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A guide to hiring virtual assistant services

Hiring Virtual Assistants

Why and when should you use virtual assistants

People think that the reason to hire new a Virtual Assistant (VA) is to free-up time. That is so wrong! The reasoning behind this is that it will cost less to pay someone to do a task than do it yourself, because the cost of an hour of your time is greatly superior than what you would pay your VA.

I disagree with this reasoning, because it will lead you to hire the cheapest help you can find and limit the growth of your business. Rather than helping, it will become an obstacle — because you will get stuck focusing on saving money, and having a poor team. You should focus instead on building a team that will help you become more productive, more profitable and ultimately, wealthier.

I personally like to add a second element to the equation, which is far more important and neglected: How much wealth will my VA generate for me.

Unless I can do something with the time I’d will recover, that will create double the wealth than the cost of the VA, I will do it myself. Why? Because I like to also save money and my time doesn’t always is worth same.

Now, Notice that I used the word wealth, and not money. While this two are related, they are usually mistakenly interchanged. Wealth is the combination of things that make you feel fulfilled in life. And while that varies from person to person, it is always a combination of:

  • nurturing good personal relationships,
  • being healthy, taking care of your body and soul
  • have freedom to do the things you love.

Money, usually helps us build wealth, but by itself it will never provide it. It is but an enabler.

So if I have some time in my hands, I can decide, if at that moment, it can be used to have better relationships, health and enjoyment, or it can be used to generate more money.

— For example:  last year when I moved from Bilbao to Barcelona I took a train and made a 6h (or so) r journey. I was “stuck” there for the good part of a day, I had already written and read a lot and had nothing better to do while I was seated waiting for my destination. So I decided to save a few bucks, and do some tasks by myself.

But once I was settled in Barcelona, 6 hours of free my time suddenly became way more valuable than 6 hours seated on a train. I decided that I would rather have someone else take care of my email while I walked around discovering the city.

It is not about the amount of money you are paying your VA, or how much you could save, but the wealth you generate with your time. You must focus on saving time so you can later invest it wisely.

Remember: Time is the ultimate currency, not money.

Spending more time in Barcelona is one of the best uses I’ve made for VA, but I didn’t always get ir right.  Once I tried to save some bucks on a task. We had migrated about 1,200 records from a really complex database that was poorly designed, just to find out that we needed to add some extra information to each record. That information wasn’t available on any database and needed to be searched for and manually imported. I decided that I could automate it by writing a spider/crawler (that’s a small piece of software designed to run autonomously) instead of paying a VA to do it manually. While I managed to write it and fix the data, it took me about 72 hours (my whole weekend). If measured in wealth, those 72 hours, cost was way beyond the cost of what a VA would charged to do it.

So choose wisely — we humans are terrible estimating time and effort. And remember, hiring a VA only to save money is a big mistake and it will surely backfire.

Hiring your Virtual Assistants

Rates and Savings

The process of hiring VAs should be treated as carefully as hiring any other member of your team. Don’t try to be cheap.

While one of the benefits of using VAs can be reduce your overhead, it is usually a bad reason to hire them. If you are tempted to calculate how much money you will save, don’t put their hourly rate in the equation, instead think of the other costs of having non remote employees: such as working space, computers, electricity, in some cases insurance and benefits and so on. Eliminating all those costs are already enough savings. Never go cheap on hourly rates, or you will end up with cheap results.

Remember: Virtual Assistants are there to help you generate wealth, not save money.

Write down a great job description

In order to get the results you are expecting, make sure to come up with a good job description, and I mean a really good one. If you read Spanish, you can find some great tips at Startup Jobs. If you don’t here is a general idea:

1. About You/Your Company:

Write a short paragraph describing what is your mission, what are your personally trying to achieve — or if it’s the case, your company’s mission.

Describe your culture: how is it to work with you or your company, what kind of values and behaviour is expected from your team and yourself.

The “Sell”, why should anyone want to work with you instead of anyone else (make sure you put a lot of love into this last one).

2. About the Job to be done

Their mission.

This is the most important aspect of the job description. Be concise and clear about what is the purpose of their position. Focus on the expected goal rather than in just a task.

For example: when I request help with managing my email, the goal is not to achieve inbox zero. It’s helping me to keep effective communication with my peers. That means that I need to get and reply to the most important messages with the least amount of time and effort.

Activities and Expected Results:

This are the tasks and what you expect from them. Still with the email example this would include:

  • open up my email everyday at 9am of my current timezone,
  • add meeting reminders to my calendar,
  • Reject to any invitation that is not related to the city I’m currently in
  • Mark as important/to read/to reply personally any email that matches the following rules (insert here my personal set of rules)
  • Delete unimportant messages.

Required Skills

Finally, an inventory of soft and hard skills they will need to excel at their work. This includes software they need to know, language they need to be proficient with. etc.

Considerations While Hiring

Choose their location wisely:

Depending on the work you require your VAs to do, you might want to pay attention to the time zone differences. If you need urgent tasks to be done, you probably don’t want to request them to be done at 3am, and likewise, you don’t want to be disturbed at 3am by your VA in order to make a decision. This is especially important when you have tasks that require constant and quick communication.

