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Would a virtual assistant work for your small business?

Virtual Assistant… the mere utterance of these words can make a small business owner ecstatic or apoplectic — all depending on their experience with this increasingly popular administrative help.

I won’t bore you with the details, but my first foray into the world of VAs was fraught with every mistake you can make and left me gun-shy about reaching out for such help ever again. Luckily, I was gently coaxed by some fellow entrepreneurs to try again.

This time, I did my homework, stood my ground and made smarter choices, and I’ve happily been using VAs ever since. In fact, I’ve had such good results that I’m of the mindset that almost every small business could benefit from hiring one. Here are just a few things to contemplate if you are wondering whether a VA might be a productivity enhancer for your small business.

  • You’ve blown a business opportunity because you missed a deadline to follow up.
  • You’re not on top of business development because you have no up-to-date client and prospect database.
  • You have exciting work projects you would like to take on but always seem to be too tied up with the day-to-day running of your business to get to them.
  • You work nights and weekends to keep up with routine administrative tasks.
  • You have general tasks on your to-do list that get pushed off from week to week.
  • You have routine work items that you don’t like doing that take time away from other more creative and important tasks.

If you’re shaking your head at this point and saying, “Huh, what is she talking about,” stop reading. If you’re nodding your head, read on to learn the best practices for bringing a VA on board to your small business.

Kathy Goughenour a virtual assistant trainer, recommends these five steps in the successful outsourcing of VAs.

1. Discover the routine tasks you dislike doing. During the next week, keep a log of all your activities. At the end of the week, sit down and review the list and determine which activities you need to do yourself, and which you could delegate to a VA. For example: uploading a week’s worth of pre-written tweets, physically posting your weekly blog, following up on invoices, etc. Those are perfect projects to give to a VA.

2. Find a list of potential VAs. As with all good resources, the best place to start is within your own network. Send out an email to a list of business associates, telling them a bit about what you want help with and asking if they have a VA they would recommend.

Goughenour also suggests searching Google by entering “find a virtual assistant.” “There are many sites that specialize in training and/or placing Virtual Assistants,” says Goughenour. “They are like the VA version of a temp agency. You can also check VA associations such a VAnetworking.com and ivaa.org.”

3. Screen the candidates for compatibility and professionalism. Now that you have come up with some candidates the next step is to do some research, first by reviewing their websites and secondly by conducting a phone interview. Goughenour suggests covering the following questions in the interview.

• Do you have experience in handling (insert task you want done)?
• What are your hours (times, days) of operation?
• What are your fees? Do you bill hourly, by project or on retainer?
• Do you have the time availability in your schedule to take on my project?
• How quickly will you get back to me when I email or call you?
• Do you have a team to support you? If yes, will I be working directly with you, or will I occasionally work with other members of your team?
• What services do you provide (and what services don’t you provide)?
• Can you give me an overview of how you work with clients?
• How long have you been in business?
• Are you in full-time or part-time practice?

If they pass muster on the interview, ask for and contact at least two references.

4. Start small. Once you have done your due diligence and found the VA you think might be the delegation partner of your dreams, start with a small project as a way to test your theory. Let the VA know up front that you’re beginning with a trial project to see how things go.

5. Hire slowly, fire quickly. Doing your research up front helps minimize problems down the line. However, on occasion, once you begin working with a VA, you may find that despite a brilliant start, things turn sour. If your VA misses several deadlines, makes the same type of mistake again and again, or is difficult to deal with, you may decide to call it quits. “It’s best to put the request to terminate the services in writing,” says Goughenour. “Be sure to include the date on which the services will cease and any work already paid for that you expect the VA to complete prior to that date.”

Do you have any tips about how to hire or work with a VA? We would love to hear your comments.

Karen Leland is a freelance journalist, best-selling author and president of Sterling Marketing Group, where she helps businesses negotiate the wired world of today’s media landscape — social and otherwise.

 

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16 comments

Nancy Seeger
9 August 2011 #

Thank you for mentioning IVAA – International Virtual Assistants Association. We are the industries trade association for Virtual Assistants. If I could comment, “hire” isn’t quite the right terminology for contractors. Unless you are hiring an employee, Virtual Assistants are business owners and you contract their services just as you would a graphic designer, lawyer or other business owner that provides services.

Services provided by VAs include many different specialties including Administrative, Bookkeeping, Database, Event Management, Project Manager, Online Business Manager, Real Estate support, Social Media specialists, Website updates, WordPress support, and those specializing in specific industries or professions like speakers, coaches, authors and non-profits.

