Whether you have just bought an online business or planning your exit, you should always be looking for ways in which you can improve operations and increase its value. The amount of owner time required to run a business is one of the key drivers for moving the valuation multiple needle.
Utilizing outsourcing is a way in which owner time can be reduced and also allows business owners to focus on more strategic activities that add value. Virtual Assistants is one aspect of outsourcing that can be used to achieve this end. The following is a guide to assist with hiring and managing Virtual Assistants.
Introduction to Virtual Assistants
Although the concept of using Virtual Assistants (VAs) is not new, there are a surprising number of business owners who are reluctant to utilize them in their businesses or know how to go about it.
VAs are simply people who make a living working remotely and completing tasks online. They could be based in the same country as you or abroad. Typically VAs are used for repetitive or administrative tasks but over the years VAs have become more skilled.
There are many pros to hiring a VA over an employee. The main reason is the cost, as VAs are typically less expensive than an employee. You are also not bound by a long-term contract and can ensure that the VA is the right fit for your business. VAs will also work remotely so you do not have to worry about securing additional office space.
In an attempt to keep costs down, some online business owners are reticent about hiring a VA. It will fast become impractical to do everything yourself and a VA will allow you to focus on tasks of strategic importance which will help grow your business.
What Can I Outsource?
There are a range of activities a VA could do to add value to your business: Here are some examples:
- Accounting or Bookkeeping
- Article Research
- Blog Post Formatting and Scheduling
- Customer Support
- E-mail Management
- Forum Posting or Management
- Graphic Design
- Keyword Research
- Market Research
- Outreach and Link Building
- Social Media Management
- Travel Planning
You can find further VA inspiration here:
- 101 Tasks You Can Outsource to Virtual Staff to Grow Your Business!
- 101 Ways to Use a Virtual Assistant
An important consideration for outsourcing tasks to a VA is whether you are just saving time or adding value. List out all your activities that directly make money. This is a useful task in itself as it should help clarify your priorities. Are the tasks you are outsourcing going to contribute to those revenue generating activities or is the VA just doing busy work?
If your VA saves you five hours per week, what are you doing with those five hours to grow your business? A VA should not end up as a monthly expense, but a resource that directly or indirectly helps generate many times more than their own cost.
Where Can I Find Virtual Assistants?
Now that you have decided to hire a VA and what tasks you would like them to perform, it is time to begin the search. Here are two places we recommend.
OnlineJobs.ph – The best site for outsourcing to the Philippines. It is a monthly subscription service which you can cancel as soon as you find the VA for you. You can contact VAs directly by searching resumes or post a job and receive applications. They also have vetted worker option which incurs a recruitment fee. However, this isn’t necessary if you conduct the recruitment process in the right way.
Upwork – The combination of Elance-oDesk was rebranded into this major online work platform which can connect you to outsourcers and freelancers across the globe. Upwork also uses an Escrow type service for fixed-price projects where funds are released when milestones are reached. Look for someone with a job success of 90% and above.
Other places to look for Virtual Assistants:
How to Hire Virtual Assistants
Hiring anyone can be a challenge, but this is especially true for hiring a VA. Once you post an ad for a Virtual Assistant you will receive a host of applications. How do you sort through this in an efficient manner?
The two most important factors to look for during the hiring process is English language skills and ability to follow instructions. Both might seem obvious but when you’re looking at a resume with a whole host of skills and experience, you might overlook the basics.
Cutting Down the Candidates
If you’re hiring from somewhere like the Philippines, English will be their second language so be lenient to an extent but a good grasp is important if they are to communicate with you and understand instructions. Secondly, the ability to follow instructions is paramount. A very quick way to filter applications is to post a simple instruction in your job ad such as “e-mail your resume and writing sample to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject Virtual Assistant Application”. Any e-mails you receive without the subject you specified don’t even get opened.
Once you have reduced your options to a handful of candidates, you can conduct skype interviews if you wish. This isn’t always necessary depending on what you are outsourcing. If they are client facing, skype interviews should be conducted. If it is basic administrative tasks you can skip to the next step.
The ideal candidate might be staring you in the face, but it is still not a done deal yet. This next round involves a (paid) test or one-off task similar to what your virtual assistant would be doing day-to-day. Paying several candidates for a day’s work is well worth the investment to ensure you get the right person for the job.
Give 2-4 of your top prospects the same task. It could be researching competitors, coming up with a travel itinerary for your next conference or formatting a blog post. Leave a little room for ambiguity in your instructions. From this you will see:
- How do they communicate?
- Will they use their initiative?
- Do they ask for help?
- Do they ask too many questions?
- Have they overstated their skills?
- Can they meet deadlines?
- Are they keen on the position? (Sometimes people vanish!)
