How to Hire a Virtual Assistant (The Ultimate Step-By-Step Guide)
I have hired dozens of virtual assistants since 2010 and over the years have refined the hiring process to be as streamlined as possible. In this step-by-step guide I will show you the exact step-by-step hiring process I currently use so that you can hire your first virtual assistant. I wrote this to be the article I wish I had read when making my first hire.
Why Hire a Virtual Assistant?
The small business owner dilemma: Let’s say you run an ecommerce store based out of California. You have finally reached consistent profitability and you’re looking to hire your first team member. You want to hire someone in California but can’t afford the minimum wage rate of $14 per hour or $2240 per month. You could wait until you can afford this, but you’re already overwhelmed with the amount of work you have on your plate.
What’s the alternative? Hire in another country where the minimum wage rate is lower so you can get more value for money. You may not even be aware that minimum wage varies so much from country to country but the differences are drastic. Look at the minimum wages in the countries where people often hire VAs from:
Monthly Minimum Wage in USD
$193 (Varies slightly by region)
That’s not to say you will find online workers at these prices but having hired extensively in the Philippines you can get a very competent VA from the Philippines for $600 per month. Not only do you get a great worker at this price but that VA is making 3x the minimum wage at that price point. This is a win-win situation for both you and the VA.
Define the Job Spec:
Before you begin hiring you need to define exactly what your virtual assistant will do at your company. One of the biggest mistakes people make when hiring a virtual assistant is that they want them to do everything and then get frustrated when the VA gets overwhelmed and quits or doesn’t live up to their expectations.
The problem is that many online business owners start off by doing everything so they struggle to pinpoint exactly what they are hiring for. As an entrepreneur you can do everything, that’s your skill, but most salaried employees don’t think like you. They specialize in a single discipline like Social Media Marketing, Customer Support or Data Entry, etc.
You need to identify whatever task is using up the most amount of your time each day and hire for that. Let’s say you are running an ecom business and you spend most of your day responding to customers. This is probably what you should hire for first.
An objection I often hear from business owners at this point is that they don’t have enough work to fill a VAs time. You have 3 options in this case:
1. Hire them part time for 20 hours per week and then hire another VA at 20 or 40 hours per week as you scale up.
2. Hire a VA at 40 hours per week and just explain to them that initially they won’t be very busy but things will scale up. The down side of this is you spend more money up front but the benefit is you only need to hire once compared to twice in option 1 which can be more efficient depending on your cash flow.
3. Hire someone part time at 20 hours per week on the premise that the job can scale to 40 hours per week and only hire workers who would be interested in this. The disadvantage here is it limits the people you can hire as some may only want to work part time or full time.
Overall option one is probably the most popular option here.
What are the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the role?
In the example above the ecom store owner identifies that they need to hire a customer support person to free up more of their time. Now what? You can’t just tell a new VA to “do customer support”, unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. This is a common issue that leaves many business owners frustrated with their new hires.
You need to clearly define what the standard operating procedures (SOPs) are for the role. SOPs are predefined steps that a VA should follow every time they perform a task.
Because it is your business you need to create the SOP for the job. In our ecom example the business owner has already been doing customer support so it’s easy for them to create an SOP. As you go through the task, write down the steps you take. You can then get your VA to follow these steps.
I’m a big fan of creating video SOPs as people tend to follow them more easily. I suggest using a software like OBS to record your screen and audio while explaining a task. You can then upload the video to youtube as an unlisted video and share it with your team. Another paid solution here is loom.com
Maybe 80% of the customer support for the store can be grouped into a few categories like:
1. Where is my order? 2. My goods arrived damaged / broken 3. Can I get a refund? 4. Can I return an item
By considering all the potential scenarios and writing an email response for each one you are setting your VA up for success.
No matter what role you are hiring for, you need to break it down into repeatable steps for your VAs to follow. If you want to learn more about this I suggest googling something like “JOB NAME standard operating procedures” to see other common SOPs. For example “marketing manager standard operating procedures”. However, nothing will be as good as creating your own.
By creating strong SOPs for your company you make it substantially more valuable and easier to sell in the future. You’ll find that the most valuable fortune 500 companies in the world are built on a foundation of strong SOPs. To learn more about SOPs I recommend reading the following books:
Only after you have defined the SOPs for the role you’re hiring for can you move on to the hiring process.
