Ultimate Virtual Assistant Guide

I have been experimenting with using virtual assistants. I’ve worked with two, one in the US for about two weeks and one in India for two months. It has been an excellent learning experience and I wanted to share it with everyone in the form of this guide. My goal is to give readers a good idea of how a remote assistant can help them, along with an idea of the benefits and drawbacks. This guide should give you a pretty good idea of what you need to get started working with a virtual assistant and should help you avoid some of the errors I made in the process.

I am also going to look at the idea of having a local assistant and how that compares to working with their virtual counterpart. It is easy to get enamored with the concept of a remote executive assistant and overlook local options that may be much more appropriate.

If you want to read a story about interacting with US and Australian virtual assistants checkout: Offending the Entire VA Industry

My Experiment

I worked with a virtual assistant in the US for about two weeks. She ended up just disappearing and I lost some money on it. I had her do a few tasks, mainly as an experiment, to see how things worked out.

My second experiment was working with Brickworks India. They are a very reputable firm and I thought I would have better experience working with them rather than trying to find someone on my own. I was right. They were extremely professional. I hired one of their remote executive assistants for 40 hours per week for two months.

My assistant, Rajani, worked from about 3:30 am until 1:30 pm. I was always a bit confused on the exact time, because right after we started, daylight savings time kicked in and threw things off. In addition, India has a timezone that is offset by an additional 30 minutes to what we are used to in the US, so that added to my confusion.

Rajani was extremely competent. She had previously worked at Dell as one of their customer service reps. Her spoken English was perfect. I had Rajani do a lot of work related to Productivity501. For example, she compiled a list of related bloggers for our last big interview project. She also handled locating and resizing images for the new layout of the site.

I found that it usually took a bit longer to train her how to do something than I anticipated. However, once she learned it, she would remember it weeks later without needing to be shown again. For example, I had her setting up email campaigns for one of my clients. It is a fairly complicated process of pulling in an email template, creating a target group, and then scheduling the email. We did a screen sharing session and went through the process several times. The first time, I did it and just let her watch. The second time, she did it and I walked her through the process, the third time, she did it and I just watched–only intervening if she got really stuck or was about to do something that would cause a problem.

Several days after I showed her how to do this, I got an email from her, saying, “I see there is a new event scheduled like the one I previously sent out a campaign for. Would you like me to do the same for it?” I was very impressed with this because she wasn’t just working off of a task list. She was anticipating future actions based on previous ones–something that is very valuable to me.

At the end of two months I decided to not renew the retainer. While I was very happy with her work, I realized that hiring someone locally was more cost effective for me–especially given the part of the country I live in where $6 to $7 per hour is considered pretty good pay for many people. Also my parents are both local teachers–one at the local junior college and the other at a small private school. This means I have two great sources for locating up and coming talent who will soon be looking for jobs.

What a Virtual Assistant Can Do

Most tasks that need done on a computer can be done by a virtual assistant. It all depends on your current work flow. If you use a paper based system for managing addresses, they probably can’t help you with that unless you are willing to go digital. As long as it can be done remotely they can do anything from acting as a virtual secretary, virtual receptionist or virtual personal assistant.

Here are a list of things I had Rajani do that worked out well:

  • Research other websites that met a certain set of criteria
    Specifically, I was looking for blogs about productivity topics whose authors might be interested in being interviewed. I provided a great deal of guidance, showing her where to look for sites, how to tell the quality of the site, etc. She produced a spreadsheet with all the sites and attributes I was looking for.
  • Email people about interviews
    Rajani did a great job of sending out my interview questions and then compiling the results. She would let me know if someone had a question that I needed to respond to. At first, I had her send these out from her own account, but then I just gave her access to do it from mine. That way I’d see any responses that came in during the afternoon and could reply to any questions.
  • Organizing contacts
    I wanted to keep the people who responded to the interview in my address book. Rajani used Plaxo to add people to the appropriate category. She broke everything down by which questions each person answered so I could notify people when their answers went live.
  • Setting Appointments
    It was Sunday evening, and I needed to get an appointment to have my car serviced when I was in another city. I sent Rajani and email asking her to find a VW dealership and set up and appointment for me near where I would be staying. Monday morning, as I was on my trip, she emailed me the appointment time, address and contact number. This was in stark contrast of trying to use the Amex Concierge service.

Here are some of the things that didn’t work quite so well:

  • Compose and send an email
    While Rajani’s written English was excellent for communicating with me, there are some major differences between Indian English and American English. If she wrote something, I usually spent time correcting it to make it more “Americanized” and usually this took as much time as it would have taken to write it myself. Instead I started just writing an email myself and sending it to her to send out to several people–or to customize and use.
  • Editing and Proofreading
    Once again, the differences in English showed up. Editing and proofreading didn’t seem to be something that worked particularly well.
  • Writing Summaries of Articles
    I had Rajani locate 10 articles on various topics and then put together a post along with links. She did a great job of locating the articles, but the summaries still suffered from the differences in the language. At first I started to try to change them, but found it was faster to just write them myself.
  • Writing Biographical Summary
    I was looking for some biographical information about George Washington to use at Leadership501. It turns out that this type of project is difficult to do without the cultural context. If you want to see for yourself, try to write a short paper on the first president of India and then give it to someone who was born and raised there to read.

As you can see, most of the things that weren’t successful were related to language differences. It is easy to underestimate the differences when you can communicate with someone verbally with out any issues.

Virtual assistants can’t do physical tasks. Personally I found that a number of the things that would really save me time are physical. Depending on your needs, you may find that a lot of the benefit of having an executive assistant is to do physical stuff. Here are some of the things that would save me a lot of time but require physical presence.

  • Running to the store to get something.
  • Working with local companies where doing things in person will help get things done much quicker.
  • Sending out information packets.
  • Taking my car to the shop.
  • Unpacking books and files.
  • Organizing physical items.
  • Tidying up the office.
  • Picking up dry cleaning.
  • House/Dog sitting.

How Much Do Virtual Assistants Cost?

The rates charged by virtual assistants is highly variable. I have had people offer to do stuff for me for as little as $1 per hour. If you look at ODesk, you’ll see many people looking for work at $2 to $5 per hour. With a global market, you can often get much more than you pay for.