Amanda
12 August 2011 #

Karen, thanks so much for this post. I found it via FB. Really helpful. I’ve steered a couple of folks to it. I know you from one of your classes at Book Passage.

Francis Moore
17 August 2011 #

My own experience with a VA has not been so great. I found it difficult to find someone who was as passionate and efficient as I was about my business. There are many well-qualified VA’s but the bottom line is no one understands it like you do. I hope others have better luck.

Wade Harris
17 August 2011 #

I have just started my own small business and am starting to see the need for a VA. Thanks for the helpful hints on how to find one.

Karen Leland
18 August 2011 #

Francis;

Believe me when I say I feel your pain. I’ve had a tough time with this myself. What has made the difference for me, is really breaking down the items that are administrative in nature that suck my time and giving those over to a VA. That has helped. The more creative, sales, marketing functions, I still do. However freeing up my time by handing out the C items tasks have been a boon.

Cindy
18 August 2011 #

when people have trouble with their Virtual Assistants it is often because they themselves do not know how to delegate. A good VA is such an assest to a small business!

Nancy Sanchez
18 August 2011 #

I absolutely agree with your advice. The rise in small businesses makes it a wonderful opportunity to employ others as well.

Arthur Barnes
18 August 2011 #

Virtual Assistants used to come in the form of family members andand the community. Now everything is such a business within a business. I may be old-fashioned but I prefered it in the good ‘ol days. Thanks Karen.

Melissa Scagliola
18 August 2011 #

Kathy Goughenour’s VA training sounds great, thanks for introducing her.

Sarah Gathercole
19 August 2011 #

As a VA it’s useful to read about the barriers and reasons why you would work with a VA from a business owners perspective.

Karen Leland
19 August 2011 #

Cindy;

I think your point about delegation is good one. Most small business owners I coach have a problem with letting go and trusting someone else to do what they do, well. One of the best ways to get over this is to map out and write down exactly what steps you follow in a given task, so that you can guide someone else through that process.

Jennifer Berman
20 August 2011 #

I am a VA and I love working from home. I am able to use the skills that I am best at and still be a stay-at-home mom. Thanks for highlighting what VA’s are and their importance.

Cindy Roach
20 August 2011 #

I am not a business owner, but after reading your article I am inclined to look into becoming a VA myself. I never knew this existed, but I guess with the prevalence of the internet it would seem quite natural for this to have taken off as it has.

Katalyst Office Management
27 August 2011 #

Great article, in NZ VA’s are quite new, but they do exist, like Charlies Angel’s – http://www.charliesangels.co.nz/, or Bookkeepers like us – http://www.katalyst.co.nz, do these types of jobs too. At Katalyst, we take responsibility for the financial administration for business owners, taking care of payroll, bookkeeping etc, but also some other admin functions.

To be successful, there needs to be trust in the relationship and a referral is normally a good place to start. You also need to have open communication to express your needs and where things might need tweaking. A biggie from our side, what makes it really efficient and effective is having prompt replies if we need feedback or information.

These relationships can be extended to where your adviser or accountant can work directly with your bookkeeper or VA to give even better results for you. Xero has played a huge role in making this a very streamlined, easy, and transparent process for the business owner.

Charlie’s Angels Ltd
29 August 2011 #

What a fantastic blog and great conversation starters. Yes, a VA is a novel idea for some and as a small business owner myself, I know how difficult it can be to hand-over tasks to just anybody, however I’ve also personally experienced so much growth over the years by doing so. Having an assistant has allowed me to focus on more important things, namely my clients!

As a company that provides a VA service here in Auckland, I appreciate the initial relunctance some people may have, but as already mentioned, it’s about finding someone who is the right-fit (not just skills & experience, they are a given, but also personality & drive/ambition). Referals are a great start and interviews are a must!

Here at Charlie’s Angels we “partner” with our clients to ensure they get the best from our service. Our dedicated PA’s have the attitude & passion of an employee (they are very much a part of our clients’ team and want to see results/goals met) but are a cost-effective resource as they are only paid for the hours they put in (think: no wasted down time).

For many small businesses, a full-time or permanent personal assistant is just not an option but a VA who can be on-call for those busy periods and to help out on certain projects or regular administration is fast becoming a necessity.

Karen I am heading to your website now to find out exactly what it is you do. Thank you for posting this blog!

Charlie

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