Create a Test Job
Now that you have clearly defined your job spec and SOPs, it’s time to plan out the test job. A test job is a standard job you will send to all job applicants to get a better idea of if they will be able to perform at the task. For some roles it may not always be possible to create a test job and a video interview might be better, but for most jobs you should be able to create one.
In our ecom customer support example you could send potential VAs your SOPs along with copies of real emails you received from customers and get them to write email responses to you based on the SOPs you sent.
The first VA I ever hired was a content editor for an affiliate website. She would take the content from the writing team and format it on the blog based on my guidelines. For that test job I sent all of the applicants on the shortlist a video on how to format content on the site and asked everyone to format the same article with images and links.
When hiring content writers I get everyone on the shortlist to write a test article so I can see how well they write.
No matter what the test job, make sure you tell potential candidates that they will be paid for the test job upon successful completion. This will massively reduce the number of people who don’t respond. Also as a business owner you should always be respectful and pay people for their time
How Much Should I Pay my Virtual Assistant?
No matter what role you are hiring for, your first steps should be to get an idea of what the market price is for that role.
The best way to do this is to go on a site like onlinejobs.ph, type a job title like “customer support” in the search box and look at how much other companies are offering for the position. On sites like online jobs there is a difference between employer accounts and freelancer accounts. To see the job listings you will need to also create a freelancer account.
If you are hiring freelancers where you will pay them per job (article writers for example), it can be a good approach to ask them to indicate what their hourly rate or cost per job will be in their job application. You could take this approach for part time and full time jobs too but in my experience you will get less applicants.
A very common mistake I see entrepreneurs make here is they want to pay less than the market rate. I understand that you may have a limited budget when starting out, but trust me when I say that you will save yourself a lot of time by finding the market rate and hiring at market rate or slightly above it. I always recommend paying above market rate to get the best talent.
What Country Should you Hire From?
This really depends on what kind of talent you are looking for.
Generally speaking, I like to hire customer support, video editors, data entry workers, designers and social media managers from the Philippines.
A number of friends who run software companies swear by hiring Serbian and Ukrainian developers.
I have also hired a number of Indian software developers for one off jobs.
I have hired most of my VAs over the years from the Philippines so I’m slightly biased. However, one of their biggest industries is Business Process Outsourcing or BPO. This is where companies outsource their customer support and other admin tasks to the Philippines. Because of this there is a big emphasis on teaching English in high school and a number of people train to work in the BPO industry or to be virtual assistants.
Where Should you Advertise your Job?
Over the years I have hired from a number of different hiring platforms, however there is no best platform. It really depends on what you are hiring for. Some of my best hires have come from forums and facebook groups.
The most common platforms people hire virtual assistants from are:
Upwork.com - This has a lot of workers but the downside is VAs are more used to western rates and you will pay a premium. They also take 10% in fees from contractors and 5 - 20% for employers. As this platform has become more popular the average hourly rate has increased a lot. It still has its place but is no longer my top pick.
OnlineJobs.ph - This is a site that specializes in finding jobs for VAs in the Philippines. This is particularly good for finding lower level data entry workers and customer support. I have also hired some great programmers, video editors, writers and social media managers from here. This is one of my go to options as the workers are looking to be paid in PHP in most cases. This platform is free but I recommend you get their $100 plan so you can get background information and highlight other red flags about potential employees. This is a monthly plan but you can cancel after one month.
Facebook Groups: Facebook groups are probably one of the best kept secrets for hiring. Some of my top hires have come from here. There are a number of groups around virtual assistants, customer support in the Philippines, Remote Jobs and BPO groups. I recently hired a number of content writers I found in groups for English teachers.
Forums: Forums are quite antiquated now but if you are looking for someone with a specialized skill set, you can often find people enthusiastically posting about it on forums. Very similar to facebook groups but worth mentioning. One of my best hires ever came from a forum.
Facebook Ads: Facebook lead ads or a facebook ad to a page with a job spec and a form can perform quite well. I know many people who have found good hires with ads, however I personally haven’t had much success here and it’s more expensive than other options if you are just starting out.