With some of more reputable companies in India, you’ll be looking at paying $8 to $15 per hour.

Brickworks is setup on a retainer model. In general, for a remote executive assistant you will pay about $2,000 per month for someone full time and $1,200 for someone half time. While this may be more expensive than someone you could find on your own, they have a technical support staff to help them. The IT department keeps their computers virus free, limits internet access to sites related to their work, fixes any problems that arise, etc. If you are extremely technical it can be frustrating because you will want to change something on their computer to tweak this or that. If you aren’t extremely technical, it is wonderful because you don’t have to worry if your information is going to be stolen by some piece of malware that was inadvertently installed on their machine.

Make sure you understand how vacations work and factor that into your cost analysis. If you are paying for a monthly retainer, you will probably be paying for vacation time as well. This isn’t a big deal, but it can change the amount you end up paying per hour.

If you are looking for someone based in the US, you’ll still find a wide range of pricing.  It is possible to find people in the $7 per hour range–particularly if you look at people who live in parts of the country where the cost of living is very low. Most of the people who are working full time as virtual assistants say you should expect to pay $20 to $50 per hour for a good administrative assistant.

Virtual vs. Local

There are some advantages to hiring a virtual assistant–someone who works from somewhere else. Here are some of the main advantages:

  • Simplified taxes. With a remote assistant, it is rather easy to show the IRS that they aren’t an employee.
  • Lower prices. If you live in a very high cost area, you can hire someone from a low cost area. For example, if you live in LA, you may get a much better deal hiring someone from rural Nebraska than locally.
  • Better talent. It might be possible to find better talent than what is available or what you could afford locally. An MBA in India could cost you significantly less for better skill than what you’d pay in NYC.
  • Work hours. If you hire an assistant in a different timezone, they may be able to do a lot of work while you sleep. For example, if you send them a project at 7 in the evening, they may be able to have it completed by the time you get ready to work in the morning.
  • Different attitude. In some cases, you may find you like the attitude of a virtual assistant much better than someone you could find locally. This can be related to cultural differences, but it also can be related to how much someone is being paid relative to their living expenses.
  • Pay only for what you need. Sometimes you can structure arrangements to only use services when you need them. This can be much less expensive if you have a a very low number of tasks that can be outsourced.
  • Flexible number of workers. Some companies will give you one primary virtual assistant and add as many helpers as necessary to get your job done in time. This doesn’t work for every type of task, but if you need to do a bunch of data entry or something similar it can help you get things done very rapidly.
  • No physical space. A virtual assistant isn’t going to take up office space. You won’t have to purchase another desk or chair and most of the time you won’t need to buy another computer.

Here are some of the disadvantages of working with a virtual assistant:

  • Communicating. It is more difficult to communicate effectively over email, chat and phone. There are nuances of human communication that just don’t transmit over those channels very well. You will have to place more effort on communicating.
  • Physical tasks. You can’t have a non-local virtual assistant run a package down to FexEx for you. They can’t run to the store to do some last minute grocery shopping, return or get a library book, tidy up your office, clip articles from the Wall Street Journal or wait in line for you at City Hall. You might be able to have them stuff envelopes to mail or something like that if they are in the same country. Physical tasks may take more of your time than you realize.
  • Language barriers. Just become someone speaks English, it doesn’t mean they can send emails on your behalf. Different parts of the world have different forms of English. If you need someone to handle correspondence or other writing tasks, you may spend more time proofing their writing than it would take to do it yourself.
  • Cultural differences. If you hire someone from another country, they may not know what the cultural norms are in your country. Sometimes this can be a good thing–they will proceed with a project with an audacity that gets things done where someone local might back off. Sometimes, though, you have to explain things in much more detail than you would with someone familiar with your culture.
  • Local spending. While not a huge consideration, if you can keep money local, you are doing something to benefit the economy that will eventually benefit you. Hiring a recent high school graduate will keep your money hard at work in your town, while sending it to India will not.
  • Security. If you are giving someone access to personal information, there are security advantages to having someone local who you can sit down, interview and get some recommendations on. This isn’t to say the remote assistants aren’t just as trustworthy or even more trustworthy than a local person, but it is usually easier to tell with someone local. (Hiring a remote assistant through a company with a good reputation is one way to minimize the risk.)
  • Equipment. This is related to the physical tasks. Having the ability to let someone use your computer, printer, etc. can be a very big benefit. It is possible to set most things up to work remotely, but having complete control over equipment and software has advantages.
  • Taxes. Depending on how you arrange things, you may need to deal with withholding taxes and paying half of Social Security taxes. This isn’t a big deal, but it can be a little extra work if you aren’t set up for processing payroll already.

In my opinion, if you are looking for an all around personal assistant, you should try to find someone local and then move to a virtual assistant if you can’t afford or find someone with the right skills locally. If you are looking for an assistant to do a particular highly skilled job, then a virtual assistant may be the right way to go, if you can find someone with those specific skills. But if you are going to have to do a lot of training anyway, local may be a better option.

Don’t underestimate how much of your time is spent on physical tasks. Having someone who can put an item up for sale on eBay and then handle the shipping, throw away files that are older than 5 years old, or sign for an important package while you are away is very valuable.

On the other hand, if you need someone with a degree in statistics to work for a few hours each week, you may have a difficult time finding someone local. If that is what you are looking for, you are probably going to have better luck finding someone in India.

Locating a Virtual Assistant

There are a number of websites where you can find freelance virtual assistants. The advantage of working with them directly through a freelancing site is that you will often get a better price than dealing with a virtual assistant company. The disadvantage is that they might disappear, you won’t have a third party overseeing security, and they will probably be their own tech support. Also, some sites that let you contact freelancers take a cut of your payment. Sometimes they provide services that make this worthwhile. For example, oDesk lets you go in and look at your virtual assistant’s screen to make sure they are working on your projects and not reading jokes online or playing poker.

Here are some of the places where you can locate virtual assistants:

Here are some companies that offer virtual assistants:

(Your Man in India has often been mentioned as a place to look, but YMII is really geared toward US based Indian who need things done back home.  They might be good to work with if you need help planning a trip to India or something like that.)

