Everything You Need to Know About Hiring a Virtual Assistant

You’ve probably heard the term “virtual assistant” or “VA” tossed around the entrepreneurial world lately. That’s not surprising. Given that the rate of self-employed Canadians has been on the rise, with almost 3 million Canadians working for themselves, the need for assistance has never been greater. Everything from managing your calendar and emails to booking events and even your bookkeeping, VAs can do almost anything.

But entrepreneurs, particularly small business owners and sole proprietors, can’t necessarily afford or even need to hire an employee for administrative support. What if you could contract a freelancer with the skills and ready to hit the ground running? Someone who knows how to work remotely, is trustworthy, and helps you get what you need to get done?

Welcome to the world of virtual assistants!

What is a virtual assistant (VA)?

A virtual assistant is like an executive assistant but goes beyond that role. They are contracted to do tasks you assign to them, provide customer service if necessary, take initiative, and problem solve. The fact that they’re virtual means they can essentially do this online from anywhere in the world online. 

Not all virtual assistants are alike, though. Each virtual assistant comes with their own skill set and expertise, and it really depends on what you’re looking for. But more often than not, because more virtual assistants are being contracted by small business entrepreneurs just like you, the need for a general virtual assistant is greater—basically someone who can do it all. A Jack of all trades, so to speak.

This leaves you free to do what you love: run your business.  

What types of virtual assistants are there?

Despite many virtual assistants offering a plethora of services that might peg them as generalists, there are defined assistant types. Choosing which type of virtual assistant you need will depend on what types are available. 

Administrative virtual assistant 

Administrative virtual assistants are generalists (also known as general virtual assistants), and they are good at what they do. They are also the most common among freelancers, taking the place of an administrative assistant. They are also the ones many entrepreneurs turn to. 

A virtual administrative assistant is like a general office assistant who can manage your communications, appointments, keep track of reporting, and other essential tasks of your business. 

Ecommerce virtual assistant 

Given the change in purchasing trends, particularly in 2020, while the retail sector took a plunge, ecommerce skyrocketed, almost doubling in sales. Those are big numbers and can put a lot of pressure on small business owners. It’s no wonder that entrepreneurs are turning to specialized help like ecommerce virtual assistant services. 

Ecommerce virtual assistants can look after tasks such as:

  • Transactions, inventory, and processing orders
  • Inventory
  • Ecommerce website management such as SEO product descriptions and images
  • Customer service support, including email and phone support
  • Communications between brand experts and website designers
  • Assistance with media marketing

Ecommerce virtual assistants also need to be experts at eCommerce platforms such as Shopify, Etsy, and social media shops. They also need to be skilled with payment management systems like Moneris and Stripe

Data entry virtual assistant 

Data entry is not a fun task, to say the least, and it takes away from what you need to be doing the most: running your business. Data entry virtual assistants are meticulous and are adept at seemingly rote tasks. They are also a bit more affordable than other virtual assistant types. 

A list of some of the tasks they do includes: 

  • Sorting and compiling data for entry
  • Data management and tracking
  • Report population
  • Reviewing accuracy

Social media virtual assistant

Like ecommerce, small business owners have been turning to social media marketing for branding, promotion, and increased sales more than ever before. Not using social media runs the risk of losing a wide target market that you would otherwise have. But given the amount of work and pressure a new business owner has, social media management can be one of the most stressful and time-consuming jobs. That also includes learning how to use social media marketing effectively. 

Here are some of the jobs a social media virtual assistant can take on:

  • Setting up and managing social media accounts 
  • Design and brand strategy
  • Content creation and scheduling
  • Tracking performance and reacting to lags
  • Build a network of followers and potential clients

Virtual assistant writers 

You may not realize it, but how often do we read content in a day? A lot! While freelance writers often do this, this is also a job virtual assistants with a particular writing skill set can do. There is some overlap between virtual assistant writers and social media virtual assistants. This is where you might even be able to hire one to do both. 

Here are some of the jobs you can delegate to your virtual assistant writer:

  • Blog posts, ebooks, and newsletters
  • Writing and/or editing visual media
  • Writing social media posts
  • Ghostwriting
  • Correspondence
  • Grant proposals
  • Website copywriting

Virtual assistant writers are often freelance writers. Freelance writers are skilled at what they do and usually have formal education in communications, journalism, marketing, or creative writing, but this isn’t always necessary for freelancers. 

Virtual assistant bookkeeper 

If your business is booming and your bookkeeping is cumbersome for you to manage yourself, you may need to hire a VA bookkeeper. The nice thing is that almost everything is digital now, so your bookkeeper doesn’t need to be in the same geographical location as you. With password-protected software like QuickBooks and Wave, multiple people can collaborate. 