I recently hired a number of freelance writers to write google sheets tutorials for our blog so I will use this as an example. Even though I’m hiring freelancers here, the steps are the same for hiring a part time or full time VA.
Spec: We needed writers who could speak fluent English and had knowledge of Excel or Google Sheets.
SOP / Test Job: I outlined a number of articles with pre written headings and guidelines so they would be able to write an article that was informative and would fit in with our Search Engine Optimization (SEO) process. I then recorded a video on how to follow the guidelines to make sure everyone was clear on what was needed.
Price: As mentioned above, for freelance writers I tend to ask them to indicate how much they charge per 500 words of content. This allows me to easily get the market rate. Even if you have a target rate in mind, it’s good to get freelancers to name their price as they may ask for less than your target.
I will use this example scenario to illustrate the remainder of the hiring process below.
How to Advertise your Job:
Now that you have completed the steps above, it’s time to create your first job post.
It’s important when hiring anyone that you get enough applicants in your funnel. Let’s say 100 people apply, maybe 50% answer your questions. Of those 50 people mabe only 20% of applicants are good. Of the 10% of people you send the test job to, maybe only 2 or 3 perform and are hireable.
For this reason I recommend casting the net wide and using multiple platforms if possible. In our example scenario above I decided to use upwork.com, onlinejobs.ph and facebook groups.
Upwork Job Post:
You can see the exact job post I created on Upwork below. In this case I didn’t set an hourly rate and instead opted for freelancers to indicate how much they charge per word.
I recommend asking numbered questions in all of your job posts. In my experience if someone responds with numbered answers they have good attention to detail. You will find that many people on these platforms just send generic answers, this is not the type of person you want to work with.
I always ask applicants to include a random word like LEMON at the beginning of their application (see step 5). This filters out a lot of people who didn’t bother reading the job post.
Onlinejobs.ph Job Post:
This is the same as above but here are the exact settings I added on online jobs too.
The first step here was to identify potential facebook groups that might be a good fit. I opted to join a number of groups around, excel, google sheets and English Teachers in the hopes that some would also have excel experience. To find a group you can simply enter a search term like “google sheets” in the search bar and you will see a number of groups at the top of the page.
I recommend joining a lot of facebook groups as some won’t have any good leads, some may not approve your post and some may not approve your request to join their group.
My goal for facebook groups is to get all potential leads to fill out a google form. Take the questions you asked in your Upwork and Online Jobs posts and add them to a google form You can see the exact form I used for this here.
Bypassing Spam Filters
When posting in facebook groups you will find that a lot of posts with links get immediately deleted or flagged as spam and deleted. For this reason I suggest creating a two step process.
Step 1: Ask a question and get people to respond to your post
Step 2: Send a link you your google form via private message
It’s important to respond to that person on the facebook post after you send the message so they know to check their message requests. Facebook doesn’t always make it clear that you have new message requests and you will lose a lot of potential leads if they don’t know to check.
Organize and Filter Leads
At this point if everything has gone well you should have a large number of leads to sort through. In our case we had:
Online Jobs: 25
Facebook Group Leads: 144
This is a great example of how hiring from less traditional places like facebook groups can massively increase your results and why it’s currently my favorite place to hire from.
Organize your leads:
We have a lot of leads spread out across multiple locations. The first step is to centralize these in a single spreadsheet.
Export Google Leads:
Google forms gives you the option to export all of your leads to a spreadsheet in a single click. I highly recommend doing this.
You will then get a spreadsheet with each question as a column heading:
What I recommend doing at this point is clicking the File Menu and selecting “make a copy”. Name your sheet anything that will help you find it in the future. The reason for this is that the google sheet generated by google forms will continue adding rows as new leads come in. By Making a copy we can manage all of these leads combined with the upwork and online jobs leads.
I suggest right clicking on the timestamp column and selecting “hide column” as it’s not particularly important. I also renamed the column headers so everything is easier to read. You can see an example sheet here. I didn’t include real names and emails here, but you get the idea.
Add Upwork Leads to Spreadsheet:
I suggest going through your leads and giving them a thumbs up to short list or a thumbs down to hide. You will likely only shortlist a small percentage of your leads. Once you have shortlisted the ones that answered your questions appropriately you can copy their name, answer and a portfolio link over to the spreadsheet to keep track of everything.
