The Big Question: Virtual Assistants. Yes, or No?Whether we work for an agency, client-side, or on our own, many of us are constantly trying to buy more time, or at least be more efficient with the time we have.

The truth is, we can’t do everything ourselves.

Enter virtual assistants.

There has been much discussion and documentation around virtual offices, and getting the help we need through virtual teams.

Which brings us to this week’s Big Question:

Do you use virtual assistants? What are the pros and cons? 

Three Steps to Hiring Virtual Assistants

Mitko Karshovski has been using virtual services for more than two years.

We use virtual assistants for many of the day-to-day operations of our company.

Here are some tips:

  1. Standard operating procedures are key when working with VAs. Take the time to create guidelines for all operations in your company and update them regularly. When new procedures are created, ask the the current employee or VA to update it. This way they can always have a reminder on how it’s done. If the VA needs to be replaced the learning curve of the new one will be much shorter.
  2. Make sure to chat over video before hiring. This is a must do before hiring a VA because it will give you a judgement of their English level.
  3. Don’t hire them right away. Take them on for a one or two week test period during which time you can judge if they will be a good fit for your company/team.

Pros: Costs are reduced dramatically since you do not have to pay for office costs or benefits. Many VAs are also based outside of the U.S., which makes them more affordable.

Cons: If you are inexperienced in dealing with VAs, directions can be lost in translation, but this gets better with practice. For some projects the lack of face-to-face interaction can produce less than satisfactory results.

Buy Back Your Time

Ron Stefanski has saved thousands of hours using virtual assistants.

I’ve used virtual assistants for web research, writing, web design, illustration, data entry, and pretty much every other task out there that a website owner would need help with.

The biggest pro of using virtual services is that you get to buy back your own time, and typically it’s at a fraction of the cost of what your own time is worth.

For instance, why would you spend five hours doing a repetitive task when you can pay someone to do it for $4 or $5 per hour?

If you ever find yourself doing a repetitive task that will take hours, pay someone to do it for you!

Training Tip: When training someone for a task, just do a quick screen recording using the free version of Screencast-o-matic.

It’s great for short videos and they let you upload the video to their own server.

Create a Culture of Accountability

Barbara Farfan has been using virtual services for upwards of two decades, and is still somewhat surprised at how many of her business contacts are reluctant to use them.

I do understand the hesitation about employing someone you don’t know, have never seen, and don’t know if you can trust.

So here’s my one-word advice for successfully working with virtual assistants: ACCOUNTABILITY.

The biggest obstacle to working with freelancers who are not sitting in your office—or even in your hemisphere—is accountability for results.

No matter what the wages you’re paying, remote workers are not cheap if they aren’t productive.

Accountability is a challenging, but essential part of a successful virtual assistant relationship.

The onus of responsibility for accountability, I believe, belongs to me, not on the VAs I contract.

It’s stressful, time-consuming, and somewhat demoralizing to make a freelancer prove they have been productive and their work is worth what I paid for it.

To eliminate that stress, I fashion all my VA work using a three-step process…

  1. Break down every job into quantifiable and easily measurable tasks.
  2. Complete the measurable task myself at least once so that I can establish a reasonable time/productivity benchmark.
  3. Assign the work based on the benchmark of my own work, communicating exactly what I expect to be a reasonable outcome for the time/budget allocated.

I would never contract a new VA without using this process.

Once I get to know a freelancer and trust their work and efficiency, I might relax on the first step, but I never relax on the second and third

Establishing a benchmark and communicating my expectations based on that benchmark.

I’m very rarely disappointed when I use this three-step process working with freelancers.

I’m almost always disappointed when I don’t.

Don’t Be a Cheapskate

Andrew Tjernlund’s advice is straight to the point:

Searching and hiring good virtual assistants is the cumbersome part.

Also, consistency of hours and output can be difficult.

Tips: Don’t be a cheapskate. If a VA seems more qualified than another, don’t let the fact that they are $8/hr make you dismiss them for a $6/hr VA. You are already getting a bargain.

Be impatient. Once a VA starts slipping, move on to a new one immediately.

In Theory, But Not in Practice

According to David Kosmayer:

I tried using a VA via a service called Upwork for six months and ultimately it was a failure.

