One of the first things to tackle when you want to improve productivity as a small business owner involves effectively delegating duties you don’t need to do yourself. And with so many tasks required to run (and hopefully grow) a business, getting good help is critical. Not all business owners, however, want or need the cost and commitment of a full-time staff. For many productive small business owners, virtual assistants (VAs) can shoulder the burden of regularly required tasks, freeing up time to work on activities that grow their businesses.

If you’re looking to get more done right away but don’t have the budget or desire to take on new employees, consider hiring one—or more—virtual assistants. Here’s the lowdown on why you should get a VA, what they can do for you, where to find one, how much they may charge, as well as what to watch out for.

What is a Virtual Assistant? VA Basics

A VA works in a different location from your own business, usually in either their own home or office, and may even live in a different country. Thus, your working relationship is “virtual,” meaning you communicate via phone and/or computer.

A VA most often works as a freelancer or independent contractor, and often operates as a small business owner or solopreneur themselves. Many of these assistants provide administrative or secretarial-type services.

Note: This article covers human VAs, not to be confused with the increasingly popular digital VAs such as Alexa and Siri.

Types of Tasks a Virtual Assistant Can Perform For You

VAs perform a variety of tasks for small businesses of all sizes, ranging from daily, repetitive tasks to more specialized activities and projects, such as creating and maintaining websites and carrying out online marketing campaigns. Of course, the types of tasks you plan on having your VA cover will determine the skill level needed—and affect how much you pay them.

A VA could help with any of the following tasks:

  • Scheduling appointments
  • Making travel plans
  • Completing event planning tasks
  • Responding to and/or managing email
  • Entering data for customer orders
  • Updating databases
  • Proofreading and/or editing documents
  • Responding to customers via phone or email
  • Making follow-up calls to sales prospects
  • Bookkeeping/accounting/invoicing
  • Creating and scheduling social media postings
  • Creating and scheduling blog posts, including research and internal linking
  • Finding and editing images for social media posts and blog posts
  • Creating, scheduling and maintaining digital marketing assets like newsletters and email lists
  • Creating and updating your website

Mike Catania, founder of Tallahassee, Florida, coupon syndicator Promotioncode.com, has been using VAs since 2010. Today, Catania continues to use a VA despite having hired 11 full-time employees and four seasonal employees, and the VA completes jobs that technology just can’t handle.

“There are a lot of different tasks that I use [my VA] for, but they all have one thing in common,” Catania says. “They’re extremely repetitive but can’t be performed by a computer.” One example: gathering coupon-collection tips for his writer to package into an article. “Before that, she was verifying the customer service phone numbers for the 20,000 merchants with which we work,” he explains.

Dr. Mary Barbera of Barbera Behavior Consulting LLC is a behavior analyst. The solopreneur has used several VAs to help with her business, and not just for highly repetitive tasks. Her lead VA essentially acts as her online business manager, while a second VA carries out tasks related to customer support, data entry and scheduling, using a group communication and project management app called Asana.

“My VAs not only draft emails for my sales funnels and set them up in the contact management system,” says Barbera, who uses Infusionsoft, “but they also help me keep track of email open rates and conversions.” Barbera meets virtually each week with her VAs to discuss current priorities.

How a Virtual Assistant Can Help A Small Business

Virtual assistants help businesses in several ways. Using a VA offers three main benefits to business owners: more time, expanded skill sets and bandwidth to grow.

Virtual Assistants Save Time

Hiring a VA helps small businesses save time, because—as Catania’s example shows—an assistant can complete repetitive, time-consuming tasks that don’t require a business owner’s personal attention.

Brad Chandler, CEO of Express Homebuyers, a home-buying company that purchases and renovates homes, can attest to this. He explains, “One of our VAs does admin-type work, mainly turning on and off utilities on homes that we buy and sell.” He adds that his remaining VAs follow up with leads for potential home sellers via the phone.

Virtual Assistants Provide Expanded Skills and Experience

VAs may also offer businesses access to skill sets that they or their current permanent staff don’t personally have. Barbera’s VAs add marketing experience to her business, carrying out ongoing online marketing campaigns and helping with new product launches.

“With the help of VAs, my email list tripled last year from 3,500 to 10,000,” Barbera explains. “And I launched two online courses for autism professionals and gung-ho parents, which have already been sold to participants from 40 different countries.”

Virtual Assistants Help Businesses Grow Without Additional Full-Time Staff

VAs are especially useful when you’re growing but aren’t quite ready to hire an employee, says Diane Diresta, author, founder and CEO of DiResta Communications, Inc., a New York City-based consultancy serving business leaders who deliver high stakes presentations.

“A VA allows you to grow at your own pace,” Diresta, who hired her VA 10 years ago, explains. “[My VA] has helped me tremendously.”

Another big benefit to working with a virtual assistant is that many operate as independent contractors, so you don’t pay for the insurance, payroll taxes or retirement benefits that normally go along with hiring a part-time or full-time employee. Make sure you clearly document this arrangement and don’t pay for anything other than hourly wages, preferably on a per-project basis instead of a long-term contract. Why? Doing so could point to an employer-employee arrangement, which could lead to a nasty IRS penalty at tax time.

Just remember to issue a 1099 tax form by January 31 if you’ve paid your VA more than $600 in the previous calendar year.

A final bonus, points out Chandler, is that they don’t take up costly office space.

How a Virtual Assistant Could Fit Into Your Business

Hiring a VA should help your business, not hinder it.

