This post was updated March, 2013
Ever since Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek began to grace business book shelves and populate e-readers, the act of hiring a virtual assistant to help carry out business tasks has acquired a certain allure. Hiring a VA can be a highly strategic and frugal business move, but only if you do it right. Make sure your efforts to save a few bucks and streamline your work process don’t end up costing you more in the long run.
Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to work with various virtual assistants (some based in America, others overseas) offering an assortment of services. While I was fortunate to come across some stellar VA’s, there were many, many people along the way who didn’t work out. They looked oh so good on paper, but when it come to practice, it just didn’t go- no matter how hard I tried to make it work.
The biggest takeaway I got from those failures is that it can take a whole lot of consideration and effort to find, train, and successfully work with a virtual staffer. If you want to get the best return on investment for your time and money, and if you want to protect the value and nature of your business’ assets then you don’t want to jump into the sea of virtual assistants blindly.
The following guide offers an assortment of tips and resources for any frugal small business owner looking to hire a virtual assistant.
Steps to Take Before You Start Your Search for a VA
The road to hiring a good VA starts before you’ve even begun searching. Here are four steps to consider:
Step1: Create a clear job description. Clearly write out all of the job’s responsibilities. Think about how your business is currently set up and how the VA will fit in. Do you need a task-based VA, a full-time assistant, or someone who will work for you on a part-time basis? Or, are you really looking for a micro job that can be given out to different people?
Step 2: Determine the job’s requirements. This means not only requirements in terms of experience but also the kind of hardware/Internet connection necessary to complete the job, as well as any necessary skills and personality traits. Also, determine what time frame will be given to complete the job/role.
Step 3: Calculate how much can you afford to pay. Knowing this can help you narrow down your search and ensure that you stick to your priorities. You should also research what VA’s are typically receiving for conducting the work that you seek. You can do this by asking your peers what they charge, looking at the listings on virtual hiring sites, and even heading over to a VA forum and asking some experienced VA’s themselves.
Step 4: Determine how you will evaluate the new hire. Set some benchmarks and productivity goals so you can quickly cut your loses should the arrangement not work out. Though it may be disheartening to have to let a new VA go and start the hiring process again, keep in mind that there are plenty of candidates out there who are willing and able to do the work you need. Don’t waste your precious time and money going around in circles.
The Low-Down on Working with Overseas Virtual Assistants
Many aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners looking to keep their costs to a minimum seek to hire VA’s based overseas in order to take advantage of the sometimes stark differences in payrate. But there are a whole host of issues that can easily whittle away any anticipated savings. Here are a few things to consider:
Overseas VA’s aren’t so cheap anymore. As demand increases, prices for competent overseas virtual assistants have been on the up and up.
Be prepared for a language barrier. While English is commonly spoken in some of the major countries supplying virtual assistants, such as India and the Philippines, don’t assume that your potential VA is fully fluent in English, or any other language that you may require. In fact, it’s best to go into the search process assuming the opposite. Make sure that you specifically request fluency in a given language and that you incorporate some of the screening tips mentioned below to verify this fluency.
Consider the cultural differences. Before you start looking for workers from another country, make sure you are familiar with the cultural differences that exist there. In India, for example, workers are more likely to agree to take on a project even if it is above them as they tend to have a harder time saying no.
Consider the time difference. One of the biggest barriers to working with an overseas VA is the difference in time zones. If your virtual hire is on the other side of the globe, then you may find it particularly challenging to manage his or her workflow. Someone who is working in a time zone that is 10-12 hours off from your own may not be readily available for the spontaneous questions, clarifications, or last minute requests that tend to come up.
Consider the quality of equipment and online access. Research the quality and reliability of any equipment and internet connectivity your new hire will need as well as how the particular country’s infrastructure is set up. Like any other contractor, a virtual assistant is responsible for his or her own internet connection and hardware. But Internet service and access to higher-end equipment may be limited within some countries.
How to Screen Applicants
Even if a potential hire comes recommended by a good friend or peer, you should nevertheless exercise your full due diligence in checking up on this person’s background, skills, and experience. This becomes all the more vital if your virtual assistant will be handling or have access to sensitive information, such as customer payment and contact info, or areas of your business, such as files for your company website.
The internet is cluttered with virtual assistant horror stories- lack of stated experience or expertise, instances of shoddy work, resentful VA’s who shut down websites, or stole information, or sought to sully their employer’s online reputation. If you want to avoid adding your own experience to the fray, then here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Look for a clear and concise response to your job posting or request. The candidate should clearly detail the skill and experience he or she has and how it suits your requirements. Where appropriate ask to see samples of prior work or jobs that they have completed.
The candidate should provide at least three references, and you should make the effort to contact them. You should also pay attention to how current these references are. A collection of old references, like a client the VA worked for three years ago, or an unexplained gap in employment may be a warning sign that you should move on to someone else. If you use a site like Elance, then you should strongly take into consideration each candidate’s rating as well as the reviews left by previous employers.
Check out their web presence. Does this person have a website, a Facebook page, and LinkedIn profile? Take a look at them. You will get a sense of who this person is by looking at how they present themselves online.
