Over the last 5 or so years, I have worked with an excess of 100 different Virtual Assistants (excluding Virtual Assistants that my company, VE People has hired for our clients).
This mix and diversity of this talented group of people are incredible and something that has fuelled my passion for working virtually with people all over the world. This mix can be generally summarised as:
- Direct Contractors – Agency Staff – Contractor Portals eg. Upwork
- Long Term Hires – Short Term Engagements
- Highly Specialised Roles – Generic Roles
- Creative – Technical – Administrative – Customer
- Philippines – India – Australia – China – South Africa – Greece – USA – Vietnam – Thailand – United Kingdom
What an awesome mix it has been! And whilst not every engagement has gone as planned (and the start of my VA journey was definitely rocky), over the years, I have been able to develop the knack of building an awesome network of highly capable people that can deliver my internal projects. My longest hire who is still with me has been a member of my team for over 3 years, whilst my newest hire started just this week and is already commenting on the stability, warmth and can-do attitude of my team. Rest assured, this cohesion, team bond and capability is not always the case when dealing with teams that are distributed virtually.
How do I find the right virtual assistant for the roles I have?
Firstly, and this will probably go completely against your instincts, you need to realise that to hire the right Virtual Assistant, you need to understand that the engagement is not all about you and your company. The Virtual Assistant is a key player and your number one mission is to create an offering that will attract the Virtual Assistant your business needs. If your mind immediately goes to “How much should I pay them?” you are missing out on the opportunity to develop a truly rewarding role that will attract the right Virtual Assistant.
To create a rewarding environment, think:
- Working hours – how many? When? Is the engagement hourly or outcome based? How flexible will the engagement be?
- Engagement – how will you and your Virtual Assistant engage? This not only relates to the frequency of your engagement but how you will engage? Will the Virtual Assistant have a degree of autonomy or operate to a fixed scope and deadlines? Will you empower or control
- Reward and Recognition – will your Virtual Assistant work in an environment where the recognition of achievements is common? Do you genuinely value the work this person will do for you?
The optimum environment for a Virtual Assistant, and one I have cultivated over the past 5 years sees my staff:
- Work flexibly with clear transparency on when people will be available. Expectations are set and met within an environment that is supportive when personal factors come into play.
- I mix hourly and outcome based work dependent on need. Hourly jobs are always salaried on a full-time basis. That creates security for my team. Outcome-based jobs are always based on the value of the output I am to receive, not how many hours I think the person will spend to create it. I like to respect the skills people bring to the table and value the work they do in terms of what it means for me.
- Work within a highly empowered environment. Rather than control, I leverage and build my staff’s capability. My job is to build the capability, the team executes the capability. It’s win/win. I get great results and the team gets to work in an environment that is stimulating and allows self-development and expression. I trust my staff to deliver what I know they can. If they struggle, we work together to build the capability to do so in the future.
- We say “Thank You” a hell of a lot. Our team meetings are usually buoyant and fun with lots of recognition of the great work people do.
So your first step to finding the right Virtual Assistant is to create an environment that people will actually want to work in.
After that, define what you really need them to do. In detail. Think: Skills, Behaviours, Timelines.
A recipe for disaster is to hire someone virtually without clear direction on what you are looking to achieve and the skills required to execute the entire vision.
Compare the two statements below:
“I need a WordPress Developer to join my growing team ASAP to work in an exciting, fast-paced environment” (which is all too common a requirement online these days)
“Seeking a WordPress Developer with a minimum of 2 years of experience working with Studiopress theme installation, configuration, and customisation. You will work closely and collaboratively with our in-house web designer to create beautiful websites for our clients, the majority of whom are Not for Profit Organisations. The environment is fast paced, however, our project scheduling always allows our developers to provide a quality outcome and individual flair in their deliverables. With direct access to our clients, you get a great opportunity to express your ideas using your well-developed communication skills.”
Which of these statements is going to attract the best developer?
So you have an environment and defined role that will attract people. What’s next? How do you find the right Virtual Assistant?
You have a choice, you can look for direct contractors or you can go through an agency. Let’s talk direct contractors first.
You have a myriad of options to find a Virtual Assistant directly:
- Contractor Portals (Upwork, Freelance.com etc)
- Direct Advertising (Newspapers, Magazines, Employment Websites etc)
- Referrals from friends or business associates
All are valid options. As long as your job profile is solid, you should have no problem attracting high volumes of CV’s. The problem is, most of what you will receive will be of poor quality and will waste your time.
In terms of agencies, this can actually be a bit of a risky proposition. I know this sounds surprising, but let’s think about this realistically. Agencies understand the sourcing and selection mechanics of virtual staffing and this can be manipulated. What I refer to here is that candidates can be made to look like they are exactly what you need, when in fact, their skills or attitudes are no match for your requirements. In addition to hiring someone through an agency, you then often carry an additional cost in the form of the agency’s margin which adds little value after the hiring process is completed. It is important to note that the majority of agencies are ethical and attempt to add genuine value for their clients, but it is also an unavoidable fact that the virtual staffing industry does have a predatory element to it in some cases.
I have performed extensive market testing over the past 5 years to understand the capabilities, operations, and approaches of a variety of different market players. During that time, I have encountered a number of high-performing agencies. I have also encountered the following:
- An agency who swapped a resource that I had interviewed and hired with another resource who then operated under the assumed name (for over six months) which was only uncovered during an onsite visit.
- An agency who routed my virtual team to work for other clients after I would log off for the day.
- Agencies who generated their primary revenue stream by bidding on virtual projects, collecting the 25% project deposit and then becoming uncontactable – (if one of them delivered half as well as they wrote bids, they would be booming!).