Virtual assistant bookkeepers can do more than just plug numbers into columns. Here’s a list of the jobs you can delegate to your bookkeeper:

  • Record keeping and bookkeeping
  • Cash flow reconciliation 
  • Expenditure management
  • Payroll and bills processing
  • Bank, loans, and credit card management
  • Tax preparation
  • Budgeting

When looking for a virtual assistant bookkeeper, you will want to make sure they are skilled not just with Excel spreadsheets, but Google Docs, QuickBooks, Wave, or other accounting software, and they must have a firm grasp of accounting math. You may want to consider their years of experience before testing them out. 

Real estate virtual assistant

Real estate VAs are specialized in a niche market. Although, just like other virtual assistants, many of their skill sets should be transferable to different industries. 

Real estate virtual assistants must have a working knowledge of the real estate industry, such as required paperwork, deadlines, and the ability to communicate in market terms. They work in a more executive assistant role with tailored expertise. They also need to be very client-oriented as they will most likely be speaking with some of your potential clients at some point during business transactions. 

A real estate virtual assistant will do many of the administrative and social media virtual assistant tasks, but with a real estate slant. Here are some of those tasks:

  • Real estate ad management and data-scraping
  • Communicating with marketing teams, property inspectors, appraisers, and other professionals
  • Creating and sending communications, including emails, newsletters, flyers, and brochures, to potential clients and other industry professionals
  • Calendar management 
  • Social media management
  • Daily communications via email and/or telephone
  • Property and market searches and research
  • Daily administrative support

Virtual research assistant

Of all the virtual assistant types, a virtual research assistant is not the most common. The skills required to be a virtual research assistant are a bit different, but this can be a rewarding job. 

Basically, a virtual research assistant researches for their client. The research matter depends on the industry in which their client works, and this is where a research VA can become even more niche. A virtual research assistant with skills in the real estate market is different from a virtual research assistant who has expertise in technology and market trends. They may also need to come with a few years of experience in research.

This doesn’t mean that virtual research assistants can’t learn a different industry—that’s what they do! Research and learn!

Here are some jobs you can delegate to a virtual research assistant:

  • Search for credible reports, research, and websites that will give your client current and accurate information
  • Compile research data and prepare reports
  • Analyze research gathered and provide recommendations on that research
  • Identify business growth opportunities 
  • Researching best marketing practices for your business
  • Any statistics that are relevant to your business.

A big difference for virtual research assistants is that they need to be far more proactive in deciding what to research. They need to be the ones to identify what issue or topic would be worth looking into, and then doing so and presenting you with their findings. This can take some time and trust. 

What can you outsource to virtual assistants?

There are a lot of tasks you can outsource to virtual assistants. Basically, whatever you are unable to do yourself, a VA can probably do for you. But it’s important to also know what you can’t outsource to a virtual assistant. 

Here’s a breakdown of what you can and can’t delegate to your virtual assistant freelancer:

Do’s

  • Administrative assistant work
  • Bookkeeping
  • Data entry and management
  • Email and phone communications
  • Bookings and calendar management
  • Payroll and expenses
  • Social media management
  • Copy and content writing
  • Customer service

Don’ts

  • Business development decisions
  • Advice on business strategy
  • Hiring and firing staff
  • Any HR-related tasks like staff training
  • Client relations like intake, hosting meetings, and such
  • A single one-off job
  • Anything else you wouldn’t do yourself

When should you hire a virtual assistant?

A lot of small business owners start thinking about hiring a VA when they’re overwhelmed. That’s not the time to do it. In fact, setting about hiring a virtual assistant is just one more thing on your already overflowing list, and the likelihood of you hiring someone who is the right fit for you when you’re pressured and burnt out is slim. 

Entrepreneurs should think about hiring a virtual assistant long before they are overwhelmed. It’s all about strategic planning. But when is that?

Here are a few signs:

You’re doing more administrative work than business work

This is when the alarms should start to go off. When you’re spending the bulk of your time answering emails, updating your website, invoicing clients, managing bookings, and sorting financials, rather than actually doing what you set out to do with your business, you need administrative support. You need a virtual assistant. 

Anyone can complete these tasks for you. What you need to do is find the right person to do that and get back to working on your business and seeing it grow. In the long term, it’ll save you time and money. 

You’re losing motivation

Not every day is going to be an exciting one. Running a business is hard, and there will be times when you struggle to get through the day.

But this shouldn’t be a regular thing. If you find yourself dreading waking in the morning, or struggling to sleep at night, or when you sit down at your laptop, you simply can’t start picking away at the ever-growing list of things to do, you need a virtual assistant. 

Loss of motivation is one of the biggest factors in new business owners not being able to build their business. And that could spell business failure. Having the option to hand off administrative tasks to a virtual assistant can free up some of your time, so you can take a breath and get back to doing what you set out to do in the first place.

