Table of Contents
- What is a virtual assistant (VA)?
- What is the difference between outsourcing and hiring a virtual assistant?
- What are the benefits of virtual assistants?
- What should you NOT look for in a virtual assistant?
- Nine characteristics of the best virtual assistants
- Hiring the best virtual assistants
- Where can you find the best virtual assistants?
Do you find yourself spending hours each day answering emails?
Struggling to carve out time to post social media content?
Is too much of your time taken up with menial tasks such as booking meetings, appointments, flights, conferences, etc., when you’d rather be networking, selling, building your brand, and developing relationships with clients?
You’re an ideal candidate for a virtual assistant. And this post is here to show you how to recruit the very best of them.
What is a virtual assistant?
Much like a personal assistant or executive assistant, a virtual assistant is someone who eases your workload by taking more simple or tedious tasks off your plate. This can include answering emails, onboarding clients, booking flights, managing your social media presence, managing your calendar, research, and much more. What differentiates a virtual assistant from other types of assistants is that, instead of working beside you in your home or office, their work is done remotely, and all communication happens virtually.
What is the difference between outsourcing and hiring a virtual assistant?
To be frank, depending on who’s giving the definition, the lines between what qualifies as outsourcing and what qualifies as employing a virtual assistant can be a bit blurry and involve a lot of crossover. While not everyone would agree, perhaps the simplest way to think of the two is to think of outsourcing as the umbrella term, with virtual assistants falling under it.
Both outsourcing and employing a virtual assistant involve contracting work to an external party.* Virtual assistants are generally employed on a longer-term basis, while outsourcing can be used for both short and long-term work. Virtual assistants tend to work exclusively for one person or party, while when outsourcing, the contracted individual or firm may work just for you or juggle several projects and employers at once.
*Note: This statement is one that some, including Dennis Yu, would disagree with, and highlights the potential difference between outsourcing and employing a virtual assistant. Because virtual assistants are contracted on a long-term basis, he would say that they are on a regular payroll, and because they work exclusively for you, they are to be thought of just like any in-office employee. While there is certainly an argument for this, generally there are some differences between the two camps. For example, virtual assistants are generally compensated differently than full-time employees, may receive different (or no) benefits, and they may be employed through a relationship with a third party virtual assistant service.
Largely the debate is one of semantics, but in the end the important thing here is to understand what the expected setup is for hiring and employing a VA, and choosing the best option for you and your agency.
What are the benefits of virtual assistants?
As mentioned above, virtual assistants hold many similarities to personal or executive assistants, and therefore can be hired for the same reasons. They exist to lighten your workload so you can focus solely on the things you want to do, or the things that need your attention specifically. The main differences between personal or executive assistants and virtual assistants is that usually virtual assistants cost much less, and they work remotely.
When choosing a virtual assistant over other outsourcing models, you get the advantage of having someone who’s with you for the long haul, and therefore someone who gets to know all your preferences, ideologies, and rhythms. They’ll learn which seat you prefer when booking your flights. The tone you use for your Facebook posts. Which meetings you always want to prioritize and which ones can be cancelled to make room for them. In other words, they get to know you and become adept at anticipating your needs and preferences, making your life in general smoother and more to your liking.
Additionally, when hiring VAs you can search for people that have skills that you’re lacking. Want to grow your video presence on your social media accounts? It makes the most sense to hire someone who already has these skills rather than to try and do it on your own (then find out you don’t have the time to keep it up and end up hiring someone for it anyway). Maybe you’re a fabulous people person but administrative tasks have never been your strong suit. An operations VA is a must for you. Whatever area you find you could brush up in your business, there’s probably a VA for you.
Finally, VAs give you your life back. Running the show by yourself is no easy feat, and it’s easy for your work to overflow into your personal and family time. Developing a healthy work/life balance makes you better in all areas in life - work included - and makes bringing an extra hand onto your team more than worth it.
