The Ultimate Guide to Hiring a Good Virtual Assistant for Your Small Business

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

International Virtual Assistants Association (IVAA)- The site has a directory of virtual assistants and it allows you to submit a RFP.

Administrative Consultants Association(ACA) – Conduct a search for a virtual assistant. Check out their directory.

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

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Adam

    From a virtual assistant’s perspective, this is a very interesting and valuable post. I have been an online VA for a little over 6 years now. When I first started out, I had all the skills but lacked in knowledge about the online world and working as a VA.

    I have also had some bad experiences with hiring overseas VA’s to work for me (doing tasks that I just didn’t have time to do on my own business) and came across the majority of what you mentioned with the language barrier and a basic understanding of what I was requesting.

    Moving forward, I have learnt from my experiences and have a thriving business. My own website, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts which I spend time on connecting with my followers etc.

    I am based in the UK and have a number of clients ranging from Europe to the US and Canada and I have never had an issue with time differences. I have excellent time management and all my clients are treated as individuals as if I was part of their business.

    You have listed good resources for finding a virtual assistant and also given great advise on how to connect with a VA along with questions to ask. I feel it is important to have a verbal conversation with your VA as this will determine whether or not they are a good fit for your business. I never sign with a client if I haven’t spoken to them! That is one of my rules.

    With regards to rates, these vary from country to country as you have mentioned however, cheapest doesn’t always mean the best. I have heard of people having to find another VA to re-do projects again – This has wasted time and money (hence cheap isn’t always the best). I fully understand that small business owners are on a strict budget however, when speaking with your potential VA, there is always room for negotiation!

  2. The Frugal Entrepreneur says

    Hi Martha,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences both working as a VA and hiring them.

    And I second the point about the cheapest not always being the best. A lot really depends on the kind of tasks that need to be accomplished and not just the budget for them. I’ve personally experienced having to re-do projects. It’s not fun and a very, very big waste of time and money.

  3. says

    Thank you for the excellent article! As the owner of a virtual staffing agency, I can’t stress enough the importance of on-going communication! Although our model is different than most in that we assign our employees to serve as virtual teams to provide all levels of front and back office support for clients, rather than subcontracting independent VA’s, the caveats you mentioned are very appropriate regardless of the setting. I would also add the following:

    - Treat your VA as a valuable member or your company. If he/she will be interacting with your clients or vendors, it’s important that they emulate the culture of your company.

    - Keep your VA in the loop! Be sure to share any correspondence or communications that may impact their interventions when they act on your behalf.

    - Most importantly, stay engaged! The best outsourcing relationships are those that are open and honest with frequent communications.

    Thank you for the article – it was very good!!

    Jeff Mehl
    Daybreak Virtual Staffing
    http://www.daybreakvirtual.com
    In my experience, I’ve found that the real key to a successful “virtual” relationship is all about communication!

  4. says

    Wow, this is really great Adam! Hiring a good Virtual Assistant is not that easy and your tips are really helpful. Today, it’s hard to find an appriopiate person that would fit for an assistant and you are right, screening is really important. It’s your business and as an entrepreneur you should make the time to meet with the potential assistant and get as many details as you can get. What you’ve mentioned about cultural differences is also very important.

    But in some cases VA’s also have trust issues with their clients. So you have to make it a point to earn their trust ( by explaining clearly what your expectations are and what you have to offer in return). Monitoring and open communication are key factors for a good relationship with your VA as well.

  5. The Frugal Entrepreneur says

    I agree that communication is key. Often, the success or failure of working with virtual staff of all kinds is dependant on how well messages and information are exchanged between the business owner and his or her virtual employees. It’s a point I devled into in my posts on outsourcing and working with temporary staff.

  6. says

    Hi Adam,

    What an excellent article with lots of great tips for those considering using a Virtual Assistant.