- Agencies who over-allocated their staff to such a degree that they were exhausted and could not perform their roles.
- Agencies who completely misrepresented their facilities and capability on their websites including fake testimonials, photos of offices and staff, company histories.
I’m not saying don’t use an agency (after all, I actually run one myself), I am saying to be alert, do your homework and select the right partner.
Ok, the first thing you want to be able to do when the direct contractors and/or agencies begin providing you CV’s is to be able to sort the best from the rest. To enable easy sorting, insert a little piece of mandatory detail into the job post. This is something that the contractor or agency must provide with the application. It can be something as easy as “Please put the word “Apple” at the start of your application” but I think this is a little obvious. I like to ask a question as part of the job post and see who actually answers it.
My number 1 rule when sorting CV’s is: “If they don’t answer the question, unfortunately, the CV hits the bin”. Why be so ruthless? Easy. I am looking for the best people to work for me. Sometimes, this is not just a basic correlation between skills and experience. The best person to work for me is someone who really wants to work for me. Someone who will take the time to go through all the detail and make sure their application is 100% before they send. I guarantee, every person who takes this approach will also demonstrate a strong desire in the interview. Give me that person every day of the week. Even if the skills are a little short, I’ll harness the enthusiasm and train them.
Save your time and cull all the CV’s you don’t need. Put your effort on evaluating the cream of the crop.
When you have a small number of CV’s remaining, it’s time to interview. My interviewing style is quite fluid and informal. I usually leave the technical or creative skills validation with those a little more savvy than myself (note: I always recommend validation from specialists as a support exercise of every interview. Getting to the detail on the skills competency is critical and this often means engaging someone to support you.) But what I am really at the interview to understand is who the person really is. How will they fit my company? What are they looking to achieve? What are their energy levels like? Are they honest? Do they really want to work for me?
Sometimes an interview with me lasts less than five minutes. Sometimes it goes two hours. Neither timeframe is an indication of how successful it was. I have made plenty of mistakes during interviews in the past but one thing I continue to learn is that you need to trust your instincts. If you are not 100% in your gut, you either need to find out how to bridge that gap or move to the next candidate.
Some things that some people don’t really consider in terms of interviewing virtual candidates is:
- You can have multiple interviews, you don’t need to choose on the spot (some agencies will push the sales pressure on at this point)
- You can use other virtual staff to help with the interviews – this is a great way to see how people will work in a team or with their peers
- It might actually prove a wise investment to spend a little money and fly to the country you are hiring in, especially if the role is critical to your business
So, you have interviewed a bunch of candidates and have selected your preferred option. What should you do to make sure that you can begin an engagement with the right Virtual Assistant for you?
Make the remuneration fair and reasonable. Too often I see organisations squeeze the salary of a Virtual Assistant without understanding the true impact. The impact is not only felt by the Virtual Assistant. It impacts their company too.
I make it very clear in my dealings, with both clients and the Virtual Assistants I employ, that predatory behaviour in terms of salary gouging is unacceptable. I have had potential clients in the past that have attempted to use the “developing nation” status of some of the Virtual Assistants in my talent pool to create the perception of “desperation” for a job and a subsequent lever for reducing salaries. This is as ridiculous as it is offensive. I counsel my talent pool that a client is paying for their skills and commitment, and as such, the economic status of the country they live is irrelevant. Each Virtual Assistant has a skill set, a set of personal attributes and ambition which dictates their desired salary. I have found that a fair proportion of Virtual Assistants determine their salary expectations based on the market and they are more than reasonable.
Just remember, if you a hiring a Virtual Assistant for 25K pesos per month and negotiate that down by 2500 pesos, you are probably only saving yourself $50 per month or $12.50 per week. But you are taking 10% of a Virtual Assistant’s salary away which has a much greater impact. Squeeze enough and you’ll find your Virtual Assistant moonlighting on a second or third job. Eventually, the best job they have will become the priority and you too will lose.
Pay fairly and think long term.
What makes the right Virtual Assistant for me?
Well over the past 5 years I have seen plenty examples of what constitutes the right Virtual Assistant. It is embodied in my current team. But here are some more examples I have collected over the journey:
- It’s the Virtual Assistant who cried when she thought we might close down. Not because she was worried about her job. But because she loved working with all the people in the team and was sad about all the work we put in being wasted (by the way, we were not closing down). Attributes: Emotionally Invested. Committed.
- It’s the shy Virtual Assistant who joined us as a Content Writer. As her confidence and mojo grew, she took on every new task I threw at her. She now runs our entire Client Services team and is the beaming face of VE People to our clients and staff. Attributes: Courage. Diligence. Respect.
- It’s the Virtual Assistants who took a 6-hour bus ride in India on their weekend to get photos from a National Park for one of our blogs. And posted all about it on Facebook under “VE Road Trip”. Attributes: Proud. Emotionally Invested.
- It’s the Virtual Assistants that come together to resolve client or staffing problems without me even asking (and often, knowing). Attributes: Ownership. Responsible. Capable.
- It’s the Virtual Assistants who ping me on Skype when they are worried about something within the company. They come with concerns, solutions, and ideas. Attributes: Proactive. Reliable.
- It’s the USA based web developer who delighted our clients with great communication and reliable delivery. Every time. Attributes: Reliable. Attentive. Committed.
- It’s the many Virtual Assistants that have worked for me that still keep in touch, send me photos of their families and genuinely care for our success. Attributes: Real.
Finding the right Virtual Assistant relies on you creating the best environment to attract the people your business wants. It takes sorting through a mountain of CV’s to find the right person, not just based on skills but on attitude and organisational fit. It takes you thinking long term and treating people fairly and equitably.
Good luck on your search for the right Virtual Assistant. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below and I will be happy to help you.