Finding the Right Virtual Assistant for Your Small Business

Articles abound advising the business community how to properly screen when looking for a Virtual Assistant (VA). Unfortunately, some of the advice may lead you astray, as it often ignores the fact that VAs are not employees but independent contractors providing professional business to business (B2B) services.

For example, I have yet to have a prospective client actually ask me for a "list of references," although if one did, I would happily provide him or her with a name or two if I thought the request was a valid one from a serious, qualified prospect.

Many writers also suggest that a good VA will have formal training and credentials. This is entirely subjective, however, and I caution against spending too much energy counting letters. Many highly sought after and capable VAs have no letters behind their name yet provide a caliber of service that is second to none. While formal training certainly lends credibility in a virtual environment where a warm handshake is not a reality, I advise people seeking a VA to evaluate other qualities first such as experience, professionalism, presentation, and honesty.

Here are some additional suggestions as to what you should look for when seeking a Virtual Assistant:

-> A professional presentation. When you speak to or correspond with the VA, how does he or she present? What do the VA's website and marketing materials look like? Is the copy well written and informative? Or is it full of typos and grammatical errors? These types of things say a great deal about a VA as a potential contributor to the success, image, and reputation of your small business.

-> Inquiry turnaround. When you send an inquiry to a VA asking about his or her services, rates, etc., what is the turnaround time for getting a response? A good VA respects the entrepreneur's time and will get back to you within at least 48 hours. (My own turnaround time for email inquiries from prospects is 24 hours or less.)

-> Price. This is a hot topic but has to be addressed if you are going to get real value from your Virtual Assistant. If the VA charges "peanuts," please turn and run in the other direction. You get what you pay for in this life. A VA who is charging anything less than $25 to $30 (USD) per hour cannot possibly be running a profitable business and may not be the person you want to trust with your own small business and life's work.

-> Quality over quantity. Does the VA offer every possible service under the sun? Or does he or she strategically focus on one or two categories of B2B services? While the VA doesn't necessarily have to be "niched" into a narrow market, he or she should know who they are talking to in their marketing communications. A good VA does not try to be all things to all people. This does not mean we will not flex to accommodate a new and exciting request. Still, if your project requires skills and experience the VA simply does not possess, a true professional will either refer you to another VA altogether or strategically partner with a VA who has the requisite expertise. (Yes, VAs use subcontractors too!)

-> An online presence. Here is something that perhaps you haven't considered. VAs operate, for the most part, in a virtual environment (thus the "V" in VA!). Before approaching a VA, do some research to see if he or she has an online presence anywhere else besides his or her website. (If the VA doesn't have a website, that should make you take pause. How committed to this whole virtual thing is he or she anyway?) Many VAs are active in various online "communities" such as business blogs, forums, networks, etc. This is great way to get to know your VA's true colors before committing to a partnership.

Those are just a few of the many things to consider when surveying the Internet landscape for your new Virtual Assistant.

Karri Flatla is a business graduate of the University of Lethbridge and principal of snap! virtual assistance inc., a business and project support service that specializes in business research, planning and communications. Karri also produces Outsmart, a small business newsletter full of practical tips and fresh insights for entrepreneurs. Visit http://www.snap-va.com for more information.

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