How to Find and Hire a Virtual Assistant for Your Small Business
If you've read Tim Ferriss' 4-Hour Work Week or any number of productivity blogs, you'll get a sense of the excitement small business owners have for hiring Indian virtual assistants. The hope is to hire an entry-level, college-graduate backoffice employee for around $5 per hour. But it's not as easy as putting up a flyer at the local community college. Working with someone remotely (ie., not physically in your office), and in another country, presents some unique challenges.
In the end, it'll cost about $10-15 per hour, but you'll have an employee that is a college graduate (sometimes with advanced degrees) at around minimum wage. And if you hire a firm, instead of an individual, you can get multiple expertise in "one employee."
Following are 10 tips for finding, vetting and hiring a virtual assistant.
1. Don't expect them to be experts.
A VA is not a super-human who can do every task you have to assign. Don't expect your VA to have specific industry expertise or to be able to accomplish higher level business strategy thinking. For those higher level tasks, you'll need to hire a specialized consultant or firm.
For project based work, it might make more sense to contract out that project specifically. The benefits of hiring on a project basis include:
- a clear end date, so you're not stuck in a long-term contract with a badly performing employee;
- greater expertise because presumably, you're hiring a firm or freelancer who specializes in that type of work.
Sometimes you have a need for a mix of project and ongoing work. For example, let's say you need to build a website or ecommerce storefront. It might make more sense to hire a web design firm that specializes in building ecommerce stores (flat project fee), and then sign a retainer contract with them for maintenance work.
To clarify, you can hire all kinds of expertise, from IT gurus to business consultants and everything in between, from India and other popular outsourcing nations. But they aren't selling their services as "virtual assistants." They're specialized service providers, and hiring that group of contractors is not what we're talking about here.
2. Think of your VA as an entry-level college grad willing to work for minimum wage.
Good tasks to outsource to a VA are ones where the procedure is relatively simple, there aren't a lot of decision points (if any) in the workflow, and is a repetitive process. For example:
- data entry: like entering hundreds of products into your ecommerce store;
- blog or website maintenance: blog posting, comment moderation;
- research and report: as in doing Internet research and compiling summaries of the data.
3. Make a list of your tasks and categorize them based on the type of work.
Before looking for a VA, spend a week or two writing down all the tasks you may want to outsource. Consider both tasks you need to do but don't like doing and tasks that you like to do but haven't found the time. Once you have this list, organize tasks based on the following criteria:
- requires domain or industry expertise vs. anyone can do with training;
- one-off task vs. ongoing tasks.
Tasks that don't require domain expertise are better for outsourcing to an offshore VA. First of all, it's easier to train them to do the task properly. Second, if the task requires specific expertise, you're better off hiring a specialty consultant and/or a full-time, long-term employee who can grow with your company.
Tasks that are ongoing are better for assigning to a VA because you'll get a bigger return on the investment of writing up instructions.
4. You'll save some money, but it's not going to make or break your business.
Speaking very broadly, the minimum hourly rate of an entry-level, college-educated employee in India starts at about $2 per hour. Here in the U.S., the equivalent rate is around $10 per hour (minimum wage plus benefits and perks).
At first glance, it seems like you will be able to shave 80% off your administrative payroll, but working with someone thousands of miles away adds significant transactional costs. It will take you more time to explain a task and train them to do it. And since hiring an employee (especially one in a different country) can be a big risk, you may be more confident working with a firm. The firm will have overhead, and will need to turn a profit themselves.
In practice, a capable VA that produces good work will cost around $10-15 an hour. For very simple data entry or data compilation (ie., copy-and-paste work), you can find an individual or small firm off Elance for $5 per hour. For tasks more involved than copy-and-paste, and for quality you'd trust for engagement beyond one project, expect to pay around $10-15 per hour for a VA.
5. A firm is better for most small business needs.
VA service providers come in all sizes. Big VA specializing firms include Brickwork India (India), Get Friday (India), and BPOVIA (China). And there are thousands of boutique firms and one-man operations on Elance.
