How-to Guide for Hiring Virtual Assistants

By Corbin Links

Congratulations! You’ve read through Part 1 of this 4-part series, and are ready to move on to the next big step of actually hiring virtual assistants. Let’s talk about:

  1. Writing a Virtual Assistant Requirement Document
  2. Posting the Requirement to a Virtual Assistant Hiring Portal
  3. Searching and Filtering Candidates
  4. Interviewing and Selecting a Candidate
  5. Finalizing Terms
  6. Completing the Hire

Graphic - Virtual Assistant Hiring Table

Step 1 – Writing the Project Requirements Document

If you’ve ever written a project description for anything, this process is similar. Assuming you have read Part 1 of this series and decided you truly need a virtual assistant or “VA,” the next thing is to write requirements. Virtual assistant job requirements tend to be shorter and more focused than full-time job or contractor requirements. A good virtual assistant job description contains the following:

  • Project Summary – What is the overall purpose of project? What is its intent? The summary should include enough information to inform prospective candidates of your expectations and help them decide whether to apply.
  • Project Deliverable(s) – List exactly what the virtual assistant will do. I prefer a crisp bulleted list. Sample tasks could include things like:
    • “Answer main business phone line Monday through Friday between the hours of 12:00pm and 1:00pm”
    • “Edit and post articles to company blog and article websites”
    • “Create a daily industry news summary and email it in PDF”
    • “Editing and posting audio files to the blog or podcast directories”
  • Skill Requirements – This is a detailed list of skills the candidate MUST have. Examples might include things such as “Five years experience writing and editing HTML” or “Must have top-notch English Language skills.”
  • Optional Skills or “Nice to Have” – Skills and abilities that would be highly useful but are not absolutely required to complete the project. Examples:
    • “Experienced with keyword research using Google, Market Samurai or similar tools”
    • “Previous experience working with an IT consulting firm”
  • What We Will Provide – Very important and often overlooked. You need to be really clear about what you or your must give to make the project successful. Examples include
    • “Access to our project management system”
    • “Access to our social media accounts”
    • “Document templates”
    • “Website templates, colors and graphics”
  • Project Schedule – Start and stop dates, delivery milestone dates (e.g. “audio files submitted for review by November 20”). Be really clear about when it needs to be done. I like to use the following format:
    • Interviews end – date
    • Project starts – date
    • Milestone 1 – date
    • Milestone 2 – date
    • Final delivery and end date – date
  • Next Steps
    • Next step for prospective candidates
    • How should the candidate contact you for job questions (most job posting services will include a public or private messaging feature for people to ask questions.)
    • How / where will interviews be conducted (I always like to make clear that Skype or phone voice interviews are required.)

Step 2 – Preparing and Posting the Project Requirements Document

Once the requirements are clearly written, it is time to budget and post the job. The following suggestions are generic and should apply to most of the major virtual assistant hiring sites, such as Elance.com or oDesk.com. Most allow you to filter candidates by:

  • Country or region (you can also select “anywhere” or “it doesn’t matter” for fully virtual assistants.)
  • Language ability with your required languages.
  • Skill rankings for your required skills. Some services such as oDesk.com allow you to filter candidates based on test scores. Personally, I mostly disregard test scores since they often do not match real-world abilities. But more on that in a minute…
  • Time zone or schedule availability.
  • Number of reviews and/or percentage of positive or negative reviews.
  • Number of hours billed or projects worked for that particular service.
  • Pay rate.
  • By work type or keyword.

The options you choose will of course vary depending on what you want your VA to do. When our company looks for VA’s, we often start with these criteria:

  • Time zone
  • Number of projects or hours billed on the service. I look for at least 1 project or 1 billable hour to verify that the candidate is established and set up correctly in the hiring system.
  • Feedback – I’m more interested in people with any feedback at all. If a candidate has mostly positive feedback and meets all other criteria, he or she will make it to the short list. Over the years I have found that picking candidates by the number of “stars” or positive portfolio ratings is a poor indicator of how they will do for us. Projects can go poorly for all sorts of reasons including client issues. For more information on the types of things we look for, check out Part 1 of this series.
  • Skill Match
  • Authority – Is the virtual assistant a recognized expert in his or her niche? Do they have a visible web presence outside of the hiring portal? If so, what are they blogging or writing about? Do they seem like a potential fit for our business?

Billing Model – Hourly or Fixed?

