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Ultimate Virtual Assistant Guide

By Mark Shead 50 Comments


I have been experimenting with using virtual assistants. I’ve worked with two, one in the US for about two weeks and one in India for two months. It has been an excellent learning experience and I wanted to share it with everyone in the form of this guide. My goal is to give readers a good idea of how a remote assistant can help them, along with an idea of the benefits and drawbacks. This guide should give you a pretty good idea of what you need to get started working with a virtual assistant and should help you avoid some of the errors I made in the process.

I am also going to look at the idea of having a local assistant and how that compares to working with their virtual counterpart. It is easy to get enamored with the concept of a remote executive assistant and overlook local options that may be much more appropriate.

If you want to read a story about interacting with US and Australian virtual assistants checkout: Offending the Entire VA Industry

My Experiment

I worked with a virtual assistant in the US for about two weeks. She ended up just disappearing and I lost some money on it. I had her do a few tasks, mainly as an experiment, to see how things worked out.

My second experiment was working with Brickworks India. They are a very reputable firm and I thought I would have better experience working with them rather than trying to find someone on my own. I was right. They were extremely professional. I hired one of their remote executive assistants for 40 hours per week for two months.

My assistant, Rajani, worked from about 3:30 am until 1:30 pm. I was always a bit confused on the exact time, because right after we started, daylight savings time kicked in and threw things off. In addition, India has a timezone that is offset by an additional 30 minutes to what we are used to in the US, so that added to my confusion.

Rajani was extremely competent. She had previously worked at Dell as one of their customer service reps. Her spoken English was perfect. I had Rajani do a lot of work related to Productivity501. For example, she compiled a list of related bloggers for our last big interview project. She also handled locating and resizing images for the new layout of the site.

I found that it usually took a bit longer to train her how to do something than I anticipated. However, once she learned it, she would remember it weeks later without needing to be shown again. For example, I had her setting up email campaigns for one of my clients. It is a fairly complicated process of pulling in an email template, creating a target group, and then scheduling the email. We did a screen sharing session and went through the process several times. The first time, I did it and just let her watch. The second time, she did it and I walked her through the process, the third time, she did it and I just watched–only intervening if she got really stuck or was about to do something that would cause a problem.

Several days after I showed her how to do this, I got an email from her, saying, “I see there is a new event scheduled like the one I previously sent out a campaign for. Would you like me to do the same for it?” I was very impressed with this because she wasn’t just working off of a task list. She was anticipating future actions based on previous ones–something that is very valuable to me.

At the end of two months I decided to not renew the retainer. While I was very happy with her work, I realized that hiring someone locally was more cost effective for me–especially given the part of the country I live in where $6 to $7 per hour is considered pretty good pay for many people. Also my parents are both local teachers–one at the local junior college and the other at a small private school. This means I have two great sources for locating up and coming talent who will soon be looking for jobs.

What a Virtual Assistant Can Do

Most tasks that need done on a computer can be done by a virtual assistant. It all depends on your current work flow. If you use a paper based system for managing addresses, they probably can’t help you with that unless you are willing to go digital. As long as it can be done remotely they can do anything from acting as a virtual secretary, virtual receptionist or virtual personal assistant.

Here are a list of things I had Rajani do that worked out well:

  • Research other websites that met a certain set of criteriaSpecifically, I was looking for blogs about productivity topics whose authors might be interested in being interviewed. I provided a great deal of guidance, showing her where to look for sites, how to tell the quality of the site, etc. She produced a spreadsheet with all the sites and attributes I was looking for.

  • Email people about interviewsRajani did a great job of sending out my interview questions and then compiling the results. She would let me know if someone had a question that I needed to respond to. At first, I had her send these out from her own account, but then I just gave her access to do it from mine. That way I’d see any responses that came in during the afternoon and could reply to any questions.

  • Organizing contactsI wanted to keep the people who responded to the interview in my address book. Rajani used Plaxo to add people to the appropriate category. She broke everything down by which questions each person answered so I could notify people when their answers went live.

  • Setting AppointmentsIt was Sunday evening, and I needed to get an appointment to have my car serviced when I was in another city. I sent Rajani and email asking her to find a VW dealership and set up and appointment for me near where I would be staying. Monday morning, as I was on my trip, she emailed me the appointment time, address and contact number. This was in stark contrast of trying to use the Amex Concierge service.