I loved the idea of it, but I ended up spending more time telling the VA how to do something than it would’ve taken me to just do it.

Things such as web research require a surprisingly amount of context that you don’t realize until you try to do it.

It was made more difficult because the VAs did not care about the quality of their work and had zero initiative.

I tried three different ones and it was the same every time.

Don’t Be Promiscuous

William Gadea has some great tips for using virtual professionals, not the least of which is to hold on to the good ones!

We have used virtual assistants for low-skill work such as verifying emails and LinkedIn research, as well as high-skill work such as web development and brochure design.

Generally, we’ve been very happy with the quality and value of our results.

Some tips:

For administrative, marketing and development, we like Upwork (formerly Elance).

For design, we prefer 99 Designs or DesignCrowd.

Offshore solutions usually offer better value, but be wary of assigning them work that requires language skills or cultural fluency.

Don’t be too impressed by user ratings on these sites.

Pay more attention to the clarity and care with which they communicate with you in the vetting process, since that is a possible shoal in the water.

Don’t be too promiscuous.

If you get someone good, hold on to them!

Just like any contributor, VAs can come to know your business and preferences, and that adds value.

The Right VA for the Right Job

Julie Ewald is a marketing CEO who has been using virtual services for years:

I’ve been using virtual assistants to great success for over five years.

My virtual assistants have handled a wide range of personal and professional tasks including travel planning, record keeping, processing payroll, appointment setting, screening job applicants, and even helping me find a new home!

The pros are that VAs are relatively inexpensive and generally are able to be nimble and help out across a variety of tasks.

And it’s great that overseas VAs get everything done for you overnight, so you wake up with work sorted and ready to go!

The cons are that not all VAs can do it all, and the quality of work from task to task can vary.

Also, it is a bit hard to build trust with a person on the other side of the world you’ve never met or spoken to outside of email or Slack.

When people ask me about VAs, I suggest you take on someone whose skills meet your needs.

For instance, if you know you need help posting on social media and putting up blog posts, don’t hire someone who specializes in lead gen and appointment setting.

Also, use a VA from a reputable service or hiring someone with good reviews from a site such as Upwork.

These are folks who are more likely to be good independent workers, and they’ll know what is expected of them.

Graham Onak seems to have figured it out:

We’re a fully remote marketing company.

I’ve personally hired / managed 80 remote contractors in the last 2.5 years.

Here are some tips for making it work.

  • Test small projects first. Always test a new virtual assistant or remote work with a small project. This is just a good rule when contracting anyone in general. This gives you a good understanding of how long it will take them to complete projects and how good / bad your margins will be for the work you’re hiring them to do.
  • Give very clear directions. It is vital you give clear direction to new assistants. This is especially true if English is not their primary language. Over communicate with them to make sure they’re not using time poorly.
  • Don’t go weeks without projects for your virtual worker. Contractors are quick to hop from job to job or often manage multiple clients at the same time. If you go weeks without sending work to your virtual workers it’s common for them to prioritize other work. Avoid this by keeping your best workers busy with projects all the time so they’re there when you need them. You can give them internal company projects to do if you don’t have active client work that needs to get done.

Repurpose and Reuse

Satya Kothimangalam has two primary tips to running her virtual agency.

I run a remote branding agency spread across Singapore, Philippines, Australia, and India—fully comprised of virtual staff (including VAs).

I have two tips:

  1. Show your VA how to complete a task with a short screen-capture video. It allows them to follow all the critical steps necessary to complete the task and learn from your expertise. This video can be re-used for all future VAs you hire.
  2. Get them to create a checklist for the task and all the steps it takes to complete it successfully. This checklist can be updated over time and acts as a Standard Operating Procedure for your future VAs.

These two tips make it super easy to get the right output from your VAs and ensure that your team can function easily even when new VAs join.

Up Next: The Best Conferences

We get a lot of questions about conferences.

Often they are about relevancy and value, but for the purposes of this article, we are going to assume conferences are valuable.

More to the point, for the next Big Question:

Which conferences would you recommend for PR professionals?

You can answer here, in our Slack community, or on the socials (use #SpinSucksQuestion so we can find you).

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich