A virtual assistant is a flexible helping hand for a small business

by Tina Nielsen – April 1, 2014

Fledgling SMEs can struggle to afford full-time employees, and this is where virtual assistants can step in. Tina Nielsen explores how these flexible professionals could help your company

Updating social media, writing newsletters and responding to customer enquiries are all tasks that most entrepreneurs find time-consuming, getting in the way of winning new business.

But while they are still growing SMEs often simply can’t afford to take on employees. The solution for many is to employ virtual assistants (VAs), trained professionals who work with entrepreneurs on a freelance basis. A VA has their own equipment and clients and they work in their own home. It is easy to keep in touch with them via email, telephone or Skype.

Working with VAs also means you don’t have to deal with all the administrative and legal issues of employing staff. “Employees are entitled to sick pay, maternity leave and paid holiday and often seek generous benefits packages,” says Justine Curtis of the UK Association of Virtual Assistants. “It is estimated that the true cost of an employee is over double and often up to triple the cost of their annual salary in terms of benefits and liabilities.”

The flexibility factor

The main attraction in VAs is the flexibility according to Julie Hall, the founder of Women Unlimited who has worked with VAs for several years.

“They do a lot of admin tasks that are just time consuming, but not high value activities. So I tend to outsource things that are relatively straightforward to do, process and task oriented,” she says.

“They can often do things that I don’t feel like learning and I don’t want to figure out how to do myself. You might get a VA to update your website, those things that just might feel a bit tricky or you don’t have time to learn, so you get people with those skills,” says Hall.

Gail Morgan from image and personal branding consultancy Study in Style says those looking to hire a VA should work out what they don’t like doing first. “That way you can do what you are good at. It enables me to do the things that I do best, which is not sending out emails. I know how to do the newsletter, so I could do it, but it takes me far longer than my VA doing it,” she says.

Some entrepreneurs go beyond a VA and outsource everything. Cassie Hicks Kerr, the founder of online marketing firm Modern Marketing Spark, uses a whole virtual team, which includes two VAs. They deal with things such as content syndication and sending out a regular newsletter. “I have a lot of clients so I need a lot of support. I outsource all the tasks that I don’t want to do or don’t have the skills for,” she says.

Clear communication

It is vital to be very clear about terms right from the start to avoid any problems or unexpected bills. Says Hall: “What works best for me is when they use time tracking software, so you know they are tracking their time. You can use a software called getharvest.com where you get a report to see what they have worked on so you know how they spend their time.”

For Hicks Kerr it is important to compartmentalise the VAs in clearly defined areas. “I did have somebody who did lots of different things, so when it all went wrong she left us high and dry. When I get people now I make sure each of them have a specific task, so if anything went wrong with one of them it doesn’t affect the whole business,” she says.

Another tip is to stay away from generalists who list lots of different skills. “You don’t want a jack of all trades, you want somebody who has done newsletters before, enjoys doing them and will do a good job,” says Hicks Kerr.

“I would hire that person just doing the newsletter. If I need help with social media then I’ll get somebody who specialises in doing social media.”

Trust

Treat the recruitment process as you would with any employee joining your business, so do your research. “Get on to Skype to see the person and the environment they are working in. On sites like peopleperhour the VAs are rated and you can get references. Check their social media profile, their Klout score. Get a sense whether they are doing the right stuff,” explains Hicks Kerr.

Of course this research is especially important because you develop a relationship of trust over time. A VA will get to know your business and you share confidential information like passwords with them. But for many recruiting a VA is best done through personal recommendations and networking.

So is there a point where a VA is no longer the best solution? For Hall that point has come now and she has recently taken on two part-time employees. “VAs are a great asset to give you that flexibility when you are growing, figuring out what you need. I am at a time in my business where I want people to own goals for the business,” she explains. “I think virtual assistants are fantastic for doing tasks but if you want to have somebody who is responsible for getting results in your business they need to be employed.”

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