Often the best way to find a good virtual assistant is the same way you would find a good employee. Ask your friends for recommendations. Even if you are looking for someone internationally, this can be a good option. With the global economy, it is likely that you know someone from India already. Sites like LinkedIn and Facebook can also be ways to ask around for contacts.

If you are looking to hire someone from India, send a message to anyone you know who is working from India and let them know what you are looking for. They may know a relative or friend who would be a perfect fit.

If you don’t know anyone from India, you could call up tech support for any major US company. The first person you get will probably be in India. Just ask them if they know of anyone wanting to work as a virtual assistant and see where it goes from there. :)

If you try to stay in the US, don’t overlook stay-at-home moms or people who are willing to work for a lower salary in exchange for flexibility of schedule or work location.

You should consider your assistant’s work environment. I tried using a virtual assistant in Texas, but it was very difficult to talk to her because she was constantly yelling at her kids while on the phone with me. I’m all for work/life balance, but I think she would have been much more effective in an actual office.

This is one of the things I like about Brickworks India. Their workers are coming into an actual office and working. For most people, this is a better setup because it takes them away from the distractions at home. On the other hand, this adds overhead expense and the company managing the assistants will mark up the cost significantly.

Selecting a Virtual Office Assistant

A good way to find a competent virtual assistant is to try several at the same time. This is particularly useful if you are trying to hire someone from a site like eLance or ODesk. Come up with a few basic tasks that will give you a good idea of their skill level. Ideally use tasks that require several skills. For example, asking someone to research and summarize articles on a particular topic will give you an idea of their research and writing skills.

If you can have 3 to 5 candidates work on the same project, it will give you an idea of how it will be to work with each of them. Take the top candidates and give them a second, more difficult, project and then settle on whomever you prefer to work with.

This means you’ll be spending some money for duplicate efforts, but the benefits of finding a good assistant far outweigh the additional cost

Key Assistant Skills

Here are some skills you want to look for in an assistant.

  • Good Spoken English - An accent is fine, but you need to make sure you are going to have an easy time communicating. Don’t forget that there are cultural differences that can make it difficult to communicate–even if you are speaking words clearly.
  • Good Written English – Since much of your work with a virtual assistant will be done over email, it is vital that you can communicate effectively in writing. Keep in mind that what is acceptable written English for communicating with you, may not be acceptable for writing to your coworkers or business partners.
  • Proactive - This is the most important skill you can find in a good assistant. Someone who can extrapolate what you want them to do in the future based on what you have asked them to do in the past. An assistant who can work off a to-do list can be helpful, but one that can anticipate what you need without requiring you to even think about it is incredibly valuable.
  • Quick Learner – If you need to explain how to do a new task, you don’t want to have to explain it 10 times. You need someone familiar enough with the technology or systems you use that they can quickly grasp what needs done.
  • Organized – Your assistant needs to know how to take incoming information and organize it in a useful manner. This includes creating folders to organize the work you have assigned, keeping track of multiple versions of documents, and recording any important information that they may need again in the future.

Full Time or Part Time

Most people are looking for an assistant on an as needed basis. If you are hiring someone that is fairly expensive, this can be a good way to go. If you are hiring someone who isn’t very expensive and ad hoc arrangement may not be the best thing for you.

If your virtual assistant has no idea how much work you will need in a given week they will have no idea how much they will get paid. This will lead to higher prices and if your assistant is constantly looking for another job, they may find something that pays better than working for you.

Much of the benefit of having an assistant comes over time, as they become more familiar with what exactly you need and how you like to have things done. If you find someone good, you want to do your best to keep the relationship going for the long term.

Even if you can’t hire someone full time, consider guaranteeing them a certain amount of work each week. This gives them some stability in their income. However, keep in mind that if they are working for you 50% of the time, there is a certain amount of overhead that goes into switching back and forth between you and other clients.

If you are having them do work that requires some creativity, a full time arrangement may give you a benefit of having their mind work on things unconsciously during their off hours. If you are one of ten clients they work for each day, it is less likely that their mind will be mulling over solutions in the evenings than if you are their only client.

If you can find someone remotely who works for $3 per hour it will cost you about $120 per week to hire them. At first this may work out to be more expensive (in terms of the amount of work that gets done) than hiring someone else to work 25% of the time for $12 per hour. But if you are able to train the person working for $3 per hour, over time they may become just as valuable.

Training a Virtual Assistant

It is easy to underestimate how much time will go into training a virtual assistant–particularly if you are working with someone whose first language is different than your own. Here are a few tips to help create good training materials.

  1. Use existing resources.
    If you can point your assistant to documents on the web or PDFs that will help them understand a task, it will save you time. For example, I needed to teach my assistant how to use WordPress. Instead of going through each feature, I had her go through some online video training and then just covered the things specific to my needs.
  2. Keep your training resources organized.
    If you end up changing assistants, make sure you don’t have to start from scratch on locating training resources. You want to be able to let them self train as much as possible. For example, if you keep a document with links to everything you have asked your current assistant to read as part of training, it will make your job much easier if you need to train someone else.
  3. Create tutorials.
    Creating a list of how to do tricky things step by step will make it much easier if you have to train someone else. It is also helpful if you need your assistant to do something complicated that only happens infrequently.
  4. Have your assistant create documentation.
    Once you get an assistant trained, have them create documentation of their processes and the steps to do various things. Not only will this give you great training materials for the future, but you will be able to make sure your assistant is doing things in the most optimal manner.
  5. Video training.
    A screen cast can be worth a thousand words and once it is created your assistant can reference it again if they forget something. It can also be used to train others.

Many of these tips are helpful if you need to find a different assistant for some reason, but they are also useful if you are working with a team of assistants, because it will minimize the overhead required to pass tasks between different individuals.

Another useful idea is to have a “skills checklist”. This would include items like:

  • Order items from Amazon.
  • Send out monthly newsletter.
  • Send out client bills.
  • Follow up with past due clients.

Only check items off this this when your assistant is capable of performing the tasks without your intervention. The list becomes a great resource if you need to train someone else and becomes an easy way to gauge your assistant’s skills.