Make sure that you have your VA sign a clear and thorough confidentiality agreement as well as an independent contractor agreement. (See my collection of free business documents for a generic example of such a contract.) It will help to protect both you and them from misunderstandings and liabilities.
Conduct a phone interview and correspond via email. Make it a point to communicate a few times with potential VA’s before agreeing to hire them. Doing so will help you to see how good their English is and if they really know what they say they do. You can generally get a pretty good idea about this just from speaking to them on the phone or via email exchanges.
Consider using a virtual staffing firm. If all the checking and research doesn’t seem doable then you should consider using the services of a virtual staffing firm. The cost may be a little higher than what you would expect to pay if you were working with a virtual assistant directly, but the time, money, and effort you’d save in the hiring process whether by using their services to narrow down the applicant field or to screen out potential candidates may make it worth it.
Some Tips to Effectively Working with a VA
In a previous post, I detailed some tips for getting the most out of your outsourcing arrangements. When it comes to virtual assistants, here are a few additional things to keep in mind:
- First, as a precaution make sure that all your documents and other vital business information are backed up. The chances of a fatal error occurring with your precious files are greater with a VA since this person is not in front of you, you are more likely to leave out some important information or step, and you may have the added difficulty of working across cultural lines and time zones.
- Keep instructions, clear, concise, and where you are able to, include screenshots and pictures. It may take sometime for you to do all these steps, but the potential time (and headache) you’ll save may be much greater. From experience I found that all the back and forth explaining, re-hashing, clarifying, and correcting of errors due to misunderstandings can be a very big black hole when it comes to time and money.
- Put some kind of time frame on your requests and make sure that it is clearly communicated to your VA. If, for example, you need some Internet-based research or help answering emails, then indicate how long your virtual assistant should work on the project and then let the person know that he or she should get back to you with progress report. This way you can both keep tabs on how your VA is performing and quickly recognize any bottlenecks in the work process.
- Make sure that you use some process of evaluation mentioned above. Where a VA arrangement clearly isn’t working out, then it is in you best interest to move on as quickly as possible.
The Best Sites to Hire a Virtual Assistant… And Some Other Resources
While many small businesses owners suggest posting your request on services such as Twitter, Facebook, and linkedIn (especially if they themselves have hired a VA through these mediums) they often leave out the fact that sifting through the flood of responses can take away precious time, and the quality of the response you get back also really depends on the quality of your social networks.
Personally, I’ve found that Elance, oDesk, and Guru.com were the most helpful sites for locating and hiring a good VA. But you really need to experiment a bit to see which sites and services will work best for your particular setup and needs.
To help you locate that super VA, here is a list of the best sites to hire a virtual assistant that I could find organized into categories:
Sites to Hire a Personal or Virtual Assistant
My Tasker- Provides both personal and virtual assistant services based out of India
Brickwork India -A virtual Office, providing Remote Executive Assistance (REA), Research & Consulting and IT services.
GetFriday – Global virtual assistance services for small and mid-sized businesses based in India
AskSunday -Providing dedicated personal assistance to businesses and individuals
Tasks EveryDay – Virtual staff solutions from virtual assistants to web designers and programmers based in India
Distant Support – Virtual assistants based in the Philippines
ScriptLance – Outsource your website programming, design, writing
and marketing projects
Agents of Value – IT outsourcing company that focuses on providing web development and marketing services based in the Philippines
Workaholics for Hire – providing outsourced talent, project management, and support services to entrepreneurial web-based business owners.
DaVinci Virtual Office Solutions -Providing virtual office services including receptionists and web chat
Do My Stuff – hire a personal assistant to perform everyday chores
Sites to Hire a Freelancer
Elance – Hire a freelance worker. This site has a great rating and review system.
Guru – find a freelance virtual assistant to assist you with any project. The site also supports some very useful project management tools.
oDesk – Hire a freelance worker
iFreelance – Find a freelance worker
vWorker- Hire a freelance worker. The site has a money-back guarantee on every project. Also supports crowdsourcing and trialsourcing solutions.
Freelancer.com- Hire a freelance worker from over 400 categories
Craigslist – You can post a free job request under “gigs.”
Resource Nation – Describe your project and this site matches you with pre-screened qualified applicants for free.
Micro Jobs Sites
Amazon Mechanical Turk - Request HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), which are tasks that cannot be done artificially by a computer
Micro Workers- Post micro tasks and target only specific workers
Fiverr- A popular micro jobs site that costs $5 per task
Virtual Staffing Firms
OnlineJobs.ph - Find and hire Pilipino virtual assistants
Virtual Staff Finder - Virtual staffing firm for off-shore virtual assistants
Assistant Match – This service matches professionals with off-site assistants by taking care of all logistics from interviewing to reference checks.
Team Double Click -a virtual staffing agency providing professional virtual office assistants and professional real estate virtual assistants for small and home-based businesses.
Non-Profit Organizations and Online Communities for Virtual Assistants
Freelancers’ Union -Freelancers Union “promotes the interests of independent workers through advocacy, education, and services.”
VA Networking – An online network and resource for virtual workers and their employers. Employers can submit an RFP and receive bids from qualified members.
AssistU – Provides a certificate training program for virtual assistants. You can also submit a request for services from its members.
Find Virtual – Social networking site for VAs