By Sharon Davis
Virtual Assistants, or VA's are changing the way we do business. Not only is this field growing tremendously, but it's offering employers and business owners alike an attractive new alternative to hiring employees.
Perhaps because this is a relatively new industry, it's hard to pin down exactly how many Virtual Assistants there are out there.
Susan Valeri was a VA before she even knew she was a VA.
"I started [doing this work] and then I came across the term Virtual Assistant on the Internet and I thought, '...that's me!'. I didn't really know that there were other people doing it," Valeri comments.
So is there an easy way to define a Virtual Assistant? Not according to Stacy Brice, President and Chief Visionary Officer of AssistU, an organization that provides training and coaching to virtual assistants.
"The definition of what a VA will vary, depending on who you ask," Brice contends. "I have a very much branded definition [and that] is that a VA is a person who owns her own business, works from her home office, provides administrative and personal support across the board to clients who can be down the street or around the world...but in collaborative, long-term relationships."
Some define a VA as anyone who works from home and provides any sort of support virtually.
Stacy disagrees. "If you're a Marketing Consultant, and you do that from home, that doesn't make you a Virtual Assistant, that makes you a Marketing Consultant who works from home. So, I think that using the term Virtual Assistant as a catch-all for anything a person can do from home, that is supportive of other businesses, is a false definition."
The International Virtual Assistant's Association (IVAA) defines a VA as:
"VAs are independent contractors who provide administrative support or specialized business services from a distance, through the Internet, fax, telephone or another method of communication. They can help a company that needs extra people to meet seasonal demands; provide unique skills for a special project; or step in to meet the demands of business growth, locally, domestically or globally."
Despite the varying definitions, what everyone can agree on is the fact that this is a growing industry that can be a lucrative home business opportunity. At the same time, a Virtual Assistant can offer tremendous benefits to the business owner that contracts them.
Virtual Assistants are not hired as employees. They are business owners themselves and are hired on a contract basis. An employer who works with a VA has the distinct advantage of not having to deal with taxes, unemployment insurance, sick leave, vacation pay, or benefits. Rather than having to provide additional office space, and be responsible for the development and supervision of an employee, they can enjoy the support and assistance of a professional without the headaches of hiring and managing employees.
And while VA's are in a support role, that doesn't mean that they are in a subordinate role.
According to Brice, the ideal VA is someone who "genuinely loves being in a support role and doesn't see that as having to be in a sort of one-down position. Someone who can really see that if I use my skills in supporting you, I can absolutely be your equal. I'm just bringing a different set of skills to your table."
Asked about the skills that make for a successful VA Brice responds, "I think that VA's typically are talented admins, who just want out of the corporate world."
Of course, basic administrative skills are a must. At AssistU, fewer than half of the applicants get to the first interview.
Says Brice, "I don't want to be teaching someone to use Word for the very first time. I don't want to be talking to someone about telephone etiquette. Of course we can talk about that on a higher level, but what was important to me is that these people come out of a background where they already have a certain number of years with that kind of experience. I think that someone who doesn't have any administrative type background would find it possibly very much more difficult to become a fabulous VA."
Another critical skill would have to be resourcefulness. Most VA's are generalists, that is they offer a variety of services to clients across different industries. Sooner or later, a client is going to ask them to do something that they don't know how to do.
"It's not so important that any VA can do it all," says Brice. "What's more important is that she knows how to get it done. Because if you're my client, and you need something done, and I don't know how to do it or I don't like to do it, you're not really going to care as long as I can get it handled for you."
As with any business, flexibility is important. Susan Valeri, who lives in the Central time zone, has a client on the West Coast. This can be both a benefit and a challenge.
"[It] works out great for me because by the time she wakes up, I've got her work done!" On the other side of the coin, "She's getting revved up when I'm getting ready to have dinner. So I can hear my email going off while I'm cooking."
In addition to administrative skills, soft skills are also integral. A successful VA is someone who can be proactive about how they can help a client to achieve their goals, and they need to be able to convey this to a potential client.
And as with any business, integrity is vital. One of Valeri's responsibilities is to answer emails regarding her client's business. "I'd better be honest, open and knowledgeable about her business," she insists. "Get a good grasp of my clients business, how they want things run, what their product is, so that I can intelligently answer inquiries."
Aside from the obvious impact that integrity has on the success of any business owner, it also affects the type of client that a VA attracts.
"If I act with integrity, then I'm going to get more business and I'm going to attract the kind of people that I want to do business with," Valeri says.
Brice agrees. According to her, one of the smartest things a potential VA can do is to invest in their own life because, "you'll become more attractive and be able to attract a more high quality client." If your goal is to work with people of a high caliber and high ethics, you'd better demonstrate those principals yourself.
While most VA's are generalists, many specialize in a particular field. For example, when Brice was a VA she was deeply niched and only worked with best-selling authors. One advantage of becoming niched is the ability to charge a higher hourly rate. According to Brice the low end of the pay scale is about $30 per hour. In fact, she feels that a VA cannot make a profit billing at less than that. She projects that by 2003 the average experienced VA will be billing at around $60 per hour, and "much higher for someone who's deeply niched and incredibly good at what she does." Brice herself commanded over $100 per hour for her services when she was a VA.
While this is a fairly new industry, there are several organizations that offer support and resources to VA's. Many VA's agree that becoming a member of one of these organizations can be a tremendous help to someone starting out.
Valeri says that looking back, she would have joined a professional organization earlier to start networking with other people doing this type of work.
And Brice offers this advice:
"Look at all your options. Look at what it would be to get trained, and really investigate that. Look at what it would be to go it on your own and investigate that, as well. And find the organization, whether it's AssistU, or another VA organization. Find the organization that you believe is going to support you in the way that you need to be supported. And be honest with yourself about it. That's where I see alot of arrogance. 'I've been an administrative assistant for 12 years, I don't need any help.' Trust me, you need help. This is a brand new world. Working virtually is not the same as being an assistant in the corporate world. It just is not."
Want more information?
AssistU hosts a free telediscussion about Virtual Assistance. For information on how to participate, visit http://www.assistu.com/va/va_tele.shtml
Learn more about what AssistU offers:
Visit Susan Valeri's website at
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