Don’t assume that your assistant will automatically find the most efficient way of doing something. Make sure you take the time to train them on best way to do things that can be time consuming. If they do a one off task in a way that isn’t particularly efficient, it isn’t any big deal. It still will save you time over needing to explain a different process to them. However, if there is something you plan to have them do hundreds or thousands of times, make sure you provide them with the training necessary to be efficient.

Managing a Virtual Assistant

Set Task Duration Expectations

One of the most tips for working with a virtual assistant is to set expectations for how long a task should take. Since they aren’t where you can simply look over their shoulder, you want to make sure they aren’t doing something the hard way without realizing it. One way to help minimize this risk is to tell them how long you think a task will take. For example, with Rajani, I showed her how to resize the images for this website and then told her that it usually took me about 10 minutes to select and resize each picture. This gave her some context so she knew that, if it was taking her 20 minutes, she could probably do it faster. It also told her that if it took her two hours, she probably didn’t understand something correctly.

Include Cultural Information

Don’t assume cultural norms are going to be the same for a virtual assistant from another country. Make sure you give them enough background information to work effectively. For example, they may not know that many businesses in the US are closed on Saturday and Sunday. They may not know that when you call someone’s cell phone, they have to pay (in some countries only the person calling pays). These are all very small pieces of information that can have a big impact on how your assistant approaches particular tasks.

Low Priority Tasks

If you hire someone full time or with a commitment of a certain number of hours, always make sure you have some type of low priority task for them to work on if they run out of things to do or get stuck on something when you aren’t available to help them. Here are some tasks that work well for this:

  • Reading – If you find websites or PDFs that will help give them background information that will help them perform better, consider assigning these as low priority tasks to do when they can’t work on anything else.
  • Training – Online videos or other training materials that will help them do their job better are another good candidate.
  • Organizing – Things like running a process to check for duplicate contacts and merging them can be good things to have them do on a regular basis, but don’t have to be done at any particular point in time.
  • Research – If you have an area of interest, asking them to research part of the topic for you can be a good low priority task.

Timesheet

Even if you are paying on a retainer model, you’ll want some type of timesheet. This is important in order to make sure that something isn’t taking a lot longer than you expect.

A regular timesheet lets you see what is going on so you don’t have large disconnects between how long you think something will take and how long they think it will take. These types of things are easy to catch with someone in person, but can sometimes be easy to overlook with someone working remotely.

What seems to work well for me is a weekly timesheet done in Excel and a daily email of items accomplished along with a plan for the next day. Here is an example of the daily email:

Today I completed the following tasks:

  • Added photos to the unpublished articles.
  • Set appointments for car and haircut.
  • Summarized 10 articles on optimal sleep.
  • Cleaned up all duplicate contacts.
Tomorrow I plan to:
  • Contact client about billing issues.
  • Send out monthly statements.
  • Research the hotels in Mexico for vacations.
  • Find the best place to buy 20 radiometers and order them.
  • Contact Sprint to resolve billing issue.

This helps make sure that you are both on the same page with what is being completed and with what is planned for the next day. On the last day of the week, a spreadsheet showing the hours worked on each task for the week will help give you a good idea where time is being spent over all. I actually started out using Basecamp for project management and time tracking, but found this method worked better for me and didn’t cost anything.

Screencasts

One thing that I found extremely helpful in working with a virtual assistant is creating screen casts. If there was a complicated process I wanted Rajani to do, I’d create screen cast explaining the process step by step and showing her how to do it. Then I’d upload that to our shared file system and tell her to let me know if she had any questions. This worked out well because she could see exactly what I needed and it was there as a reference for tasks that only needed to be done occasionally.

The screen casts also help make sure that your assistant isn’t doing something in a much slower way that what you’d want. If they see you demonstrating a process that takes 5 minutes, they are going to know there is something wrong if it is taking them 20 minutes to complete.

Screen Sharing and Video Conferencing

Another very useful tool is some type of screen sharing capability. This lets you look over your assistant’s shoulder if they need help so you can steer them in the right direction. It can also be used to let them remotely do work on your physical computer which can be useful as well.

You could set up screen sharing so you can take a peek at what your assistant is working on whenever you feel like it, or set it up so you both have to join a meeting in order to share screens.

Video conferencing can be a great way to communicate–especially at first. Getting to see each other can help establish a better relationship and can help you be more aware of cultural issues.

I was speaking on how technology is being used in the workforce at a local junior college and I had Rajani join by video conference to speak for a few minutes about what her company does in India.

I found that we did not use video conferencing very often, but it helped us to get to know each other when we initially got started.

Timezones

I know a lot of people like the idea of having someone working during the night so everything is ready in the morning. I find that things work better if there is at least some overlap. With Brickworks India, my assistant started work very early in the morning my time. Our working days overlapped by about 50%. This worked out well because it gave us enough time for me to explain anything I needed done and gave her time to ask for clarification on anything that was confusing.

Tools

Here is a list of tools that can be very useful when working with a remote assistant:

  • Skype - Supports video conferencing, instant messaging, incoming and outgoing calls to regular phones and file transfers. The only real downside of Skype is the fact that when you call out, your number shows up as 0123456789. This is generally fine for calling businesses, but can pose a problem when calling individuals who might not answer.
  • Acrobat Connect - Does screen sharing and video conferencing. Also allows you to remote control someone else’s computer.
  • SnapzPro X – OS X tool for doing screen casts and screen shots.
  • Basecamp - A project management system. I found it was overkill for what I needed, but it might be useful if you have more than one person working for you.
  • Plaxo - Plaxo will let you sync your address book with an online address book. This can be a great way to give your assistant access to your addresses without giving them direct access to control your PC.
  • Google Web Apps – Gmail based mail is particularly suited for working with a virtual assistant because it allows you to see an entire conversation in the inbox. If your assistant answered a message for you, you won’t miss it and send a message out again. Also, the tagging allows your assistant to mark items that require your attention.
  • LogMeIn – Allows screen sharing and remote control. This can be useful for demonstrating how to do a task or to allow your assistant to do work locally on your home computer. They also offer an easy-to-configure VPN service to allow direct access between computers without exposing them to the entire internet.