Here are some of the things that didn’t work quite so well:

  • Compose and send an emailWhile Rajani’s written English was excellent for communicating with me, there are some major differences between Indian English and American English. If she wrote something, I usually spent time correcting it to make it more “Americanized” and usually this took as much time as it would have taken to write it myself. Instead I started just writing an email myself and sending it to her to send out to several people–or to customize and use.

  • Editing and ProofreadingOnce again, the differences in English showed up. Editing and proofreading didn’t seem to be something that worked particularly well.

  • Writing Summaries of ArticlesI had Rajani locate 10 articles on various topics and then put together a post along with links. She did a great job of locating the articles, but the summaries still suffered from the differences in the language. At first I started to try to change them, but found it was faster to just write them myself.

  • Writing Biographical SummaryI was looking for some biographical information about George Washington to use at Leadership501. It turns out that this type of project is difficult to do without the cultural context. If you want to see for yourself, try to write a short paper on the first president of India and then give it to someone who was born and raised there to read.

As you can see, most of the things that weren’t successful were related to language differences. It is easy to underestimate the differences when you can communicate with someone verbally with out any issues.

Virtual assistants can’t do physical tasks. Personally I found that a number of the things that would really save me time are physical. Depending on your needs, you may find that a lot of the benefit of having an executive assistant is to do physical stuff. Here are some of the things that would save me a lot of time but require physical presence.

  • Running to the store to get something.

  • Working with local companies where doing things in person will help get things done much quicker.

  • Sending out information packets.

  • Taking my car to the shop.

  • Unpacking books and files.

  • Organizing physical items.

  • Tidying up the office.

  • Picking up dry cleaning.

  • House/Dog sitting.

How Much Do Virtual Assistants Cost?

The rates charged by virtual assistants is highly variable. I have had people offer to do stuff for me for as little as $1 per hour. If you look at ODesk, you’ll see many people looking for work at $2 to $5 per hour. With a global market, you can often get much more than you pay for.

With some of more reputable companies in India, you’ll be looking at paying $8 to $15 per hour.

Brickworks is setup on a retainer model. In general, for a remote executive assistant you will pay about $2,000 per month for someone full time and $1,200 for someone half time. While this may be more expensive than someone you could find on your own, they have a technical support staff to help them. The IT department keeps their computers virus free, limits internet access to sites related to their work, fixes any problems that arise, etc. If you are extremely technical it can be frustrating because you will want to change something on their computer to tweak this or that. If you aren’t extremely technical, it is wonderful because you don’t have to worry if your information is going to be stolen by some piece of malware that was inadvertently installed on their machine.

Make sure you understand how vacations work and factor that into your cost analysis. If you are paying for a monthly retainer, you will probably be paying for vacation time as well. This isn’t a big deal, but it can change the amount you end up paying per hour.

If you are looking for someone based in the US, you’ll still find a wide range of pricing.  It is possible to find people in the $7 per hour range–particularly if you look at people who live in parts of the country where the cost of living is very low. Most of the people who are working full time as virtual assistants say you should expect to pay $20 to $50 per hour for a good administrative assistant.

Virtual vs. Local

There are some advantages to hiring a virtual assistant–someone who works from somewhere else. Here are some of the main advantages:

  • Simplified taxes. With a remote assistant, it is rather easy to show the IRS that they aren’t an employee.

  • Lower prices. If you live in a very high cost area, you can hire someone from a low cost area. For example, if you live in LA, you may get a much better deal hiring someone from rural Nebraska than locally.

  • Better talent. It might be possible to find better talent than what is available or what you could afford locally. An MBA in India could cost you significantly less for better skill than what you’d pay in NYC.

  • Work hours. If you hire an assistant in a different timezone, they may be able to do a lot of work while you sleep. For example, if you send them a project at 7 in the evening, they may be able to have it completed by the time you get ready to work in the morning.

  • Different attitude. In some cases, you may find you like the attitude of a virtual assistant much better than someone you could find locally. This can be related to cultural differences, but it also can be related to how much someone is being paid relative to their living expenses.

  • Pay only for what you need. Sometimes you can structure arrangements to only use services when you need them. This can be much less expensive if you have a a very low number of tasks that can be outsourced.

  • Flexible number of workers. Some companies will give you one primary virtual assistant and add as many helpers as necessary to get your job done in time. This doesn’t work for every type of task, but if you need to do a bunch of data entry or something similar it can help you get things done very rapidly.

  • No physical space. A virtual assistant isn’t going to take up office space. You won’t have to purchase another desk or chair and most of the time you won’t need to buy another computer.

Virtual assistant
Virtual assistant
Virtual assistant
Virtual assistant