You’ve got a million unanswered emails in your inbox, your calendar is a complete mess, and you’ve got a big work trip coming up that you haven’t even bought plane tickets for. You are the exact target customer for virtual assistants—remote workers who help entrepreneurs and professionals peel a huge layer of stress from their busy work lives by taking on some of their more repetitive tasks.
But what exactly is a virtual assistant, how are they different from any other kind of assistant, and how exactly do you hire one?
What is a virtual assistant?
Virtual assistants function like administrative assistants—the only difference being that they work for you remotely over the internet instead of in-person. If a task can be delegated over chat, phone or Skype, odds are there’s a virtual assistant out there than can help you with it.
What does a virtual assistant do?
Like an in-person assistant, most virtual assistants can help you take care of repetitive, day-to-day tasks like answering emails, organizing your files, booking appointments, and making travel arrangements.
Most have some amount of administrative experience. Some have deep experience in a particular field or industry, and can help you with more specialized tasks like transcribing audio, writing letters, researching and preparing reports, and even producing content and managing your social media.
If there’s a task you do over and over again at work that you don’t want to do anymore, there’s probably a virtual assistant service that can help you offload it.
More tasks that virtual assistants can help you with include:
- Cold calling prospective clients
- Answering technical support tickets
- Screening your calls
- Writing and send invoices and purchase orders
- Reviewing and proofreading documents
- Backing up, updating and maintaining your website
- Creating and monitoring Facebook ads
- Providing payroll support
Why do people hire virtual assistants?
Virtual assistants are ideal for business owners who are drowning in small day-to-day administrative tasks and would rather be spending their time focusing on more important things.
A good virtual assistant should help you in the same way that a good in-person administrative assistant does: by letting you offload more repetitive tasks and helping you focus on running your business.
Where do I hire one?
Since there are so many different kinds of virtual assistant services, it makes sense to divide them into two main groups: concierge-style, “generalist” virtual assistants, and specialized industry-specific ones.
Generalist virtual assistants
If you run a small business and need help with administrative tasks a few hours a week, this is the kind of virtual assistant you’re looking for.
Generalists usually have experience doing administrative work for all kinds of companies and can help you with services that are important, but not necessarily central to your business, i.e. emails, scheduling, travel, etc.
Zirtual is an established brand name in this space. They offer all the standard administrative services you’d expect from an administrative assistant offering, and pricing starts at $398/mo for 12 hours of task work per month, and goes all the way up to $1398/mo for 50 hours.
Belay is another popular virtual assistant service, offering help in three areas: general virtual assistance, bookkeeping help for people having trouble staying on top of their finances, and web support for people who need help maintaining their online business. Belay’s hourly rate starts at $36/hr, but you’ll have to get in touch with them directly to get a specialized quote.
24/7 Virtual Assistant is good for people looking for help during and after work hours—with stuff like scheduling personal trips and appointments, bookkeeping, research, and numerous other tasks. Their entrepreneur package starts at $359/month for 20 hours of help per month, and goes all the way up to $2399/mo for 24/7 assistance.
FreeeUp will match you with a virtual assistant specifically with ecommerce skills. They can handle almost any ecommerce task, including data entry, translation, digital marketing, website building, and more. There’s a big pricing range, from $5/hour to $75/hour.
These services offer assistants that have deep experience working in one specific industry, and who can help you manage specialized tasks that are more core to your business, like customer service, video editing, and even project management. For that reason, they also tend to be more expensive.
There are established virtual assistant services for dozens of different industries, so we’ll focus on the most popular ones below:
For real estate
One of the most established brands in this space is MyOutDesk, which offers realtors everything from general virtual assistance, to help with phone prospecting and sales calls, to customer service, to marketing services. Pricing starts at $873.50 biweekly.
Virtual assistants are still relatively new in the legal industry, and most law firms will hire virtual legal assistants individually, rather than approach a large company. If you own a law practice and don’t know where to start your search, try the International Virtual Assistants Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting qualified, skilled virtual assistants with clients.
Hello Rache is a popular virtual assistant service for doctors and medical professionals looking for virtual assistants who have been trained in the healthcare industry,
If you’re an executive at a medium-sized company and need specialized help, you might be better off going with a service like Get Friday, who will pair you with a remote executive assistant. They offer help across numerous industries, including education, entertainment, event management, healthcare, information technology, real estate, retail and more. You can also hear Esquire Magazine editor A.J. Jacobs talk about his personal experience using the service here.