For Connovo, we have a weekly meeting every monday at 9 am. While I was living in Paris it was already 4pm for me, 7 hours later . While it was a brief interruption, it did break a bit my afternoon routine. But now that I’m Mexico, and I sometimes have to meetings with the London team at their 9am, I have to end up having calls at 2am. That is some bad planning on my side.

This doesn’t mean that you should only hire people in your timezones, this differences can also be an advantage, for example, if you hire someone who is 12 hours behind you it can be quite productive to send a task by the end of your day, just to find it completed by the time you start your next day, literally overnight.

So before hiring, decide what kind of communication you will have with that VA and include your time-zone requirements in your job description.

While Interviewing use the same tools you will use to work

Normally, people will tell you to always use Skype or Google Hangouts to interview your VAs. I personally don’t recommend it.

I learned this from from Matt Mullenweg — the wordpress guy. Unless the task demands your VA to use skype or phones, there is no need too. Instead, you want to find out how the communication works exactly the way they will when you are working. This avoids a the common mistakes of interviewing and hiring, like being biased by how someone looks or talks, when their job has nothing to do with those factors.

I once hired an Indian team over Elance to help us out with some custom coding Everything was going well until we had to discuss a certain feature by Skype. Man.. their accent was SO bad. I couldn’t understand a word they said. They could have sworn they english was perfect, since I was the only one in the call that couldn’t understand a thing. It was so bad that I had to end the call and ask we continue the conversation using text messages. This voice communication problem however, had nothing to do with the quality of the work they delivered. Had I decided to hire them or not, based based in a Skype call, I would probably never choose them and have lost a great team of developers.

But I have to be honest with you guys… I avoid Skype / Hangouts because I hate talking. I dislike it so much I don’t even own a mobile phone.

So unless your VA needs to use skype or similar tool to do their job, don’t use it as your first or main tool to interview them. Instead use the communication tools that you will use in a day to day workflow.

Cultural Fit and Trials

First of all, make sure they get your company’s or personal culture and values. While you are interviewing someone ask all the questions you need to confirm that they “get” you, your organization and what you are trying to achieve.

Specially if they are going to be acting on your behalf, using your name or being your assistant, they will represent you before the rest of the world. You don’t want someone that doesn’t represent your values being the voice of your organization.

In order to make sure you are hiring the right person, provide them with a small task that can help you measure up their performance against the rest of the candidates, that you have good communication and that they can be a good cultural match.

You can take a look at this scorecard to give you an idea of what you should be measuring. Just remember to change each evaluation criteria to match the task in hand. For each different position, you should design a different Scorecard.

Cultural Differences

An important aspect of cultural matching is not only between your AV and your company or yourself, but also with the culture your were brought up. If you are german, you might probably strike a VA from Philippines as cold or perhaps even rude. Take in account that your VAs are people too and as with any other employee you should take consider the emotional aspect of your relationship.

If you decide to go for a international VA rather than a local one, here is a pro-tip for matching cultures: look for countries where the food is similar to that of the country you grew up with. Food and Language are one of the most loyal chroniclers of any culture. If you food looks similar or uses similar ingredients it’s highly probable that your social interactions follow similar rules.

Working

Trials

While your new VA might have experience in similar jobs or serving customers in your industry or profile,  they can’t read minds.  Be sure you provide a clear description and understanding of how and what things are expected to be done.

Work closely during the first few weeks and then give them autonomy as your relationship matures and you “get” each other. During this process, you will also want to put a maximum budget per each task, you don’t want to return the day after just to see that your VA reported 20 hours to complete a task.

Knowledge Base

Remember provide all information for any given task and have a Knowledge Base (KB) to share. In this knowledge base you should have generic information your VAs will need to excel at their job, such as personal preferences on food, music and travel, personal internet accounts like Amazon, email accounts, calendars. Medical information such as allergies, doctors contacts,  past and current medical conditions. Pre-defined budgets for discretionary spending, gifts, education, travel etc.

This will save them and specially you TONS of time avoiding the dreaded email ping-pong where your VA replies your requests with more emails until they have the information they need.

Imagine yourself traveling abroad and request your VA to make a dinner reservation, without this KB, you will start a series of emails with questions like: “what’s your budget, what kind of food do you like, if I can’t find anything for your requested hour, what should I do?”  etc. 

Along with this KB, provide a FAQ and general guidelines for the most common procedures and decisions you need to make or get requests for clarification. Don’t worry if you don’t have a solid roadmap of procedures and FAQs. Most of us start from zero, and you can build it while on the go.

Derek Sivers — CD Baby’s founder — had micro-meetings for every new question an employee came up with. “Derek, a customer wants his money back, should we return it?” Derek, a customer is making a special request, what should I do”. During this micro-meeting he gathered all employees that could have the same question and he answered only once.

Likewise Tim Ferris gave a blank check to his employees in order for them to make decisions that cost less than $50. They had full authority to make the call, that way he wasn’t bugged with repetitive questions, but more importantly, he made sure his customers received a prompt and satisfying service.