A common question when hiring virtual assistants is “hourly or fixed?” There isn’t any one-size-fits-all answer, but these guidelines work pretty well:

  1. Short-term project with a small # of fixed well-defined tasksFixed
  2. Long-term project with structured milestones and deliverablesFixed
  3. *Project has multiple generalized tasks that requires the assistant to figure things out *- Hourly
  4. Project requires highly specialized skillsHourly or Fixed, depending on the person. NOTE: Many virtual assistant companies like to bill in “buckets of hours.” In the bucket model, you pay for a set number of hours each month, whether or not you have enough tasks to fill those hours. Also, superstar assistants with long client waiting lists may require you to choose whatever model they propose.

NOTE: The hourly model is for flexibility, variation and “client mind-changing”. But just because a project starts with an hourly model, does not give the virtual assistant carte blanche. As a safety measure, services such as oDesk allow you to convert projects between hourly and fixed, or cap hours to a set number. You should still include timelines and milestones when listing hourly projects. I’ll cover the ins and outs of hourly vs. fixed billing in an upcoming post.

How Much Should You Pay?

The short answer is, budget for the best you can afford and then pay the wage that is appropriate to the local wage index where the virtual assistant lives. What you pay your virtual assistant depends on:

  1. Where they live or from where they provide the service (not always the same)
  2. His or her expertise or experience in the industry or with your required project work
  3. What skills you require
  4. How fast you need it done
  5. Speed and effectiveness of the virtual assistant (this is also a factor of experience)
  6. Virtual assistant demand and client load

Avoid This Common Mistake – As mentioned in IT Consultant’s Guide to Hiring Virtual Assistants, don’t fall into the cost trap. Cheapest does not equal best. Nor does the most expensive equal best. You have to factor in skill and ability. For our business, hiring an inexpensive virtual assistant that never gets the job done and requires extensive communication and re-communication is a huge liability. A $30 / hour expert VA that can do 5x the work of a $10/hour lower-skilled VA and with less management is a much more effective purchase.

About Location and Pay Rates

Virtual assistant rates are indexed to location and experience. There is nothing “unfair” about paying someone a good wage relative to the country or region in which they live. Put another way, if you live in the States and are paying for a virtual assistant based in India, you can expect to pay less in your dollar terms than you would for an assistant down the street from you. I know this is probably understood by my readers, but there is SO much emotionally-driven misinformation about “pay parity” floating around out there. Hope this helps.

Here are some very general guidelines (as of November 2011) for higher-quality virtual assistants:

  1. India – $10 – $12/hour USD
  2. Central or Eastern Europe – $15 – $22/hour USD
  3. Moscow – $22 – $30/hour USD
  4. North America – $25 – $50/hour USD
  5. Philippines – $5 – $7/hour USD

Step 3 – Decide on the Project Hiring or Outsourcing Service

Check out my recommendations from Part 1 of this series. If you have never worked with virtual assistants before, I recommend you start with Elance.com. But oDesk.com also works well and either one will get you there.

Visit the service and create your company / hiring account. Either outsourcing service will allow you to set up a personal or company employer profile. Complete the profile and set up your funding source(s). NOTE: Most services require payment method verification, such as a test deposit before you can post jobs and accept proposals. If this is your first time using the service, be sure to plan for an additional 1 – 3 days for verification.

Also, allow time for the job posting service to review and approve your project posting. The process is pretty quick on Elance and oDesk, but you do have to allow time for it to get done.

Step 4 – Post the Job

Now you’re ready to post your project! How you do this will depend on which service you chose in Step 3 above. The help features of your outsourcing service will guide you through the process with videos and/or text.

When posting your project, the outsourcing service will ask you how long you want to accept proposals. I recommend the minimum 7-day window. A shorter window will ensure that you get eager and active virtual assistants. Often, we post a project for only 3 – 4 days before making our final selection and stopping the project listing.

Step 5 – Receive Proposals, Filter Applicants, Answer Questions

If you have a fair project budget or hourly rate and an easy-to-follow project description, you should receive proposals quickly. We often start receiving proposals within 2 – 3 hours of posting. If your job is posted for more than 24 hours without any response, chances are that either your budget is too low, your requirements are too high — or both.

Receiving Proposals

Proposals will be forwarded to your registered email address. I recommend using your official public business email, or a special email address for this purpose. You may get just a few, or perhaps dozens or hundreds of responses. That’s a lot! Here are the steps we use to filter proposals:

  1. Does the person meet the basic location / language / skill / rate requirements? (HINT: At least 1/3 of the potential candidates will not have bothered to read these. These candidates are easily filtered out.)
  2. Does the candidate’s proposal address all points in your project post? If so, how well? Did they take the time to add any opinion or comment to your requirements?
  3. Any spelling errors? (Almost always a disqualifier for assistants or clerks.)
  4. Do they have a portfolio or “past projects” link? Are the links active? (Check them!)
  5. Do they offer references? (NOTE: I almost never directly contact references, but do want to ensure they are available just in case.)
  6. Are they available to chat via phone or Skype? (HINT: If not, they are disqualified instantly.)
  7. Is the candidate’s skill set a close match?
  8. Does the candidate use proper and respectful salutations and signatures?

Candidates meeting criteria 1 – 8 above are added to the short list. When I’m the one doing the filtering, I store them all in our project repository and do a final review. My goal is to filter down to 7 or 8 (8 max) potential candidates for interviewing. If there are fewer than 6 candidates, then the post will run a few days longer on the same outsourcing service, or we may also run a duplicate copy on a competing service.

Step 6 – Interviewing Virtual Assistant Candidates

If you’ve done all the steps up to this point and followed the guidelines in IT Consultant’s Guide to Finding Virtual Assistants, the job of interviewing will be much easier.

Here is our quick and easy virtual assistant interview process:

  1. Finalize the short list (see above.)
  2. Send out a 5 – 7 question written questionnaire. (This is a sample only and may be longer, or include project-specific information.)
    1. In one paragraph or less, describe why you are the best candidate for this project. (A stock “interviewy” type of question.)
    2. How many hours, +/- are you from the USA EST time zone? (My goal here is to see if the virtual assistant understands where we work and that their schedule relative to us, not the other way around. Also, how effective they will be in managing their meetings with us, or other project team members. It is always amazing — and disheartening — how many potential assistants miss this one.)
    3. If you don’t understand or know how to do one of our tasks, how will you figure it out? (Of course, we want people to ask, but at the same time, we are looking for the “I’ll figure it out” mindset.)
    4. How do you manage and prioritize multiple clients?
    5. What project management tools have you used in the past? Which do you like the best?
    6. On a scale of 1 – 10, how would you rate your written English Language skills?
    7. Are you available for a Skype chat 1 – 2 hours per week in our time zone?
    8. In one paragraph or less, describe your most challenging work project.
  3. Filter again. Based on the responses above, the list will narrow down to 3 or 4 semi-final candidates.
  4. Conduct a 20 – 30 minute (30 minute maximum) Skype audio chat. I like to keep this free form and semi-formal. Generally, I’ll ask a few questions about their most recent project and what business goals they have.
  5. Make the final selection.

Now you’re ready to hire your virtual assistant!

Step 7 – Completing the Hire

  1. Send the official “you’re hired” notice to the final candidate. Usually there is a “hire” button somewhere in the candidate’s selection record.
  2. When completing the hire, you are generally given an option to “keep the job open for other applicants”, or to close the job posting. I always “close” at this point.
  3. What happens next, depends on the service you’re using and what project type — hourly or fixed — you have agreed on. Usually, the job now goes back to the candidate for acceptance. Before accepting, a “terms of agreement” document or email may be sent from the applicant or outsourcing system. This document essentially declares that the candidate agrees to the project, and may propose or request amendments to the payment terms. You have the option of accepting, counter proposing, or declining the applicant’s request. Unless the request is vastly different than what was in the job posting, I’ll almost always accept on behalf of our company.
  4. Escrow or deposit funds to start the project. (Other payment options may be available with your outsourcing service.)

Now the project starts!

In Part 3 of this four-part series, we’ll discuss project setup and the day-to-day management of your new virtual assistant. Stay tuned for Part 3!

Summary

We’ve now walked through the first two steps in the virtual assistant lifecycle: finding and hiring.

It may seem like a lot of steps at first, but things move pretty quickly if you follow the guidelines. If this is your first virtual assistant (VA) hire, leave yourself or your company plenty of time to do things right. As the old adage goes: hire slow, fire fast.

Also, be sure to document all of your steps throughout the process, including the steps (with screenshots) you followed to create and manage your hiring account. Then, when you’re ready to hire more assistants, you have a repeatable efficient process you can use over and over again.

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About the Author

Corbin Links -- Business Growth and Automation Consultant, Trainer, Author, BMI Nutritionist, Health Nut, Podcaster, Blogger, and Other Duties as Required.

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