10 Articles About Virtual Assistants

Here are some great articles about how people are using virtual assistants and include some tips for getting things done “virtually”. If you are looking for more information, I’d suggest starting with these links.

  • The Virtual Assistant: Regain Control and Love Your Job-Therese Drost
    This article explains the necessary skills that a person needs to become a virtual assistant. A few of these skills include good grammatical skills, good communication skills, ability to be responsible and the ability to take knowledge and large amounts of information and process them efficiently and effectively.
  • Making Sense: A Virtual Assistant IS Practical-Florie Lyn Masarate
    In her article, Florie Masarate explains how practical and feasible the use of virtual assistants is in today’s world. She emphasizes that the work that many virtual assistants do is high quality, and that the rates for hiring a virtual assistant are becoming very reasonable.
  • Outsourcing Your Life, and Creating New Businesses-Nora Dunn
    The author describes how outsourcing jobs to virtual assistants can greatly improve the way in which a business owner uses his or her time. She also discusses how these assistants free the valuable time of higher echelon employees to complete tasks that require more experience.
  • I Just Fired My Virtual Assistant-Stephan Spencer
    In this article, Stephan Spencer explains how the cultural and linguistic differences between nationalities can hinder someone while working with a virtual assistant from another country. Because of the differences in language and the way it is perceived, many people hesitate to hire a virtual assistant because of the communications difficulties.
  • How to Get Your Virtual Assistant to Schedule Your Doctor’s Appointments-Ramit Sethi
    This article is a helpful guide that explains what information your virtual assistant will need to set up a doctor’s appointment for you. This article also points out that it is better to give detailed instructions to your personal assistant rather than being asked to explain something numerous times.
  • Drawbacks of Outsourcing to India or China-Stephan Spencer
    In this article, Stephan Spencer explains in more depth why hiring a virtual assistant from a foreign country can be a potential risk. He discusses the issues of loss of credibility, communications misunderstandings and also the customer service complaints that can result from hiring an under-qualified virtual assistant.
  • Two Secrets to My Success-Work at Home Moms’ Talk Radio Blog
    The author centers this article around speaking about all of the good excellent help that the author’s virtual assistant has provided for her. The author points out how important that this virtual assistant is to her business.
  • Outsourcing My Life, Part 2: The First Task Completed-Yourdon Report
    In this article, the author relates some of their own experience in working with a virtual assistant from another country. The author also gives a few examples of the rates charged by companies for help from virtual assistants.
  • Confession: I Outsourced My Life-Ryan Norbauer
    In this article, Ryan Norbauer relates some of his own experiences that deal with virtual assistants and how they can improve a person’s life. The great advantage of freeing oneself from everyday, repetitive tasks becomes evident when a person has an assistant to help them.
  • How Long Can I Expect My Virtual Assistant to Stay With Me?-The Real Estate Training Center
    The author pens this article to explain how our society and workforce are changing, and with those changes, virtual assistants are becoming much more common. The author also explains that there are many different factors that may help determine how long a virtual assistant will stay with a client.

In Summary

Working with a virtual assistant can save you a lot of time and let you get to a lot of those tasks that you’ve been meaning to do, but never quite have time for. Even if you don’t think you need someone right now, I would encourage you to try using a virtual assistant as an educational experience. It will help open up your eyes to how small the world has become.

You might also want to checkout my follow post: Offending the Entire VA Industry

If you have any suggestions of providers, tips and tricks, or things to avoid that would help other readers please add them in the comments.

Comments

  1. Kathie Thomas, A Clayton's Secretary says

    VAs can be very long-term – you just need to be looking in the right places. I strongly recommend going to the professional Virtual Assistant networks to source professional VAs who won’t love you and leave you in a short space of time. But the rates you quoted are not realistic for VAs who live and work in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many parts of Europe. Rates are closer to $30+USD, AUD and other currencies – cost of living is more expensive, obviously.

    My longest-term client has been with me over 11 years and we have a good working relationship. I have other clients who have been with me between 5-8 years and another who was with me for over 10 years has recently retired.

  2. Lodewijk says

    Holy smokes! This is the best resource on the matter I have seen so far. Really impressed.

    Bookmarking it for later reference, don’t need one now but that may change :)

  3. Nancy Seeger says

    I liked some of the resources you mentioned for communicating.

    Thumbs down on how to find a Virtual Assistant. Like any industry professional you would look for, you look for the leading professional associations. Elance and others are not industry associations but competitive low bidding, this is not where experienced industry professionals would be congregated.

    Professional associations you should have listed are:

    International Virtual Assistants Association

    A Clayton’s Secretary

    Virtual Assistance Chamber of Commerce

    VA Networking

    The above named group offer RFPs, may pre qualify their membership and you can post and you can list your exact needs in your RFP.

  4. Mark Shead says

    @Nancy – Thanks for the list of professional va associations.

    @Gwen – It depends on what you need done and what local salary ranges are for the person you are hiring. Someone who lives in an area where the average pay is $5,000 per year is going to think that $7 is a great paying job. Obviously you aren’t going to hire someone very good in San Francisco in that pay range.

    Even in the US, there are a lot of areas where $6 to $10 per hour is good pay. These are places where average rent runs $200 per month, gasoline costs are relatively low, and commute times are in the 5 minute range.

    About half of what I need done requires a reasonable amount of training on custom software. I will have to spend the same amount of time training someone regardless of whether they are $7 per hour or $50 per hour as long as they are reasonably competent with a computer. The virtual assistant I was using in India actually came in at about $15 per hour and she was very good. I switched away from the company in India because the other half of what I need requires Americanized grammar and that was difficult to get with someone who was use to Indian English.

    I did as you suggested and switched to looking for someone with quality English skills and found someone locally in the $7 per hour range.

    @Kathie – There are a number of virtual assistants available for a much lower rate than what you are mentioning. In fact at that end of the rate scale, it might start making more sense to just directly hire someone as long as you have a reasonable amount of work that needs done. Instead of paying someone $30 per hour for 20 hours per week, it might make more sense to hire someone in the US for $12 for 40 hours per week.

    If you only need someone occasionally or you need a specialized skill, the higher cost VA may be a much better deal. This is especially true if you are looking for someone with a lot of skill in an area where you don’t have any experience so training someone isn’t an option.

