Put Yourself in the Hands of a Virtual Assistant
“Virtual” used to mean “more or less.” If something is described as virtual, it usually means that it is not quite that. “Virtual” has come to mean not "really there," something or someone who, because of technology, is not physically there. It has come to describe a number of functions that are needed by small business owners and entrepreneurs. They may not have the skills or time to worry about accounting, administrative functions, human resource rules, and so on.
There has been a tremendous growth and diversification in virtual functions in recent years. They are forming formal associations, creating networks, and aggressively marketing their services. Jennifer, for example, is able to work at home and serve a number of clients as their Administrative Assistant. Randal provides total accounting and tax services specifically to small construction businesses. Donnell offers full human resources advice to businesses that cannot justify or support a full-time professional. And, Terry, a Certified Professional Church Secretary, does the accounting, communications, mailing, etc. for small churches.
The same technological advances that enable long distance learning, intercontinental teamwork, and online meetings allow small to mid-sized businesses to outsource many of their daily operational needs. However, it is important to know what to look for, what you can expect to pay, and what you can expect in return.
There are businesses of a size and type that outsource service needs on a large scale. They send customer service out of the country and/or recruit temporary administrative workers through large agencies. I am not talking about the business that fills such a profile. In fact, I would urge small and developing businesses not to pursue this avenue. Foreign workers are simply not readily accessible for process corrections as you start-up, and temp workers work first for the agency that writes their check and only second for the employer who is contracting.
I am more interested in those needs felt by small businesses and start-ups.
· Jennifer Eckhardt saw a need in small businesses to outsource senior administrative assistance. She serves owners who want more than a "gofer." She creates scripts, articles, social media, and the like for small businesses around the country.
· Randal DeHart, for example, recognized a need among small construction firms, those that build on spec and are sub-contracted to complete projects. Randal saw that the owner could tie himself to the office 25% of the time to do the books, or work on site for 95% of the time. The owner, of course, would need to talk to Randal and review Randal's work, but this could be done during that 5% that was left in the week.
· Donnell Karimah, MA, SPHR provides short and long-term support for businesses that do not want to incur or need to incur the cost of full-time HR personnel.
· Terry Foley developed an on-line office to support small churches with their books, membership lists, emails, church bulletins, and the like.
In each case, these entrepreneurs saw a niche market and found a way to fill it. With their input, you can begin to draw a picture of whom you need.
Demonstrated excellence in English speaking and writing skills are a must. Foreign or domestic, the assistant needs to enunciate and speak clearly on the phone. They must be able to compose and prepare a formal business letter and an appropriately phrased email. Because this person may speak for you, seek a voice that matches yours in tone. For example, if you regularly speak with a certain measured tone or a no-nonsense approach, you will not be well represented by a youthful or giddy voice.
Look for a candidate with experience as administrative or executive assistant experience. People with office management experience are likely to be better at multi-tasking than the typical customer service rep.
You will want someone who has specific skills in the area of your needs, such as accounting or website expertise. Avoid the multi-tasker who is a "Jack/Jane of all trades, but master of none." Look for related credentials, such as college degree, software experience, professional memberships, certificates, etc.
Look for someone who shows experience with project management. You will need an assistant who can be relied on to meet deadlines. You want to see the ability to take direction and turn it into a scheduled event with start-middle-finish. Ask the candidate to demonstrate how s/he has taken responsibility for a project in the past and, then, managed that project to its end. Hope to see charts, time-lines, and the like.
As Jennifer Eckhardt says, "the VA provides a cost-effective and expert solution to the administrative work that is necessary and important but slows you down, piles up on your desk and does not generate an income. (Why not use those new found hours to market, network, or even enjoy a little R&R?)” That's the idea - if the VA is reliable.
Prepare a test for the candidate to complete. They are bidding for your business, so make it worth working for. Give the candidate some basic notes, and ask him/her to prepare a letter. Give the candidates a batch of numbers and have them complete a spreadsheet.
Above all, talk to the candidate at length and more than once. Set up a video conference or a SKYPE call. You want to build rapport, of course, but you want to be listening "hard" to their voice, style, and ability to think on their feet.
Trust-ability is hard to measure. Much of it depends on your instinct and gut. The personal chemistry you develop in your first contacts is important to determining the level of trust possible. After all, you may be sharing your intellectual property, your marketing prospects, your financials, etc. On working with churches, for example, Terry Foley remarks, "A church should use a virtual assistant who specializes in churches. Someone who is familiar with and understands the sensitive nature of church administration is a better fit than a VA who works in the secular field. A VA who specializes in working with pastors will better understand the inner workings of a parish."
Among the reasons that you go looking for a virtual function is the desire to save money. So, pricing the candidates will be very important. For starters, make a personal commitment that price will not be the only criteria. It is important, yes, but there are enough candidates out there to bid you under the bar. Getting the price you want to pay should not be a matter of making the virtual assistant compromise his/her standards and abilities. If the candidate is willing for work for minimum wage, that is a red flag.
Be prepared to spend $30 to $50 an hour - or more very highly specialized skills. You would be smarter to think this way: if you would have to pay a full-time employee $20/hour, $35/hour is a bargain. Think it over:
Compare the Costs
Overhead per Employee = 50% X Hourly Wage
(Overhead costs include Administration Costs, Office Space & Supplies, Equipment & Technology Expenses, Unemployment Insurance, Worker's Compensation, Overtime)
Benefits Package = 35%
(A standard benefits package would include retirement plans and life/disability/medical/dental insurance.)
Total Pay Rate/Hour
Hours Worked Per Year
TOTAL Annual Labor Cost to You
The assumption, here, is that the VA is contracted for 40 hours per month. If the service or need exceeds that in a given month, there is no overtime paid.
Now, you can massage these numbers to more accurately reflect your real world numbers, employment market, and hours of required support. If there is not a significant differential in the total annual labor cost, do not pursue the VA. On the other hand, you can use this process to determine what you will pay a virtual employee. In other words, if you cannot do $35, maybe you can handle $32.
Once you have settled on a candidate as your Virtual Assistant, you need to have a meeting of the minds on expectations and delivery.
Service Agreement: Consult your attorney on the language of an agreement. You want to stay arm’s length from liability for the assistant; you need to avoid any perception that the assistant is your employee. The agreement should minimize anything that binds you to time or renewal. You want the cancellation language to be to your advantage.
Pay Rate: Negotiate the hourly rate, rates for exceptional additional assignments, rates for hours beyond base hours. Identify billing increments; the assistant may bill for 30 minute increments or in combination with specific assignments. Set the billing and payment dates. Spell out how payment will be made: direct to bank, into debit account, into PayPal system.
Recruiting: The best source for quality assistants is your own business network. Talk to business owners like yourself. Ask who they are using and what works for them. Of course, you can advertise on-line at sites like http://www.craigslist.org/. Research networking sites, such as http://biznik.com/, www.virtualassistant.org, http://www.vanetworking.com/, http://www.elance.com/ and more.
Trial Run: Agree on a specific project to be accomplished in a reasonable time. Establish performance criteria regarding phone and writing skills, organization and scheduling skills, and timeliness and appearance.
Intangibles: Discuss ethics, accountability, and confidentiality. Spell out the importance of these issues to you. Assert the consequences if assistant fails to honor your needs in these areas.
What you are looking for is a virtual relationship, a continuing mutual respect for each other’s needs. Work at the foundation, and you are likely to find a relationship that works for you.