way to get the task done.
Be up front about your schedule, and hours you can and cannot work. Contrary to many Internet myths about “work anywhere, anytime from the comfort of your home.. — it doesn’t matter,” many clients actually do care about working hours and availability, especially when collaboration is required.
Learn to fully use the client’s project management system. It’s great if you have your own internal system, but many clients will insist on using their own.
If you need training to do something, say so. Most clients (myself and my clients included) are more than willing to invest a bit in training you if you consistently provide quality, reliable service. Always be looking for ways to train yourself and improve your skills. I recommend podcasts and iTunes University courses for starters.
Communicate effectively and frequently. If something cannot be done on time, let the client know. Along with that, be available to your client at least once a week for a phone or chat meeting.
Learn your clients and what they want. Anticipate their needs. Take the time to understand their business. Ok, you can’t be a mindreader and I appreciate that. But a good service provider (or sales person) finds out what the client needs and addresses those needs. After doing a few tasks or projects for your client, you should start understanding how they want things done. There are few things more frustrating to a client than having to repeat the same details over and over again for each new task.
A Google search is NOT research. It is only a starting point. Research requires…well..research. This includes periodicals, databases, raw Internet searches and the like.
Maintain reliability and a “can do, will do” mindset at all costs.
Manage your client load carefully. Taking on too many clients, though tempting (and I’ve been guilty of this in my own business), is a recipe for failure. Only take on as many clients as you can comfortably manage. If you provide top-notch services to your existing clients, you will develop a waiting list. Waiting lists are good things in this business. Optimally, you’ll always have a full pipeline of anxiously waiting clients.
Countries / Regions to Source Virtual Assistants
There are always exceptions, but we generally source skill sets by region:
- Design / Graphics – UK, Eastern Europe
- Web / blog / marketing / light research / general tasks- India
- Serious programming – Eastern Europe and North America
- Heavy research / custom reports and analysis / writing projects – UK / South Africa
Places TO Find Virtual Assistants
The Internet is rich with virtual assistant hiring options. The following is a list of hiring options we have tried over the years:
- RedButler.com (Concierge services)
- Direct project hire (individual providers)
- Independent virtual assistant provider firms
My Recommended Sources for Virtual Assistant Hiring
Based on our experience and the experience of our clients, we primarily use the following services:
- oDesk.com – Generalist VA’s and programmers
- Elance.com – Senior programmers and marketers
- Word of mouth referrals from trusted advisers – Depends on project
Places NOT to Find Virtual Assistants
I strongly recommend that you avoid the following venues:
- Independent country-based services.
- Internet marketers who have their own country-specific staffing services to sell.
- Classifieds, online and off.
- Unsolicited Email invites.
- Unknown or unverified sources.
Tools to Manage Virtual Assistants
The size of this topic requires its own post. For now, here is a short list of primary VA management tools that we use:
- Basecamp – Project Management, tracking, file sharing, calendaring
- Codespaces – Bug and feature tracking, source code management
- Google Docs – Document sharing and storage
- Google Calendar
- Evernote – Note sharing capability
- Dropbox – File sharing capability
- Jing (screenshots and quick “how to” movies)
..and several others which I’ll share in an upcoming post…
This post is just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to finding virtual assistants. There are countless venues for finding virtual assistants, so it’s a good idea to get as much information as you can before making the plunge. The next post in this series will discuss the process we use to hire, manage and end VA projects. Stay tuned!
But before I go…
For More Perspective
I mentioned that there are many different perspectives on virtual assistants and outsourcing in general. For some, any type of outsourcing is an emotionally-charged topic. For others, it’s all about getting business done. Whatever your perspective, the following hand-selected articles represent various views on the virtual assistant question.
The first link below represents the “do what you can on your own and hire for specific needs” approach, which is my view. Next, is an example of the “outsource everything” to assistants point of view. The third article comes directly from a virtual assistant.
From SmartPassiveIncome.com – http://www.smartpassiveincome.com/heres-why-i-dont-have-a-full-time-virtual-assistant/ (An expert who selectively uses virtual assistants for project-specific work.)
http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/outsourcing-life/ (Example of an “outsource everything” point of view)
http://www.gazette.com/news/virtual-52826-assistant-office.html (Perspective from a virtual assistant.)