Things aren’t getting done

This is a pretty obvious one. If you’ve forgotten to invoice clients, pay bills, order stock, or respond to emails, maybe it’s time for another set of hands on deck. There are everyday tasks that need to be done in order for a business to continue, but it’s easy to let those tasks slide. Flagging an email for a response later doesn’t mean it’s looked after. 

If things aren’t getting done, that can spell disaster for your business and is a sure sign you need a virtual assistant. 

You’re earning enough to hire someone

This is an obvious one. If you don’t have the funds, hiring a virtual assistant might not be the most prudent move. 

But if you find yourself in any of the scenarios above and can justify it in your budget and your financial forecast is looking healthy, then it’s time to start sending out a job posting. 

The benefits of hiring a virtual assistant

They’re cost-effective

Hiring a freelance virtual assistant is far more cost-effective than hiring an employee and far more economical than slogging through the work yourself. Again, it’s long-term time and money savings. 

Virtual assistants are contractors, not employees. This means you aren’t responsible for any of their tax deductions or health benefits. They simply invoice you, and they take care of the rest. This also means that what they bill you for is the time actually spent working, not idle time. Unlike employees, who work for a set amount of hours, virtual assistants bill for the hours they actually work for you. 

Hiring a virtual assistant saves a lot of money on overhead and staffing costs. They work from their own location with their own equipment. You don’t need to provide them with anything that isn’t specialized (you may need to foot the bill for accounting management software for them to use, for example). 

They ease overflow burden

Virtual assistants are there to help ease your workload. You know those tasks on your list that have been there for ages? Those are the tasks that you can outsource to a virtual assistant. 

Being able to scratch menial or rote tasks off your list not only helps ease the workload but is good for your mental health. In order for you to really dive into the work that matters to you, you need to have a clean slate and a clear head. 

They give you the freedom to get back to what is important

You know those friends you haven’t seen in weeks? Or maybe you can’t remember the last time you sat down for a meal with your loved ones because work just kept getting in the way.

Believe it or not, a virtual assistant can ease up your load so you can do non-work things, like live your life! Who knows, maybe you can even take a few days off!

What qualities should a virtual assistant possess?

Not all virtual assistants will be the one for you. Their skillset or expertise may not be what you’re looking for. They’re people too, and personalities can clash, as can working styles. 

Approaching the hiring process for a virtual assistant should be the same as hiring an employee. Regardless of your specific needs, there are a few core qualities that every virtual assistant should possess.

Integrity and reliability  

Reliability and integrity are the cornerstones of any working relationship. Finding someone who knows when to do the right thing, is trustworthy with their time, and sticks to a deadline, is someone who has integrity and is reliable. 

Additionally, knowing that when you delegate a job to your virtual assistant, it will get done on time and properly is essential. Without this trust, the relationship will fall apart quickly.

These qualities are absolutely non-negotiable.

Personable

A virtual assistant can be reliable, hardworking, and trustworthy, but if you dread speaking with them because their mood is always so dour, they may not be the best fit. 

A virtual assistant doesn’t need to be chipper all the time, but they need to keep a lighter tone and be personable. Basically, someone you actually enjoy working with. Because you’re going to be working fairly closely, they need to be someone who doesn’t make you cringe. Bonus points if they make you smile. 

Organized and professional 

Organization and professionalism go hand-in-hand. No matter the work that gets completed, if they are disorganized, there is a level of unprofessionalism that comes along with that. And most likely, mistakes will be made. 

Being organized and professional also means managing their time well. If they take too long to complete a task or leave things to the last minute, this is not a good sign. A virtual assistant must be proactive, and that takes organization. 

Resourceful and self-driven

There’s nothing worse than following up. If you have to constantly follow up with your virtual assistant to make sure tasks are completed or answer a lot of questions throughout the day, you may start wondering why you hired them in the first place.

A virtual assistant with the ability to handle tasks independently, be resourceful, and anticipate future challenges that need to be addressed, is a virtual assistant who you want. 

Ability to work well under pressure

Suffice it to say, you are under pressure, your business is under pressure. So it would stand to reason that your virtual assistant needs to be able to work well under pressure. Sometimes tasks will come flying at you, or deadlines will be quick. Or sometimes, tasks will be taxing. A virtual assistant who can’t handle pressure probably isn’t the virtual assistant you want.

Multitasking skills like a pro

Remember all those small and rote tasks, like answering emails, phone calls, paying bills, research, and data entry? Your virtual assistant should be able to do all of that and more, but this means serious multitasking skills. They need to be able to drop what they’re doing, answer an urgent email, and then pick up where they left off. 

Basically, they need to have multitasking skills like a pro.