This test is important. It will really give you a good indication of what your candidates are like, how they operate and whether they will work with your management style.
Training Virtual Assistants
With the prevalence of VAs, there are lots who have already worked with multiple online businesses and websites and trained in various aspects. Nevertheless, training your VA should be high on your agenda as it will limit your input in the long term. The key to effectively managing and training a VA is within the training materials you provide.
For every task you want to outsource, particularly administrative tasks, you should do them once yourself end-to-end. Not only can you gauge how long the task should take, it will help you to fully understand the challenges to completing the task and pre-empt any issues a VA might have.
Training materials are also vitally important in reducing how much input you need to have going forward. Training materials also allow you to scale as it will be much easier to train future assistants. VAs, like all employees, can move on and having training materials means that your next VA can get up to speed quicker.
Processes, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Work Instructions
Often these phrases are used interchangeably but for every task there should be a process overview so that your VA can see the whole activity as a flow on a one pager. Work instructions should be a detailed explanation, with screenshots of how to complete the task step-by-step. It might initially create work having to put these documents together but the long term benefits are there.
How to Deal With Problematic Virtual Assistants
You are always going to run into some teething issues with VAs, especially if you have never managed someone remotely before. Common issues are:
Too Many Questions – This isn’t always an issue. If they are asking the same questions again and again or not reading your training documents, then perhaps they aren’t a good fit. If they are asking a lot of different questions which are pertinent to the task, there could be a problem with the level of detail in your training documents.
Unable to Complete a Task – Do they continue to miss deadlines? Did you hire them based on a specific skill which they do not have? It might not be the best feeling for either party, but it could be that they aren’t fit for the role and you have to let them go. If they produce low-quality work or are missing deadlines then it is time to say goodbye. If they are hardworking and diligent but just not suitable for the tasks you give them, you could find them alternative ways in which they can contribute to your business.
The Virtual Assistant Investment
As we have said earlier, it is important to focus on the value-add of virtual assistants. It might be tempting to hire a bunch of VAs to do various tasks but focus on bringing one up to speed, getting your training documents in order and scale when you are certain that a VA is at least paying for themselves in either value add activities or by freeing up your time so that you can increase the value and grow your online business.
Paying Virtual Assistants
Unless the platform you use has a built-in payment feature, most VAs will accept payment via PayPal. It is a sad fact that a lot of VAs have been taken advantage of and for their peace of mind it can be useful to pay every two weeks rather than monthly.
It is also worth noting that VAs are just as susceptible to Parkinson’s Law as the rest of us (work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion). Depending on the tasks you want to outsource, it can be more cost effective to pay per project rather than an hourly rate. This is why it’s important to have done the task once yourself so that you know how long it should take and price the project accordingly.
Just remember that VAs are people too and are motivated in the same way as you. Give both positive and constructive feedback where required and, if it is warranted, an end of project bonus can go a long way to solidifying your working relationship. What might be a small amount to you can go a long way in countries such as the Philippines. Depending on the activities a VA is engaged in, you could create a bonus structure so that they can share in your successes.
Tips on How to Manage Virtual Assistants
Managing a VA can be a new skill for a lot of people so here are some tips on how to make the process go as smoothly as possible:
Security – Only give VAs access to what they need to. Blanket access could leave you vulnerable. Having said that, there is an element of trust which you can build over time.
Set Expectations – Not only should you set expectations as to things like deadlines but also ways of working. For example, if they have questions, they should collate them into one e-mail for you to answer in one go. Receiving 5 e-mails with individual questions is not practical.
Create a Project Spreadsheet – This could be stored in a Google Doc or on Dropbox and can be used to set deadlines, map out the project and mark off items as they are completed. This gives both parties a complete overview of the status of the project.
Ask for Daily Reports – At the end of each day, ask for a quick e-mail report of their progress. They will update the project spreadsheet, but it is useful to know they have signed off and will keep you in the loop.
Avoid Time-Sensitive Tasks – Either avoid tasks which are time sensitive altogether or allow for a lot of slippages. Hiring a VA in countries with unreliable power supplies means that cuts are a frequent occurrence. This is another good reason for paying by project rather than by the hour to reduce your costs in the event of power cuts, floods or any number of other factors.
Be Flexible – Unless you need something doing at a certain time each day, allow your VAs to work the hours that they want. They might have other responsibilities or children. Provided that they meet your deadline and quality standards, does it really matter when they work?
Final Thoughts on Virtual Assistants
Finding and training a VA might be a challenging task to begin with but the benefits of finding one who will add value to your business are worth the effort. Increasing your effectiveness and productivity will provide huge gains to your bottom line and Virtual Assistants are a way in which online business owners can do just that