How to hire virtual assistants from freelancer sites
Can’t find any virtual assistants catering to your industry? Not to worry—you can probably find equivalent help on freelancer sites like Upwork, which these days function very similarly to virtual assistant hiring services. Just keep the following tips in mind:
Tip #1: Create a detailed posting
Many virtual assistants are good at what they do, but they can’t read your mind. Spell out exactly what it is you need help with and define the role that you’re hiring for as best as you can. Do it in the plainest language possible, avoid buzzwords, and get to the point.
Tip #2: Make sure they’re reading the listing
Upwork is great because it can get your posting in front of a lot of freelancers fast. The downside to this is that a lot of the responses you get will be generic and copy-pasted. In many cases it won’t be clear whether an applicant has even read your posting in the first place.
One way to get around this is to include a simple instruction in your job posting—i.e. “When responding to this job listing, please start your reply with ‘Hi Nick!’” This seems simple, but it’s a great way to narrow down the candidate pool quickly.
Tip #3: Hire based on quality, not price
Hiring the least expensive virtual assistant you can find on Upwork isn’t a good idea. Pay more attention to candidates’ ratings than their hourly rates, and focus on hiring someone with relevant experience who understands your problems and can help you solve them.
Tip #4: Interview them and give them a test task
Regardless of what you’re hiring them to do, you’ll want to chat with your prospective virtual assistant over the phone before you hire them, just to make sure that you’re both on the same page about the role.
Depending on how much work you need a virtual assistant to do for you and how specialized the work is, you might also want to pay them to do a test task for you, just to make sure they’re the right fit.
Alternatives to virtual assistants
Virtual assistants aren’t always the answer—sometimes an online service or a piece of software will do just as well. Here are some common tasks that you might or might not hire a virtual assistant for.
Need help staying on top of your finances? Worried you books will be a mess come tax season? Staring at a giant drawer full of unsorted receipts? Services like Bench (that’s us) will do your bookkeeping for you and get your taxes filed so you don’t have to think about it. Starting at $129/month.
Gusto is another handy cloud-based service, except they’re focused on taking care of your payroll and HR problems. If the idea of collecting and sending out tax forms, writing checks, staying on top of employee info and taking care of direct deposits sounds like too much to handle, Gusto can help.
Virtual email assistants like Aiko use artificial intelligence to produce short and easy to read summaries of emails, highlight important information, and even help you write emails faster. Sign up for Aiko’s beta here to learn more.
Virtual virtual assistants
Don’t forget virtual virtual assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri, who every year become better at understanding and responding to human speech, and every year inch closer towards taking over your job entirely!
With Amazon’s Alexa for Business service, for example, you can use the Alexa device to join conference calls, book meetings and check your calendar using only voice commands.
Plugins from the popular app site IFTTT can turn your Google Assistant into a powerful business tool as well, letting you create notes in Evernote, send a message to a Slack channel, add entries to a Google Drive spreadsheet, and even send a text message to someone all via voice command. (Click here for more plugins.)
And although Siri isn’t explicitly built with businesses in mind, she can help you set reminders (“Siri: Remind me to check my email when I get home”), check your schedule (“How does my day look tomorrow?”) and send money (“Send Alex $200 using PayPal”). Not bad for an app!
Don't want to think about bookkeeping anymore?
Try a free trial with Bench. We'll take bookkeeping off your hands, pairing you with your own bookkeeper, and simple software to track your finances.
A note on automating your business
If you’d rather automate your small business’ tasks than delegate them to a virtual assistant, there’s a range of business tools out there that can help you do just that.
Check out our guide to automating your small business and consider our recommendations for automating the following tasks:
- Mileage logging: MileIQ
- Invoicing and collections: Harvest
- Receipt and document storage: ScanSnap Scanner and Shoeboxed
- Sales tax: TaxJar and AutoFile
- Travel plans: TripIt
- Recruiting: ZipRecruiter
- Employee training: Trainual
- Employee records: Collage
- Email sorting: Sanebox
- Design: Design Pickle
- Social media: Buffer
- Blogging: CoSchedule
- Email marketing: MailChimp
- Customer chat: Tawk
- Customer relations management (CRM): Zoho
- Shipping: Stamps.com and Shipstation