How to hire a virtual assistant:

Before hiring a virtual assistant, it’s a good idea to make sure you know how to register your business. This will make invoicing and paying your virtual assistant seamless. 

Now that you’ve decided to hire a virtual assistant, how do you go about doing that? Glad you asked. Here’s a breakdown of the nine steps to hire a virtual assistant.

Step 1: Document the tasks you want to outsource

The first step is to figure out what, exactly, you need a virtual assistant to do. This will depend mostly on the size and type of business. But there are some tasks, like accounting and bookkeeping, that are ubiquitous across all businesses. 

Pull out a sheet of paper (or your spreadsheet!) and take note of all the tasks you do in a day. Look at your to-do list and see what you could reasonably expect a virtual assistant to do. Write down all those tasks. 

Now that you have an extensive list of individual tasks group them into categories. For example, paying individual suppliers is different from paying employees. One can be expenses and the other payroll. 

Emails, newsletters, blogs, and other digital communications can all be lumped into “communications and writing.”

Step 2: Create a job description

With those job expectations, you can create a job description. In your description, make sure you give a thorough description of your business and what you need. List the job requirements that you’ve already created. 

Along with the job requirements, you will also want to list desired attributes in your future virtual assistant. These are the qualities that make a good virtual assistant, like the ability to multitask, professional and organized, and the like. 

Next, list what specific skills you need in your future virtual assistant. Do they need to have experience with Shopify? A website builder for small businesses like Squarespace or WordPress? Maybe they need to have expertise in content creation and writing. 

Last, list the years of virtual assistant experience you are looking for in an applicant. It’s up to you whether you want to list the hourly rate, but doing so can streamline the application process. Make sure the rate you list is in accordance with the average virtual assistant rates, which can be found here.

It might be a good idea to have someone else review your job description before you post it. Another entrepreneur in your community would be helpful. It is also advisable to look at other job descriptions seeking virtual assistants. This gives you a clear expectation of what you should be posting. 

Step 3: Post your job description online

Now post your job description! Places like Freelancer, Fiverr, and Upwork are great websites to find virtual assistants. 

Don’t forget to reach out to your entrepreneurial community. Referrals are always welcome because those virtual assistants then come recommended, saving you a lot of time in reference checks. 

Last, utilize social media. Post your job description on your business’s social media platforms. You’ll likely get quite a few shares that way—plus, it’ll help give your business some exposure.

Make sure you set an application deadline! 

Step 4: Review applications and schedule interviews

Reviewing applications can be time-consuming. If you have support, try to get an extra set of eyes (or more) to help you eliminate those who you won’t bring forward for interviews. 

Things you’ll want to look for in applications are gaps in (self) employment or short contracts. One or two is okay, but if the applicant has only worked as a virtual assistant for a year or two but has had two dozen jobs, that might be a telling sign. 

Narrow your selection down to a small handful, but keep some backups just in case. 

Now schedule your interviews! Interviewing can also be taxing. It can seem like you’re asking the same questions over and over and getting the same response. It can feel monotonous, and every applicant seems the same. 

Start with some icebreaker questions that take them out of the “interviewee” mode. Maybe something like what would they put in Jell-O? Or if they could be an animal, what would they be? This helps steer the conversation from an “interview” to an authentic conversation where you can get to know who they really are.

Remember, above all, they need to be a good personality fit. 

Step 5: Give your top candidates a test

Out of those candidates, select your top three or four, and give them a test. This test should ideally be paid, as you are asking them to do work. Make the test no more than one hour of work and pay them the rate you would if you were to hire them. 

Some tests you can give are:

  • Composing a set of emails
  • Writing a blog
  • Write some website copy
  • Present them with a fictional problem with a “what would you do?” exercise
  • Have them prioritize a series of tasks and explain how they would go about completing them in a timely manner
  • Have them work with other team members if you have them

It’s important to consider privacy if there are any tasks that relate to any of your current clients, such as blogs, copy, or anything related to finances. In these cases, you may want to have them sign a non-disclosure agreement. 

Step 6: Give the best candidate a trial period

Now is the time to select The One! Draft up a freelance virtual assistant contract, setting out all the tasks your new virtual assistant will be responsible for, as well as weekly hour allotment, agreed rates, and payment method and period. It should also set out terms of contract termination. 

Give them a trial period of at least one month. It may take them a few days to a week to get settled into the work, which may also require a lot of answering questions. This is normal. But once they get going, the questions should be fewer, and the work should be getting done regularly. 

If they are stellar in that trial period, you can mutually amend the contract to take out the trial period. If they aren’t satisfactory, approach your other runners-up and give one of them a trial period. 

Remember, at the end of the day, this is your business, and a virtual assistant should be there to ease your burden so you can get back to doing what you love most.