    As a Virtual Assistant Matchmaker, I know how much work and time goes into finding the perfect VA for a client. It’s extremely important for business owners to make a plan before they think about bringing a VA onboard. A lot of business owners hire based on skill sets but there are a lot of other factors as you pointed out – budget, timezone, communication and work style, availability, solo VA/multi-VA etc.

    It’s vital that business owners conduct interviews and check references even for referrals coming from colleagues. Somebody else’s VA is not necessarily right for you, the only way to find this out is to talk to them and ask lots of questions and see if there is a connection.

    Finding and partnering with a Virtual Assistant takes a lot of time and effort which I don’t think business owners realize. I recommend to all my clients that they have systems in place so when they bring a new VA onboard, they don’t have to recreate the wheel.

    Everyone does things differently and if you want things done your way, you need to show them what your way is by documenting each step. This will cut your time in half so each time you go about hiring a Virtual Assistant, there is little for you to do because you already have a training plan in place .

    I also recommend taking the time early in your business relationship to set up the guidelines for expectations, communication etc as this will make all the difference in your success as business partners.

  7. The Frugal Entrepreneur says

    Hi Grainne,

    I want to point out that you call yourself a virtual assistant “matchmaker,” and there couldn’t be a more appropriate term. Finding the right VA can be compared to looking for a spouse:
    If you make an impulsive decision based on a few externals, then the chances will be greater that it will end in an unpleasant “divorce.”

    The more responsibilities, skills, expertise, and trustworthiness required to fill the VA position, the greater the need for the business owner to slow things down and take several factors into consideration before “popping the question.”

  8. says

    Hi Adam

    Great article. I totally agree with backing up your data before hiring someone to do work for you. I have only had to do this on one occasion. I hired a company to work on my blog. I ensured I had backed up the database etc. Luckily they did a great job.

    I keep considering outsourcing some of my tasks but am worried about it being a waste of money.

    Thanks for all the great resources.

    Chris

  9. says

    Thanks Adam, I actually came up with the ‘VA Matchmaker’ after I started my business because realized more and more with each client that I worked with, how important this match is. It’s a big deal for a business owner to give up part control of their business and then to give it up to someone they will probably never meet, that’s huge. It has to be right fit for the partnership to be successful and for both the business owner and VA to get what they want from this relationship.

    A lot of my clients come up me because they have gone through a ‘divorce’ and want to find someone the right way this time. They didn’t do any due diligence the first time and it didn’t work out!

    So together we figure out what they need in a VA and what tasks would be beneficial to their business if outsourced and we begin our search.

    The end result of a perfect match is what I absolutely love to see and I’m lucky to do this every day.

  10. says

    I appreciate your post Adam and i completely agree with you that candidate of virtual services should be proactive in social media networks,as it will really help him to coordinate with clients online.

    I also agree with Jeff Mehll that VA is all about communication.

  11. De Guzman, Summer says

    This is a very well-researched post!
    Having a virtual assistant will help you big time especially if your business is growing. It does save you time and it will also save you money because you don’t have to make an actual office. What you need is a virtual workspace. It’s something that’ll make your communication easier without spending so much money for bricks and mortar.
    Personally, I prefer looking for my freelancing employee on odesk.com or staff.com. It is possible to find a VA for as low as $3 an hour if you look on some lower income countries like the Philippines.

  12. says

    I appreciate your post Adam being a VA myself. Just a few notes when hiring a VA: When you hire your Virtual Assistant, be sure to ask them to furnish a detailed list of the types of services for which you will be billed. Some VA’s will charge to accept your phone calls, read your email instructions, or the time it takes to download a file. There should be no surprises if you have good communication with your VA. Remember, you cannot see your potential VA to evaluate their credibility, nor they you. Consider several exploratory conversations prior to signing on the dotted line. This will ensure that you and your Virtual Assistant will have a productive partnership.

  13. says

    Some good points… I’ve found that it is best to set a time limit for each major task that I give out. That way, if I see that my VA is not keeping up, I can troubleshoot right away.

  14. says

    Hey Adam, great write-up.

