What Are Virtual Assistants and How Can They Help You?

by | June 23, 2020


A virtual assistant (VA) can be a helpful tool to help you grow your business. They can lighten your workload, help you focus on essential tasks, and give you the ability to scale up your business. Let’s take a look at what virtual assistants are and why you should learn more about them. We’ll also explore some useful strategies for finding the best VAs and getting the most out of them.

What is a Virtual Assistant?

A virtual assistant is someone who works remotely and delivers work via email, sharing files on cloud servers, or other channels. While a VA may be an employee, they are more often hired as independent contractors. This type of arrangement gives you more freedom to pay for work as needed. Virtual assistants may fulfill any number of responsibilities. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce explains, a VA may do any of the following:

  • Answer and manage calls.
  • Monitor emails.
  • Make appointments and travel arrangements.
  • Perform customer service responsibilities.
  • Manage social media.

These are just some tasks that a VA may perform. Some VAs are specialized in particular areas such as social media, ad management, SEO, or data entry. In general, a VA can do many of the things that traditional assistants and secretaries have always done.

Do You Need a Virtual Assistant?

A study by The Week found that there were 74,000 virtual assistants listed on Guru, 26,000 on Freelancer, and 5,000 on Upwork. Clearly, there’s a demand for such workers on freelance sites. Why are so many businesses hiring VAs? There are a few reasons.

  • They help you manage your time. You can outsource time-consuming tasks so you can focus on more important projects.
  • They help you scale. Outsourcing makes you more productive. As your business grows, you may want to hire multiple virtual assistants.
  • Lower labor costs. It’s generally cheaper to hire a VA than to hire an employee.
  • Improve quality. You can hire VAs with specialized skills, ensuring that important tasks are handled by experts.

What are the Options for Finding a Virtual Assistant?

There are several ways to find a qualified virtual assistant.

Freelancer Services

One of the simplest methods is to go to a website where you can post and answer job listings. Some of the most popular freelancer sites include:

  • Fiverr.com
  • Freelancer.com
  • Guru.com
  • Upwork.com
  • PeoplePerHour.com

As remote work has gotten more popular, several freelancer sites have sprung up. Each site has a slightly different format, but they operate similarly. You have two basic choices. You can browse the listings for virtual assistants and contact promising candidates. Or you can post your own listing and wait for replies. Either way, it’s unlikely you’ll have a shortage of possibilities. If you prefer to work with someone closer to home, you might use a classifieds site such as Craigslist, where you can browse (or post) by city or region.

Networking/Word of Mouth

You don’t necessarily have to use a freelancer site to find a qualified virtual assistant. You might also find one through networking, either online or in person. Perhaps a colleague has a great VA who is seeking more work. You might also inquire with your professional contacts on social media. If you’re active on LinkedIn, for example, there’s a good chance that many of your contacts work with VAs.

How Do You Hire a Virtual Assistant?

When you’re ready to hire a virtual assistant, you have to make sure that you’re clear about your needs. Locating a VA, whether through a website or networking, is only the first step. You also need a plan for how the arrangement is going to work.

Your Budget and Payment Schedule

You’ll need to allocate a budget for your virtual assistant. You may pay them by the hour or a flat rate for a certain project. If you need someone to work as an assistant with multiple responsibilities throughout the day, you’ll need to come up with an hourly rate. On the other hand, if you have some specific projects (e.g. entering data into an Excel file or designing a website), you can arrange a fee for the whole task. Then you have to come up with a payment schedule.

Basic Steps for Hiring a VA

The precise steps will depend on how you locate the VA (from a freelancing site or through personal connections) but here are the main actions that you’ll need to take.

  • Place a listing on a site or research listings placed by freelancers.
  • Narrow down a list of candidates and schedule interviews.
  • Agree on terms. This includes the rate as well as the schedule for payment. For a discrete project, it’s typical to pay 20% upfront and the remainder when the job is completed. For an ongoing VA position, you may pay them on a certain day every week.
  • Create a list of all the tasks you expect the VA to complete.
  • Set a timeline for each task or series of tasks.

What are the Best Tasks to Outsource?

Once you’ve found a virtual assistant, what do you ask him or her to do? It’s good to start with a plan. You may find, however, that as you work with your VA, you’ll reassess your needs and make changes as you get comfortable with the whole process. What you want to outsource depends on many factors, such as how you interact with clients, what types of website and social media content you publish, and which tasks take up the most of your time. Here are a few possibilities, some inspired by Business2Community.