Firms are better if you have diverse tasks. When working with a firm, you'll be assigned one lead VA, who will be your single point of contact. This VA may do the tasks you assign herself, or she could delegate them to a team of other VAs.
Firms are also good for slowly scaling up the number of hours you outsource. A freelancing individual will be less able to handle swings in contracted hours from month to month.
An individual is good if you're always assigning the same task. For example, if you want help for managing the product pages on your ecommerce store -- and only that specific work -- then it might make sense to hire a freelance expert for that task. Without the overhead of a firm, individuals can have a lower hourly rate if you commit to more hours.
6. Interview your potential VA on the phone before hiring them.
Whether you're hiring a firm or individual, be sure to talk to them on the phone before you hire them.
Have prepared for the interview:
- Tasks you want to offload. When talking to a firm, this information helps them assign a VA to you that is qualified for your type of work.
- Number of hours you expect to buy. VAs want to know how many hours a week/month you're committing to so they can plan their own cashflow, client portfolio, and work schedules.
- Daily expectations of availability. Do they need to be at work and online at the same time as you?
- Typical task schedule. Are you assigning tasks that need immediate resolution or ones that can be worked on at any time over the next few days or weeks?
Ask for this information:
- Resume. Check their educational and work experience.
- Examples of prior work. Get actual work product, rather than just descriptions of work done, whenever possible.
- Non-disclosure agreement. This contract should be standard with any hire.
- What are some recent movies they liked? (See tip #10 regarding cultural considerations.)
7. India isn't your only option.
In fact, there are plenty of remote workers right here in the United States. Even if you hire from the U.S. (onshore outsourcing), there may be significant cost savings based on the different minimum wages imposed by states and the wide ranging costs of living.
Going offshore, India isn't your only option. Europe, Asia (especially the Philippines), and South Africa are becoming big producers of VA providers themselves. The common thread? They all have large English speaking populations and much lower costs of living (compared to the U.S.).
8. Don't forget about security.
Another reason to go with a big firm -- they tend to have security policies and procedures in place. At a bare minimum, sign a non-disclosure agreement with the service provider. When working with a firm, make sure they also have NDAs with their employees. Also ask the provider what other security measures they take. Some examples:
- Do they permanently delete your data once the task or contract is up?
- Do they have regular backups of data? Do they store these backups offsite?
- How do they secure physical access to your information? Who can get into the building? Who can get into the data center where the servers are kept?
- What procedures do they have in place to prevent employees from walking away with sensitive data? (Eg., not allowing USB thumb drives to access work computers, NDA with employees.)
9. Try before you buy.
Try hiring freelancers for one-off projects from Elance first. This will give you some experience in dealing with a remote worker. Plus reading the submitted bids and browsing the providers on Elance will give you a sense of the quality and expertise available out there.
Elance is like eBay for individual freelancers and boutique firms. It's better than doing a Google search because on Elance, the service provider has at least articulated their expertise in a concise form and have established a reputation based on reviews from past clients.
I've hired people on Elance for data entry, writing, video editing, and Internet research. Not surprisingly, the lowest cost providers inevitably produce the lowest quality work. And conversely, the providers with the most number of reviews and past jobs provided the best quality work. Just like in real life, (a) you get what you pay for, and (b) nothing beats previous experience and employer references when evaluating a potential new hire.
You can also try buying blocks of time from outsourcing firms. Brickwork India and Get Friday offer prepaid blocks of time in 10 hour increments. You'll pay a higher rate (about $15) per hour but it's a good way to fieldtest a firm.
10. Consider legal, cultural and language issues when working with offshore help.
If you're hiring offshore, remember that your VA lives and works in a different country.
If you deal with sensitive customer information, consider the legal ramifications before you outsource your entire business to your Indian VA.
Although American culture has been exported worldwide in movies and websites, there are still many cultural differences. Even if the tasks you assign don't need your VA to deal with customers or other people, it's still important to consider cultural and language familiarity. This is one reason why a voice interview is so critical before hiring offshore help. It's an important test for whether or not you'll be able to communicate (and work with) your VA.
Next week, I'll have 9 tips for working with your newfound virtual assistant.
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