  5. Donna Gunter says

    Hi Mark–

    I also live in a part of the country in which $7 per hour is considered a “good” wage for unskilled labor. However, that’s the rate paid as am employee, not as a business owner. I don’t pay $7 an hour for any service I use in this area, from my attorney to my accountant to my yard care service to my house cleaner.

    ANYONE who’s claimed to be in business and who ever wanted to charge me that low of a rate in the past has been out of business in 6 months. Why? because you can’t pay your overhead, taxes, health insurance, etc. when you only charge $7 per hour.

    Granted, there are some people who “think” they’re in business by charging such a ridiculously low rate. But, they’re not buying equipment, paying for their own professional development and training, and are generally living below the poverty line and depend on food stamps and subsidized housing to get by, not to mention flying under the radar of Uncle Sam by not reporting their income and paying taxes and resorting to indigent health care when they have a health crisis. That’s not the kind of life I would wish on anyone, although employers put their employees in that situation on a very regular basis here in Southeast TX.

    Why would anyone go into business to recreate that kind of crappy life for themselves?

    The type of training you are doing is more in line with how an employer might train an employee. I’ve worked with 4 different VAs over the last 10 years, and none needed extensive training, as they arrived with the skills in hand to help me. They just needed a short time to become familiar with my business, as is the case with any independent contractor you hire. Can you imagine training your attorney before working with him or giving your yard care service a crash course in lawn maintenance? That’s why I’m hiring them — I don’t want to do it, and they are the epxerts in that area.

    If I’m doing that kind of extensive training with them, I probably need to be paying the full gamut of payroll taxes for them, as is expected of any employer, especially if you are their only client. In Uncle Sam’s eyes, they don’t meet the standard of independent contractor.

    I think your “guide” to virtual assistance paints an extraordinarily unrealistic picture of the industry and the profession. How long would you stay in business at your prevailing local rate of $7/hour?

    Donna Gunter
    http:/www.OnlineBizU.com

  6. Mark Shead says

    @Donna – If you read above you’ll see that I switched from using virtual assistant from India and instead hired someone locally in the $7 per hour range. (This is in the part where I said I decided using a VA isn’t the best choice for me.) This isn’t an independent contractor–they are on payroll just like the rest of my company’s employees. I didn’t discuss them in depth here because that isn’t what this article is about.

    Oh and if you hire someone from another country who works remotely, you don’t have to worry about reporting income and paying part of their social security taxes.

    I also noted that a good virtual assistant through a reputable company in India is probably going to cost $8 to $15 per hour. This is based on my experience. You say that this is “extraordinarily unrealistic”, so please give me an idea of what you consider to be realistic wages in India as my experience only covers a small set of companies.

    Ok back to the idea of just hiring someone local: Here $7 per hour isn’t just unskilled labor. True, you won’t hire a PhD for that range, but you can get some very bright educated people–especially if you are willing to be more flexible than some of the other local employers.

    There are a wide range of skill level and pricing differences between people who are marketing themselves as virtual assistants. There is an even wider range if you start looking outside of the US. I’ve seen quite a few people claiming to be VAs in the US who say they are experts at marketing, graphic design, business coaching, and a bunch of other skills. Then they proceed to tell me that you can’t get a good VA for less than $30 per hour. If they are actually good at all those areas, they probably shouldn’t be marketing themselves as a virtual assistant and instead focus on business consulting.

    How long would would I stay in business at $7/hour? It depends. If I lived in a country where the prevailing wage was something like 2 or 3 dollars per day, I could stay in business for a long time.

  7. Rosie Murphy says

    Well said Donna.
    Mark, generally speaking, professional experienced VA’s are independent contractors. It is actually quite rare for a professional VA to work full time for one client. You wouldn’t expect an electrician to dedicate their whole working week to you at a rate that wont even cover business expenses, so why would a VA?
    As far as I am concerned, working for one client makes you an employee. And in your case, the employee isn’t paying superannuation, taxes, holiday or sick leave. What a life!
    The way you write about VA’s makes them sound like they aren’t worth the $7 you offer. In actual fact, we are often integral in the growth and expansion of a business, community group or organisation. My clients are always looking to me for advice and ideas on how to make things happen for their business.

    I agree on one thing though, perhaps we should change what we are called – so many people like yourself believe an ‘assistant’ can only be of lower rank than the business owner. Or, perhaps, blog writers can speak about the fact that we are more than just an “assistant” and spread the good word….
    I challenge you to.

  8. Mark Shead says

    @Rosie — *Sigh* The VAs who read this seem to just skim it and totally get confused on the pricing I mention. I have not hired a virtual assistant for $7 per hour. If you read my post carefully you’ll see that I am suggesting that $8 to $15 per hour is the rate to get someone good from India through a reputable company.

    The only place I mention $6 to $7 per hour is when I’m explaining why I didn’t keep working with the virtual assistant I really liked from India. It just made more sense to hire someone locally and put them on the payroll because $6 to $7 per hour is considered good pay where I live.

    so many people like yourself believe an ‘assistant’ can only be of lower rank than the business owner

    “Rank” is fairly ambiguous, but if I make $1000 per day and have two master’s degrees, I’m probably not going to expect someone who claims to be a “virtual assistant” to have multiple PhDs and charge me $2000 per day. I would however expect that level of education and pricing from a business consultant.

    It is actually quite rare for a professional VA to work full time for one client.

    Perhaps this is true in Australia, but t is very common when you are working with companies in India who specialize in providing remote assistants and business process outsourcing.

    Thanks for your comments.

  9. Monika says

    Mark, finding a VA that you can work with and is suitable for your business is just like researching any other service provider and sometimes it can be a matter of trying out a few VAs until you get the “right fit” for your business. This takes time and it also takes time to, in your words, “train” a VA with one of the more remote organisations from India etc. If you had taken the time to find a suitable fit for your business in the first place with the language, cultural skills and other skills that you required via the organisations that Nancy had listed and worked with that VA, considering the learning curve, this would have been a far more cost effective and time saving exercise for your business and you would have had a valuable asset to your business in that VA. These VAs have already proven themselves via these listings and in many cases would have needed to meet certain criteria to be able to belong to these organisations. (Many VAs handle email campaigns on behalf of their clients and don’t need training to do this.) All the things that Rajani didn’t do quite so well are tasks that most VAs can do as a matter of course but this is also where your research comes in. It is in the best interests of a VA to help you grow your business by making suggestions and give you ideas on how to run your business more effectively and efficiently and VAs are in a position to do this because they are also independent business owners, VAs from remote organisations are not always independent business owners and wouldn’t have that same degree of familiarity with running a business or that same level of commitment to see your business succeed.

