Timothy Ferriss is probably the one who kicked off the hot trend of hiring a virtual assistant, with his book The 4-Hour Workweek. A virtual assistant is a person who works from a remote office, whether across town or across the world, handling office tasks such as booking business trips or helping out with basic marketing and public relations. Ferriss waxed poetic about the island of sanity a VA could bring to the overwhelmed, overscheduled, and overcommitted. But how do you find a good one?
Kevin McHugh of JKM Management Development has been coaching executives for more than 20 years and thought a VA could help him set up his travel schedule and handle various client matters. But things did not turn out as planned.
“I had to fire my first VA because of a horrible breach in client confidentiality,” says McHugh. “The second VA I hired required an upfront payment of $600 but said she would keep track of the hours used up against the retainer,” he says.
Long story short, the VA disappeared for days at a time and did not deliver on what she had promised to do. When McHugh told the VA that he wanted to end the agreement and receive a refund for the time not used, he was told there was a no-refund policy. Despite the fact that she had only worked a couple of hours, the VA refused to reimburse McHugh for the time not used.
“I told her that if she were an upstanding person, she would give me my money back. She didn’t, she’s not going to, and I wrote it off.”
Unfortunately McHugh’s experiences are not all that unusual. As with any unregulated profession, the spectrum of providers runs from the unethical to the exceptional. To ensure that you hire a VA who helps rather than hinders your promotional efforts, consult the following do’s and don’ts.
- Negotiate upfront the specific terms of the contract; this includes the hourly rate you agree to pay and the total amount of hours you are approving for a given project .
- Get your agreement in writing via an e-mail or a signed contract.
- Ask for and call at least four or more references.
- Make certain that the terms of your contract allow you to cancel if you are not satisfied with the results.
- Review the VA’s Web site and check it for professionalism.
- Ask for a resume, read it, and then pick up the phone and interview the VA.
- Be very specific about what you want, what you expect, and the exact results the VA needs to produce within the given time frame.
- Pay attention to any early warning signs that the VA may not be on top of his or her game and act accordingly.
- Pay money upfront for services to be rendered in the form of a retainer or advanced payment .
- Agree to a blanket “no refund” policy.
- Ask for only one or two references or never call them.
- Conduct an e-mail interview.
- Give the VA general directions and hope that he or she can fill in the blanks.
- Make the mistake of thinking that someone who has worked as an assistant in a corporation has the same skill set it takes to be an effective VA.
There are some ineffective people out there, but there is also a whole cadre of well-trained, efficient, and professional VAs who take great pride and pleasure in helping their clients achieve their goals. With just a little bit of due diligence on your part, you can end up with one of the good ones who can help lighten your load by handling myriad office tasks, including researching and assembling media lists; creating Excel spreadsheets; sending e-mail newsletters; managing social media; handling client billing; writing promotional material; and so on.
Karen Leland is the best-selling author of Time Management in an Instant: 60 Ways to Make the Most of Your Day and founder of Sterling Marketing Group, which helps authors and entrepreneurs use public relations to get their messages out.