While I’m not personally running  a company this days, I’ve given VAs full access to my Amazon account, with simple instructions, use Kindle Unlimited as much as you consider it necessary to achieve your goal — even if its to buy a title for themselves. And you can buy any book that costs less than 35 dollars for me without asking.

Consider this, you will usually be the middleman between your VA and your common goal. That being making a reservation or contacting customers, or taking care of your household. Avoid being the middle man by providing them with all what they need to be independent, including communication to other VAs and the rest of your team.

 

Screen Recording

When it comes to tasks that can be considered a bit technical, I like to record myself doing the task once, and explaining each step out-loud. I’ll then just upload and send the video attached to a request. This works wonders as you need to explain it only once, even if you happen to change VA or need to add more VAs to your current team.

For example, my family has a small magazine that has been published for more than 30 years. When we started to improve the website, I personally configured and setup wordpress as the backend and the theme. This required that for every article posted, specific information was included in the backend. Instead of sending a checklist in an email template, I recorded myself posting 5 articles and then send that as a “training video” for the journalists.

If you are on Mac, you I recommend highly Screenflow I can’t remember what I used before it, but since I tried it about 3 years ago I haven’t needed any other recording software. It also works great for recording presentations, online calls and conferences. It’s only $99, and if you think it might be expensive, think again… It will pay itself with the first time you need to explain a complex task to your VA, and by the second time it will already be generating time-profit.

If you are on PC, I’ve heard great things about Camtasia.

Automate Before and After Delegating

I can’t stress this enough. Before asking something to be done, evaluate the possibility of automating it — specially if it’s not a one-timer. For example, you might consider requesting a VA to pay your bills every month using your credit card. While this is a way to save some time, your bank probably already offers a similar service.

You also want to automate your requests whenever its possible. For example, you can setup a feed using IFTTT to send an email to you VA requesting the purchase of an product whenever you tweet about it using the hashtag #tobuy.

IFTTT started as a simple service to automate internet services, and has become a really powerhouse to connect physical objects, services and people. Take a look at their channels (services it can interact with) to see in how many ways you can take advantage of it.

They are part of your team, treat them as such.

Team Building

Remember how we talked that saving money is a terrible reason to get VAs? That is because you don’t want cheap people working for you, you want to strengthen your team. Likewise, VAs while remote, also want to feel they are part of a larger team, working for a common goal. Make sure to include them, and treat them as part as such.

Pay a fair wage, a bit more than the average salary in their country goes a long way, but that’s not enough they need to feel part of your organization and be motivated, and more money usually doesn’t do the trick.

If they aren’t kept in the loop, Virtual Assistants can feel like second-class workers, or that they are not part of your team. Even if you use Va’s for a few tasks a week or a month, you want them to feel included, engaged and to become part of your company.

If you ever happen to visit the city your VA is, invite them for lunch or simply to meetup and have a cup of coffee, almost no one will ever do this and you will both benefit from having some face to face quality time.

Make sure you are sending reasonable amount of work, if you overload your workers they might accept the extra paid hours, but eventually it can fire back, by decreasing the quality of work or start making mistakes. If you have more work to be done, consider hiring extra  people rather than over-working your team.

Give creative with bonuses, usually small things plane tickets to a weekend getaway is very well received, if you need to go small surprise them with gift cards. When I can’t afford large bonuses, I give full access to use my kindle unlimited account on Amazon. To my surprise, this was one of the most appreciated “bonuses” if we consider it as such, because it provided them with the tools to learn new skills and become better at their work, for which they can later use to more money.

Upgrading Virtual Assistants to Remote Workers

It’s not only for small tasks, companies like 37signals and WP Curve rely on full time remote workers. If you have a virtual assistant that has provided a high quality service, consider hiring them full time.

The first one, as the names suggest, is assisting you, to make your life easier and free up your personal time. Whereas the latter, requires more independence, has more responsibilities.

If there is a job in your company that would normally require a part-time or full time person, maybe you want to skip the VA’s and go directly for Remote Workers.

I asked Dan Norris from WP Curve if they used any VA’s and this was his answer:

We have 4 full time admin people. All of our team work remotely so I guess you could call them VAs, we just call them the Admin and QA team

If you are an entrepreneur, it can get tricky to differentiate what do you need, since you usually do every thinkable task. A simply way to define what you need, — a VA or a RW — simply ask yourself:

“If we had all our positions covered would this task be done by my assistant or a different person within the company?”


So, I think I’ve covered as much as I can think regarding my experience hiring VAs to recover time and be more productive. If you have any question or topic that I haven’t covered please do send me a message hjbarraza@gmail.com or @hjbarraza and I’ll reply ASAP.

Bonus: Tools and Resources

Books

If you want to learn more about VAs and Remote Workers take a look at this books:

 

Where to get VA’s

Software

  • IFTTT: automated internet services.
  • Screenflow (mac) and Camtasia (pc): Record your screen and voice.
  • Gmail: the most efficient email service, remember to setup tags and aliases.
  • Google Forms: Use it to have VAs deliver reports
  • Slack: Team chat, it’s our main communication tool at Connovo and Talentia.

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