Add Online Jobs Leads to Spreadsheet:
The Online Jobs leads go directly to your inbox. It can be a good idea when making an account to create a separate hiring email so your inbox doesn’t get flooded.
When creating the job post we had a step asking applicants to include the word MANGO in their subject line. If any applicants didn’t include the word I immediately skipped over them.
You can add any of the applicants who used the word MANGO and responded to your questions adequately to the spreadsheet.
Formatting the Spreadsheet:
The first thing we need to do is add a new column called notes so we can keep track of any information about the candidate.
We also need to add a new column called Approved to the spreadsheet. This is where we will write “YES”, “NO” or “MAYBE”. Maybe being a lead where they aren’t bad but I will only send them a test job if there’s nothing better. I also added conditional formatting, but it’s not necessary.
Finding the Market Rate:
Knowing the market rate will be useful when deciding if a candidate is worth sending a test job to or not.
As you can see in the sample spreadsheet I simply averaged all of the rates people gave to get the market rate. An important thing to consider when getting an average is extreme outliers. Some people were asking for as much as $150 per 500 words of content and this will skew your data. I suggest only averaging the values that fall in the middle of the distribution.
In our case we found that $25 per 500 words appeared to be a fair market rate for a native english speaker with knowledge of excel or google sheets.
Filtering your Leads:
Now that we have all of our leads in our formatted spreadsheet it’s time to filter them. Here you simply go over the applicant's answers and portfolio and if they seem good you mark them as YES. If they are not a good fit mark them as NO. If you might consider them depending on what the other applicants are like mark them as a MAYBE.
There are additional hiring criteria I have found useful over the years that I also use but they require too much context for this article. If there is enough interest I will create a follow up article on this.
Negotiating on Price:
You also need to consider the rate they are charging but just because they asked for a higher rate doesn’t mean you should immediately count them out. I can tell you from experience that most applicants will ask for a much higher rate, but will happily settle for the fair market value price you found. We hired a writer at $25/500 words who initially asked for $100 so it never hurts to ask!
You can see the email template I sent to writers who had asked for a higher rate below:
Send Out the Test Job
The next step is to email all of the candidates tagged with YES. Click on the "Approved" column header we made earlier in google sheets and click the filter view icon in the toolbar.
You can then click on the filter icon that appears beside "Approved" and filter you sheet to only show applications marked as YES. This make it substantially easier to sort through a sheet with lots of applicants.
It can be quite time consuming to copy multiple email addresses from your spreadsheet to your email client and then send a customized email with a variable price to each applicant.
To speed up the process I built an internal tool using Lido.app’s drag and drop builder to speed up the process. This allows me to instantly import my google sheet and view it as a web app. I can then email each candidate from directly inside my spreadsheet. This saves me a lot of time and has been a game changer in our company wide hiring process.
Imported Google sheet in Lido
Lido’s Dashboard / Web App View for the Spreadsheet
This is the portion of the article where I shamelessly plug Lido:
At Lido we are creating an online spreadsheet software that looks just like google sheets but with much more powerful options. You can import data from any source in just a few clicks and build internal web apps and dashboards with a simple drag and drop interface.
UPDATE: Want to try our Virtual Assistant Hiring Tool?
Since posting this article a number of users have emailed me asking if they can use the VA hiring tool as part of their process. I asked our engineering team to turn this into a template for anyone to use and in typical fashion they over delivered.
We are now accepting up to 20 users to join our private beta to try it for free and give us feedback on potential features to add. We already have multiple people using the tool and the response for the community has been amazing.
If you would like to use it too, please click the link below and fill out the form at the bottom of the page. Places are filling up fast so be quick! As an added bonus I will also answer any of your questions related to the virtual assistant hiring process for those of you who join the beta.
Once all of your candidates come back to you with their test jobs it’s time to track the results. There are 3 possible outcomes here:
1. The candidate's test job is not up to the standard you were expecting. In this case you pay them and tell them their application wasn’t successful this time.
2. The test job is good but needs some feedback before you pay them. In this case, send them some feedback and see how they perform. This is usually the most common scenario.
3. The test job was great and no feedback is needed. These are usually clear winners. You pay the candidate and add them to a new shortlist spreadsheet.