    In the end I realise this was an experiment on your part and you decided not to continue using Rajani from India because she didn’t fully meet your needs. Hopefully you will have more luck working with your junior college/private school students who won’t have years of professional work or life experience behind them and will also take quite a while to “train”.

    Wishing you success with your business.

  10. Lisa says

    While your article contains a lot of valuable information, my concern is that the article gives the impression that you should use a VA for ad hoc jobs or one-off projects. VA’s can add a tremendous amount of value to your business and a long term relationship enhances that value.

    Most VA’s are experienced at using the type of technology listed and often are skilled in a wider range of software and hardware products, and do not need to be trained. We are talking about an industry of experienced administrators who are computer savy and have a knack for hunting down the best technology available. VA’s are also independent business owners who can provide you with advice and guidance on building your business. They are partners in your business and committed to helping you make your business a success. Would you honestly pay someone $7.00 per hour for this level of service? Get real, there is a fine line between exploitation and and value for money.

    If you are in Australia and would like to give a VA a try, log a job here:

    http://connect.121temps.com

    no obligation, no risk

  11. Melanie Benson Strick says

    HI Mark,

    Thanks for sticking your neck out there and sharing your experience. I’ve been using VAs for over 5 years and I just keep growing my team.

    Some of the challenges people mentioned are due to the fact that at a certain level of growth, many of us entrepreneurs really need a virtual employee vs. a traditional VA. I’ve personally had to “graduate” to a different kind of resource once I needed one person to be more readily available.

    I’ve found two other resources that are really helpful:

    http://www.smartsheetsuccess.com (an alternative to basecamp and a lot easier to use. It can function like a project manager.)

    http://www.webexone.com (I use this to maintain simple databases, share calendars and assign tasks for follow up on prospects.)

    I developed a really helpful free report if you’d like to share it with your articles — It’s 101 Ways to Triple your Income by Outsourcing Your High Payoff Activities. If you’d like it, you can access it at http://www.successconnections.com/101ways.

    Thanks for sharing your experience…I know it helps lots of people learn how to make this strategy work!

    Melanie Benson Strick
    Million Dollar Lifestyle Business Coach &
    Virtual Team Building Expert
    http://www.successconnections.com

  12. Andrew says

    Thank you Donna for pointing out exactly the same things I wanted to.

    What is the point of giving a VA a screencast on what I want them to do when I want to SAVE time not take it up.

    If I am going to do a screencast on something, I might also think of coming up with a way to do it myself already and STILL save time.

  13. Betty Miller says

    Hi! Very interesting experiment! I have to say that you covered quite a lot! But there are still a few things to add to your guide; for example under “Locating a Virtual Assistant”:
    - Virtual Assistant Networks/Forums
    -Virtual Assistant Directories
    -Virtual Assistant Associations.
    These are just a few that come to my mind.

    I have to agree with some of the comments above: $7 (even $15)/hr is not realistic… if you need a highly skilled partner to help you grow your business, it is not going to be that cheap. However, it is going to be MUCH cheaper than if you had an in-office one. As you noticed, I said PARTNER, not Secretary. A Virtual Assistant is more than an Executive or Personal Assistant. Some of them are Web Designers, Online Marketing Experts, etc.

    Finding the right Virtual Assistant is probably the most difficult part. But the moment you find the right person and you have an excellent relationship, the price of, lets say, $28/hr will not sound that bad. Your time is worth much more ($45/hr?) after all if you were to do it yourself!

    Thank you for sharing! Good luck!

    Betty Miller
    http://www.BestVirtualAssistant.com

  14. Mark Shead says

    @Andrew – I depends on what you need done. If your tasks are trivial enough that anyone with a decent background working in an office can do them, then you don’t need to mess with a screencast. However, if your tasks are complex (and especially if they only need done infrequently), a screencast gives you the ability to do the training only once.

    For example, I have a complex process where we needed to move a bunch of content from one CMS system to another on several different sites. I recorded a screencast showing exactly how to do each step along with explanations of all the different things they might encounter in extracting the HTML. My virtual assistant was able to take that and repeat the process hundreds of times. If three months down the road, I needed her to do it again for another site, I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not she remembered all the steps because I could just direct her to the screencast.

    Even better, if I end up working with a different assistant, I can use the video again. Instead of spending 10 minutes showing the process, I spent 12 minutes recording the process in order to save me interruptions later on.

    Another example: I need photos downloaded from a specific source and cropped to be used on Productivity501. I had already created templates for each of the different sizes when I was doing it myself. I did a screencast showing exactly how to do the cropping in Photoshop. While this is something that my virtual assistant could have figured out on her own, it was easier to show her a process that I knew was the most efficient and would take 10 minutes instead of running the risk that she might come up with another way that would take 30 minutes. If I needed it done 1000 times, that is the difference between 160 hours ($2400) and 500 hours ($7500).

    My process for Photoshop came from sitting down with an experienced graphic designer and was quite a bit different from the way most self taught Photoshop users work.

    If I had of been hiring a graphic designer, I probably wouldn’t have needed to show them, but I probably would have mentioned that it only takes me 10 minutes just so they have some context of how long I expected it to take.

    If I had of hired a $50 per hour virtual assistant I probably would have been even more careful to make sure they were doing it efficiently–especially if they were only self-taught on photoshop. At the very least, I would have probably given them a few to do first and then found out how long it took them. If it took significantly longer than it took me, I would have asked them about their process.

    However, chances are that this approach would take more of my time than just showing a $15 per hour virtual assistant exactly how to do it.

    The cheapest way from my time perspective would be to just hire a graphic designer. And this is exactly what I do one projects that only need to be done once or twice. if something needs done again and again and I know how to do it efficiently, it is cheaper (in a money sense) to show someone who is relatively inexpensive how to do it correctly.