    Curious if you have a single most-favorite source for finding reliable virtual help? I’ve used both a virtual assistant company (TimeSvr) and Elance, and found pretty good success with both.

    For Elance, I like to include some English language idioms in my job description to get a gauge of how well the applicant’s real comprehension is. I’m having a hard time thinking of an example right now, but something that directly translated would make no sense, to see how they react.

    I’ve tested several of the other sites you mention, and it seems like every one has their own specialties.

    Ultimately I think you’re right — it’s about finding someone who you can work well with, without face-to-face contact. My VAs have been valuable members of my team and it’s hard to imagine life without them!

  15. says

    Adam your guideline is really helpful and covered all the important points. I would like to highlight advantages of having different time zone.

    Lets say your VA is sitting in an office in India, on average 10 hours earlier in time than the USA. This means that when the US “wakes up,” in India they’re sleeping. So as you mentioned a clear disadvantage i.e. no availability when needed.

    But my experience working with Indian VA’s is that often they will alter their working hours, sometimes extending them till 10 PM (or they’ll wake up early). So they can discuss few points or work status with us sitting in US.

    Secondly, when we wake up, we see an INBOX full with work updates. So it’s like we wake up and see all the work done!! It’s a great feeling!!

  16. Adam Gottlieb says

    It’s true. If you can work around the time difference it can actually be an advantage to hire a VA from a different country and vastly different time zone, since work can literally be completed while you sleep. But, in my experience, you have to be paired up with a really good VA who you can trust to get the job done. Otherwise, a lot of time will be lost trying to correct and explain and the time difference will make it about ten times harder.

  17. says

    I have used onlinejobs.php and found very useful assistants there. I have also used freelance and odesk. So far, I have found having a virtual assistant to be a double edged sword. It is helpful to have them – that is true – but I have found that communicating with the timezones to be tedious, the process of trying to find someone who understands and can deliver your needs to be harder than first thought, and the language and culture barriers to be frustrating.

    I hope to find the virtual assistant who I can truly trust and rely on soon. But no luck so far!

  18. says

    I have worked with many different virtual assistants from all over the world, but I am very happy with girl I work with now. She is from a European virtual assistant company. I needed a professional with fluent English with no accent. But I guess assistants work individually for each person.

  19. says

    Awesome insights here Adam. I also thought that hiring and managing VAs would be a breeze after reading the Four Hour Work Week. As you point out, a VA can actually CREATE work for you.

    From trial and error I’ve developed a similar plan of action when screening, hiring and managing VAs.

  20. says

    Great post! Thanks so much for sharing the benefits, challenges, joys and tips for successfully working with a virtual professional. I wanted to add our company to your list of reputable services http://worldwide101.com/

    We pride ourselves in providing personalized support to companies and entrepreneurs globally.

    All the best!

  21. says

    I wish I would afford a virtual assistant! I’m going to try some of the micro jobs sites. I like the name “Do My Stuff”

  22. Caroline says

    Also really enjoyed your post. It seems like the Virtual Assistant space is really on the move. I also read Tim’s book and tried several overseas solutions, but I just couldn’t deal with the language barrier. There were way too many obstacles, even when I practiced many of the suggestions you bring up. I’m glad that several US based companies are now entering the marketplace. I’ve tried several but so far Red Butler (redbutler.com) has been the best experience overall. Check out this website where you can see the unbiased ratings and reviews of various VA companies – virtualassistantassistant.com.

  23. says

    Very good, well-written article. Exactly what I was looking for as I enter the virtual assistant game for my real estate team.

    Thank you very much for the time you’ve invested into educating us.
    8-)

  24. reginemedge says

    Hi! I really like this article. It is well said and explained. Virtual assistant are really needed nowadays. Nowadays, all tasks seems to be done quickly and efficiently without sacrificing the other task. Thank you for the tips, I learned a lot of things in your article and I’m looking forward to apply this in the near future. I want to be a VA. :)

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