Once everyone has responded to your feedback, you should add the good candidates to a new shortlist spreadsheet. This can also be a tab inside your job post leads spreadsheet. See our example spreadsheet.
Depending on how many applications you had for your job you will probably have less than 5 people who did a great job on the test job at this point. In our example we had 180 applicants and only sent out 14 test jobs. Less than 8% of the total applications! In reality I could have sent out much fewer test jobs here but gave some people the benefit of the doubt. Usually your first instinct about a candidate will be correct however.
If the successful test jobs are very close to each other and you’re having a hard time deciding, I recommend making multiple columns with different criteria to rank them on. For something like article writers I could rank them on
- Subject Knowledge
- English Level
I included these in the example spreadsheet above
Pay Candidates for Test Jobs
This could be an article in itself, but over the years I have found that these two services are the best solutions to pay candidates from multiple countries in different currencies.
Wise.com - Wise gives you the ability to set up a multi currency account and pay directly to accounts in Philippines Pesos, Indian Rupees, Dollars, Euro and many other currencies. The main benefit here is that they give you the bank to bank exchange rate which is the exchange rate you see when you look at an exchange rate in google. Most banks will usually give you a worse exchange rate and charge you a large fee on top of this. With wise you still pay fees but it is by far the most cost effective solution I have found.
Paypal.com - Everyone has probably heard of paypal at this point. Personally I’m not a huge fan of paypal because of the huge fees they take, but for one off payments for test jobs it can often be the easiest way to pay workers from the Philippines or India.
For workers I work with on an ongoing basis I always use bank transfer via wise.
Video interviews are often a good idea for part time or full time workers. It’s not uncommon for agencies to pretend to be a VA but actually your work will be outsourced to a team. By doing an interview you can make sure they are who they say they are and that they can answer questions about the job they will be doing. It’s also a great way to build a relationship with your team.
On an unrelated note, I recommend doing a video call at least once per month with each team member to see who they are doing and build a better relationship.
Email Job Offers
Once you have decided on a candidate(s) it’s time to congratulate them and tell them the good news. I emailed all successful writers using our VA hiring tool I mentioned earlier.
In this email I mentioned that they had been added to Notion.so which is the project management software we use at Lido. The email explains that I will assign them their next tasks there so I can get them streamlined with our project management process as quickly as possible.
I also tell them to feel free to reach out if they have any questions and that I’m here for them if they need any help.
Another common question I get is “how often should I pay my VA?”. One thing I have found over the years is that it’s very important to pay new workers frequently and on time at the beginning of your working relationship so you can build up trust. This is particularly important for freelance workers where you will be paying them per job.
For Freelancers: I typically pay them immediately for the test job and then after they successfully complete their first two tasks. A lot of freelancers have been burnt by entrepreneurs who use test jobs as a way to get free work so it’s important to establish yourself as trustworthy here. After that I typically prefer to do payments every two weeks or every month to cut down on admin time.
In this recent hiring spree our best hire went cold after writing 3 articles. I identified that he was just concerned about not getting paid so I paid him immediately and he started writing again.
For Part Time and Full time workers: I always pay for the test job immediately. From there I usually pay them after their first two weeks and then finally move them on to monthly payments.
Hiring Summary / Understanding Attrition Rate
It’s important to understand that there is an attrition rate or drop off rate at each stage of the process. If you are struggling to hire it could simply be that there weren’t enough leads at the first stage of your funnel. Look at the number of candidates for each stage of our process:
Test Jobs Sent: 14 (8% of applications)
Writers hired: 5 (3% of applications)
Given how steep the drop off is at each stage of the process, getting 10 applications simply won’t be enough to give you a reasonable probability of finding a successful candidate. Cast the net wide at the beginning and keep posting in different locations until you get enough leads.
I hope you have a better understanding of what goes into hiring a virtual assistant. This is the type of article I wish I had read when I was first hiring. It would have saved me a lot of time.
If you need additional help with hiring I will be giving feedback to the 20 people who sign up for our free private beta for the VA Hiring Tool we created at Lido. If you are serious about growing a team and are willing to give us feedback and help us improve our product then please click the link below and fill out the form at the bottom of the page.