    In some circumstances, the middle tier (virtual assistants that are cheaper than a graphic designer, but more expensive than someone in India) can be the most expensive option in terms of time and money. At one end you have someone who is an expert in a particular field (graphic designer) at the other end you have someone who is extremely general (assistant in India). I’m my experience it is often faster and cheaper overall to go to an expert or train a generalist than to try to track down someone in the middle who has enough experience with your particular issue to be a better deal. If you can find a mid-tier virtual assistant ($30 to $50) with as much experience as a graphic designer for your particular needs then they can be a very good deal — especially if you are asking them to do stuff you don’t know how to do yourself.

    I do not think this would hold true with everything. Tasks common accounting systems (Quickbooks and Quicken), meeting planning, and other things where the mid-tier is likely to be very experienced will probably work very well.

  15. Mark Shead says

    @Betty — As I’ve said before, if I need a web designer I’m going to hire a web designer. If I need a graphic artist, I’m going to hire a graphic artist. I would be very suspicious of someone who claims to be a marketing expert and is also offering to perform administrative functions. If they are a marketing expert (and good at it) they aren’t going to go around saying they are a virtual assistant.

  16. Mark Shead says

    @Jennifer – The rates I mentioned were based on my experience. How much do you typically see good virtual assistants in India charging?

  17. Kerstin Rios says

    I found your article very informative as I am contemplating becoming a VA and I think I would be good at it. I have many years experience but am still researching the safest way to accomplish my desire. I find the references to “unskilled labor” from some of the comments insulting. I hardly think that working all your adult life at something you are really good at classifies anyone as “unskilled”. Just because we don’t have a piece of paper that says we can, doesn’t mean we can’t. I commend you on seeking a VA on home turf, especially with the economy the way it is. Good luck.

    • Mark Shead says

      @Kerstin – Unskilled labor can mean quite a few different things to different people. Skilled work is something that you can’t sit down and teach a reasonably smart person how to do in a few weeks. For example, a reasonably smart person with a high school degree isn’t going to become a doctor or programmer with a week of training.

      Some of the tasks a virtual assistant performs can be done by a reasonably smart person with a week of training. For example, learning how to do mail merges, book travel, file documents, etc. are all things that can be taught fairly quickly. Other tasks that some VAs perform can’t be taught quickly. For example, creating a filling system from scratch, organizing a large event, proof reading technical writing, etc.

      Most people have parts of their job that are skilled and parts that are unskilled. If a prospective client only needs the unskilled part of what you do, then they may be better off paying for someone without the additional skills. Don’t get too bent out of shape if someone doesn’t need your skills–concentrate on finding clients where your skill set matches their needs.

  18. Kerstin Rios says

    Thanks for your explanation. I’m afraid it was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. I live in a college community where most of the secretarial- type positions require a degree, or I find later that I was over qualified for a position, so there is a lot of confusion. Some days I think I can, and others I don’t.

    You sound like the type of person I would like to work for.

    Again, good luck and thanks.

  19. seymour says

    “Several days after I showed her how to do this, I got an email from her, saying, “I see there is a new event scheduled like the one I previously sent out a campaign for. Would you like me to do the same for it?” I was very impressed with this because she wasn’t just working off of a task list. She was anticipating future actions based on previous ones”

    Shocking! You mean she wasn’t a complete moron and gave a shit? Wow…. did you throw her a treat, or just decide to right a patronising blog?

  20. virtual assistants says

    Hey,
    Great work.
    This blog provides full information about virtual assistants.
    If anybody wants to become virtual assistant they must go through this blog.
    Thanks for this awesome information…………

    Regards,
    Virtual Assistant

  21. Lao Tzu says

    Your comment about spending local currency is fallacious. Did you ever take economics 101? Indians buy American products and they buy products from people who buy American products. Likewise, Americans buy things outside their community or buy from people who buy outside the community.

    Money never stays put.

    • Mark Shead says

      Yes, but look at it this way. I live in a town of 7,000 people. In scenario A, I spend $1,000,000 on local salaries in a year. In scenario B, I spend $1,000,000 on salaries in India. Under which scenario do you think I will see a difference in my small town’s economy? The same thing applies if I’m spending $100,000, $10,000 or $1,000. (Although it may be harder to measure at the smaller amounts.)

  22. Albert Sparks says

    I personally and professionally believe this is a significant part of our future working style. E commerce and business has improved not only for business, but for the individual to work within the home environment and still remain financially viable.

  23. Best Career Advice says

    Though this is an old post, the list is still quite accurate. However, my experience using VAs from some of those sites has not been as satisfying as I had hoped. I think this had to do with the amount of time required to locate one that’s right for the job, and then ensuring you are providing clear and detailed instructions. My colleagues seem to have had better luck though in procuring VAs.

  24. steve says

    A WARNING ABOUT TIMESVR VIRTUAL ASSISTANT SERVICE:

    Timesvr is very dishonest in their billing. it is virtually impossible to cancel the service. I tried to cancel for three months consecutively via the online dashboard. While every request for a task was responded to quickly, my request to cancel went unanswered. They continued to bill me for three months until I called them. I was assured on the phone that my service was canceled. Shortly there after, I was billed again. Only after I was billed for a fourth month, did I receive a letter saying that my subscription was set to be cancelled. I immediately emailed Timesvr. This is an excerpt from Timesvr’s email response:

    “We don’t facilitate cancellations via phone (or IM), cancellation is at the onus of the client who can do so at anytime through their dashboard. ”

    Before calling, I had attempted to cancel my service three times via the dashboard. As Timesvr’s policy states that they do not issue refunds, I can’t help but feel that they are using recurring billing and ignoring cancellations to rip customers off. My advice: DO NOT USE TIMESVR.

  25. Alisa says

    I must say this is by far the only complete guide on virtual assistants I have come around. You have really covered all the aspects of delegating. I have switched between 3 virtual assistants companies over the past year before settling down with Efficise. They are really great and I would highly recommend. This guide has given me a lot of ideas on how better I can utilize them. Thanks for taking out the time to write this. Cheers!

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