  • Scheduling. If you plan lots of calls and meetings (including virtual calls, meetings, and conferences), a VA can be useful to help you set these up. They can also help you make travel arrangements and appointments.
  • Email management. Most business professionals are inundated with emails. Getting help in this area can free up your schedule. They can trash your spam and unwanted messages, answer simple queries (e.g. “What does your business do?”), sort messages into the right folders and such.
  • Customer service. Virtual assistants may be able to help your customers, either via email, phone, or online chat. Depending on their expertise, they may be able to resolve certain issues or at least provide some basic information until you or a team member can address the issue.
  • Social media. Posting to sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest is important if you want to build rapport with your followers. However, posting consistently takes up lots of time, making it a perfect task to outsource.

The above are only suggestions. Take a close look at your business and what takes up most of your time. You may be able to outsource more than you realize.

Tips for Effective Outsourcing

While outsourcing can be an effective strategy for saving you time and helping your business grow, you have to go about it the right way. Not all virtual assistants will be the right match for your needs. Even the most qualified and diligent VAs need the right guidance to do their best work. Let’s look at some guidelines to follow to ensure that your outsourcing strategy is successful.

Choose your Virtual Assistant Carefully

How do you choose the ideal VA? While it’s nice to have such a wide selection, it can be challenging to narrow down your search.

  • Look carefully at their experience. Many VAs, to get as many jobs as possible, provide a long list of skills and experience. However, take a look at what they’ve actually spent the most time doing so you can have a good idea of their strongest areas.
  • Check reviews and references. One nice thing about online sites is that it’s easy to look at ratings and reviews. You may also want to check references.
  • Conduct an interview. Video interviews on a site such as Skype or Zoom are best as they are the closest thing to meeting with someone in person. Have a list of questions ready that will tell you how well suited the person is for the task at hand.
  • Hire them for a trial period. Hiring someone for a day, a week, or for the duration of a limited project is a good way to test the waters and find out if you have a productive working relationship.

Make Sure Terms, Deadlines, and Scope of Projects is Clear

Communication is key when working with freelancers. Unlike an in-house employee, your virtual assistant isn’t nearby so you can’t always be looking over his or her shoulder. You need to clarify every aspect of the working relationship so your VA knows exactly what you expect. Don’t make assumptions. It’s always best to write out specific tasks so there’s no confusion.

Cover Legal Considerations

If you find your virtual assistant through a freelancer site, the terms of your agreement should be clear. Each site has its own type of agreement that specifies terms such as payments and deadlines. For example, if you use Guru.com, you can look up their policies regarding agreements. The same is true for other sites. However, you may also have legal considerations that aren’t covered by the basic agreement. You can usually find online forms or templates to cover any necessary legal agreements. Possibilities include:

  • Confidentiality. If you’re dealing with any sensitive or proprietary information, make sure you cover issues such as confidentiality of any information the VA processes. This is especially important in industries such as law, medicine, and finance.
  • Ownership of intellectual property. If the VA is creating content for you, create a document stating that the finished product belongs to you.
  • Non-competition contracts. If you are an agency, another consideration is to have the VA sign a non-competition agreement to prevent them from working directly with your clients.

Keep Your Virtual Assistants Accountable

One of the biggest challenges when managing a remote workforce, whether employees, virtual assistants, or any type of freelancer working remotely, is maintaining accountability. It’s essential to stay in touch with your virtual assistants and make sure they’re on the right track.

  • Identify the best way to stay in contact with your virtual assistant whether by email, phone, Skype, or some other channel.
  • Schedule regular check-ins. Your VA should contact you to let you know what he or she has been doing, ask any questions that might come up, and perhaps send you a portion of the assigned work.
  • Provide honest feedback so you can quickly correct any misunderstandings.

Grow Your Business With Virtual Assistants

One study found that hiring virtual assistants rather than full-time employees can cut costs by 78%. They can also free up your time and make you more productive. Outsourcing arduous and time-consuming tasks is one of the most efficient ways to scale your business and reduce your workload. If you haven’t worked with a VA before, you may find the idea a bit daunting at first. However, once you get started you’ll find that it’s all quite straightforward and can make your life easier in many ways.