What should you NOT look for in a virtual assistant?
According to Dennis Yu, the most common mistake people make when hiring VAs is expecting to find one that can be a jack of all trades. This, says Yu, is the most common reason for forming unsuccessful partnerships or having the VA quit prematurely. Instead, he recommends hiring separate VAs for operations, video, content, design, community management, and web engineering.
Obviously it’s not realistic or necessary for all startups and entrepreneurs to hire a VA in each area immediately, but you can clearly see why Yu would strongly caution against trying to hire one VA to cover all these extremely diverse areas. Instead, by having a VA for each specific role, they’ll become masters of their lanes, allowing you to rest easy, counting on their timely, quality work.
9 characteristics of the best virtual assistants
When you’re frequently delivering instructions and relying on the fact that they’re followed to a T, or basing your daily calendar off invitations and appointments gathered by someone else, you need to know you have someone who doesn’t let anything slip through the cracks.
One way that Dennis Yu tests this in the hiring process is to give applicants an assignment, and in the middle of the assignment instructions, he tells them to put a random word in the subject line of their email reply. For example, he often uses the word, “rabbit”. The applicants that miss this detail are automatically ruled out.
That little detail might not seem like a big deal when it comes to a subject line. However, when the detail is instead having your assistant tell you that you need to be at one airport when it turns out you actually need to leave from the airport an hour outside the opposite end of the city, it is a bigger deal. Dennis Yu’s simple little test helps identify the VAs that are more and less likely to make that mistake.
Creative, resourceful, and independent
We all know life happens, and that sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned. If you have a VA who is paralyzed whenever something unexpected comes up, they won’t be much help to you. After all, if you’re getting more panicky, question-filled emails from your VA than you were from your clients, what was the point of hiring someone?
In the interview process, try asking about how the candidate has handled unexpected situations before, and ask them to provide a concrete example of what they did to deal with it.
As said above, one of the main benefits of having a VA is having someone who grows to understand your rhythms and anticipate your needs. Obviously this can only be achieved by having the same person under contract for a reasonable length of time.
Though loyalty can sometimes be difficult to assess in an interview process, one way is to look at their education and employment history. If they seem to stick with one place for a good while, that’s generally a good sign. You can also ask about what their future plans are, what they hope for in their career, and think about if you’ll be able to support the path they're hoping for.
Which leads into perhaps the most important element in cultivating loyal employees: you need to treat them well! Make sure you communicate well, ask for their opinions, listen carefully to their input, give them a manageable workload, and give them opportunities to grow in areas they’re interested in. Promote them when they’ve earned it, and give them leadership opportunities as they grow into them. When your VAs feel like you care about them as people, and that you’re invested in seeing them do well in their careers and in life, they’re much more likely to stick with you and go above and beyond in their work for you.
Don’t forget - you won’t be the only one interacting with your VA. You want someone who you can count on to communicate with potential clients and colleagues while reflecting well on your operation.
Make sure all their communications with you throughout the hiring process demonstrate professionalism, both in tone and in terms of the grammar and language proficiency. And perhaps do a quick Google search just to make sure there aren’t any glaring red flags that immediately pop up for them on the internet somewhere that potential clients could discover after getting to know them a bit.
Virtual communication can be tricky.
When it’s the sole means of interaction between you and your assistant—as well as your assistant and your clients/potential clients/collaborators—you need to make sure that you have someone that can deftly handle it.
Be particularly vigilant in the hiring process to watch for misunderstandings that could signal frustration in the future, as well as misleading tones or language. As with the characteristic above, remember that this person will often act as the (virtual) face of your business, so you want to make sure that everything and every way that they’re communicating is something you’re happy to have attributed to your agency or business.
For a lot of entrepreneurs and agency owners, the scariest thing about bringing on a VA is relinquishing sole control over every detail of their operation and trusting someone else to handle things to the same standards. This is perfectly understandable—your agency is your dream and your baby, after all.