“I think one of the secrets of being a good business owner is to focus on the work that only you can do and to farm the rest out to other employees, whether in-person or virtual,” says Catania. “Use VAs to open up your schedule, so you can do just that.”

It helps to have some idea of how an assistant would fit into your business, what tasks they could do and how you would manage them. Before taking the VA plunge, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What tasks am I currently responsible for that anyone could do?
  2. What tasks/projects need to be done for my business that none of my current team members know how to do?
  3. What is the most immediate task/project a VA could take on as soon as they’re hired?
  4. What could I do to grow the business if a VA was handling some of this work?
  5. How do I want to manage my VA (e.g., via Skype, email or phone)?

Use your answers to guide you in adding a VA to your team.

Where To Find Good Virtual Assistants

Given the “virtual” part of virtual assistants, it’s no surprise that many business owners who use a VA find their help online.

Business owners have several options for finding a good virtual assistant. Try a company that only staffs virtual assistants, such as Zirtual, Timeetc. or VirtualAssistants.com, or visit the member directory of the non-profit International Virtual Assistants Association (IVAA). If you’re open to an offshore VA, try OnlneJobs.ph for VAs based in the Philippines or MyVirtualWorkforce for Australian-based workers. Check out a site like Upwork where you’ll find all sorts of freelancers, including VAs. Or simply find one on your own through social media or by posting a “want ad” on a site like Monster.com.

Barbera found her first few VAs via social media. “I was a member of Facebook groups for business owners and found my first few VAs by watching for posts from VAs answering questions well or other business owners recommending VAs.” And she found the VA who transcribes her audio and video files online through Upwork.

Not everyone agrees that finding a VA through an online website or agency is a good idea. According to Catania, nothing beats a good old-fashioned word-of-mouth referral. “ A much better option is simply to ask around,” he says. “You’re effectively trusting someone that you rarely ever or never meet to do unsupervised work, so a personal referral is much more significant than a handful of potentially-bogus five star online ratings.”

Chandler agrees that it helps to get referrals. “Ask other businesses for the names of VA companies they’ve had success with,” he suggests. He also cautions that you should perform a thorough screening of each candidate to ensure they’re a good fit for your business.

What To Consider When Choosing a Virtual Assistant

Unless they’re located nearby, chances are you won’t meet your VA face-to-face, so the hiring process is a little different than when you’re making a traditional hire. Keep these questions in mind when you’re considering bringing on a VA.

1. How well do they perform test tasks?

Since you will communicate with your VA online and much (or all) of a VA’s work will occur online, it’s important that he or she is comfortable navigating the web-based systems, tools, apps and sites you use in your business.

“I got the following advice from an awesome VA, Kelly Azevedo, from She’s Got Systems,” offers Barbera. “Have the VA candidate do a few small tasks as part of the application or interview process such as editing a short blog: finding it in Google drive and sending you the edited version via Dropbox.” Barbera says this helps verify that the VA is competent at completing common online tasks.

2. Do your personality and work styles match?

It’s also important that you and your VA get along, and that they can work well with you and/or your customers. Pay attention to their “people skills.”

“Ask for referrals and for a trial period to see if you are compatible,” says Diresta. “Have a way to assess your styles. I administered the DISC Behavioral Profile because I know which style will compliment me. Often, people hire someone just like themselves, which is a mistake.”

3. Are they in your time zone?

Depending on your VA’s location and time zone, there could be potential logistical and scheduling difficulties.

“It’s easier when you’re in the same zone [as your VA],” Diresta says. That said, if everything else lines up, being one or two time zones away may not be a deal-breaker. Diresta’s own VA relocated to Oregon, which resulted in a 3-hour time zone difference from Diresta’s home office in New York City. However given their previous long-term, successful working relationship, Diresta has continued to use her assistant’s services despite the time zone difference.

4. Are they efficient?

In most cases you’ll pay your VA by the hour, so ensure that they get their job done in a reasonable amount of time. Take the time to train them and provide clear instructions about what you need done. Then give them a few tasks and see how they do.

How to Onboard and Train Your Virtual Assistant

Once you’ve selected a VA, it’s time to introduce him or her to your company, including training for the tasks that he or she will perform. Depending on your VA’s previous experience, training could take several hours or even just one short Skype, phone or teleconference session.

Chandler, whose VAs are located in the Philippines and have provided a huge benefit to the business, notes how important good training is if your want your VA to create true value for your company. He used several systems to bring his experienced VAs up-to-speed.

“We spent the most time on sales training,” he explains. To do so, Chandler hired a sales trainer who conducted group Skype sales coaching. Later stages of this coaching saw the VAs making outbound sales calls, which were recorded so the trainer could provide feedback. Chandler’s team also used recorded screen captures to show VAs how to complete a myriad of other tasks.

Think carefully about the tasks you plan for your VA to handle so you can determine the best way to train them. Possibilities include:

  • Using a web conference with shared screen access
  • Video conferencing
  • Creating and sharing slide decks with guideline documents
  • Preparing and sending a checklist of tasks along with their frequency

Virtual Assistant Rates Vary

As expected due to the wide range of experience, professional accreditations, locations and quality of work, there’s also a wide range of rates VAs charge. A quick look at the assistants listed on Upwork’s Virtual Assistant page shows hourly rates ranging from $4.44 to $36 per hour. Zirtual currently advertises VA rates starting at $398 for 12 hours of work per month, a rate of around $33 per hour if you use all 12 hours.

Hiring a VA is just one way to boost productivity in your small business this year. If you’re ready to make lasting changes, download our free guide: 21 Days to Be a More Productive Small Business Owner and get started today!

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