Fortunately, when you get the right person on your team, you’ll find that the quality of your agency’s offerings not only stays the same, but actually goes up. Two hands are better than one, after all, and once your work is divided into more manageable portions, each individual task can finally be given the attention it deserves.
That is, as long as you get a reliable VA.
Reliability can be tricky to assess in the hiring process, but generally if they’re doing well in the other areas (detail-oriented, professionalism), you’re off to a good start. Assigning applicants a mini-project with a due date and time also helps sift through the bunch. But finally, you can contract employees on a 1-3 month probation period to really figure out if they’re someone you want to commit to and invest in on a more long-term basis.
The digital marketing industry is one full of exciting personalities, collaborations, and innovations. And for that reason, there are lots of young up-and-comers that are eager to break their way in and make their mark. If you can find one of these individuals, you can count on having someone who will go above and beyond the call of duty.
Enthusiastic employees listen deeply to others’ ideas, internalize them, and then add their own positive developments. They have the focus and drive to catch mistakes and intervene, innovate on the status quo, and improve every area that they come in contact with. In other words, they’re the person you want on your team.
Perhaps the most obvious thing to look for in a potential assistant is someone who’s actually good at the work you’re asking them to do. Much like in any interview, you’ll want to discuss details (and, if applicable, view examples) of the applicant’s past education and/or employment experience.
Be sure that you give some type of assignment in the interview process as well. Relying solely on examples from the applicant’s past can be misleading as they may have worked with classmates or colleagues to deliver the final product. By giving the applicant a small assignment you’ll get a more accurate idea of their individual skill.
Receptive to feedback
Everyone has room to grow, and particularly as you and your VA are getting used to each other’s rhythms, often you’ll have to provide your VA with both positive feedback and constructive critiques.
The best VA is someone who is humble and secure enough to accept your critiques and translate them into professional improvement. You don’t want someone who either buckles at the first whisper of negativity, nor someone who has such an ego that they disregard any hint that others could have better ideas for their work. Either one of those candidates is not going to last as a long-term employee.
Once again, the best way of testing this is giving an assignment in the application process. Discuss the applicant’s work with them once complete, and note their reaction to your feedback, both positive and negative.
There are things you can do though too in this arena. Dennis Yu has noted that the presentation and reception of feedback is extremely culturally influenced, and for that reason, it’s best to be as positive as you can be, even when offering a critique. He advocates the “compliment sandwich”, which consists of starting off with positives, tucking in the changes you’d like to see, then finishing off again with more praise for their work.
Hiring the best virtual assistants
Even with all this knowledge, perhaps the most important element of finding quality VAs is having a thorough hiring process. To read more about how the process Dennis Yu has set up for hiring his team of VAs, check out this post.
Where can you find the best virtual assistants?
Virtual assistants are becoming increasingly common, and therefore the places to source them from are growing as well
There are virtual assistants based all over the world. However, it doesn’t take much research on virtual assistants to discover that the Philippines almost has the monopoly on the market, with many services also based in India. In fact, Dennis Yu has a partnership with Filipino VA agency OnlineJobs.ph and uses the site to recruit his entire team of virtual assistants. However, there are also options that are available closer to home.
These are just some of the virtual assistant agencies:
U.S.-based virtual assistants:
24/7 Virtual Assistant (note that they have both domestic and offshore options)
Woodbows (they also have both domestic and offshore options)
Canada-based virtual assistants:
U.K.-based virtual assistants:
Time Etc. (this company has both U.S. and U.K.-based offices)
Philippines-based virtual assistants:
While hiring a VA can initially feel like a process of relinquishing control, instead it should be thought of as an empowering experience. With the help of a competent VA, you and your agency will be more focused, more organized, more streamlined, and more skillful with the work and communications you produce.
And with your newfound knowledge found above, you can be confident that this VA-empowered, agency 2.0 is well within your reach.