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Hiring a Virtual Assistant

How to get help when you don't want employees in your home office
May 1, 2004

Q: I started my homebased business six months ago. I don't want an employee in my home, but I already have too much administrative work to handle. How do virtual assistants work? What should I look for in a virtual assistant, and where can I find one?

A: Virtual assistants (VAs) work from their own premises and provide personal and office support services, such as general administrative tasks; making customer contacts; writing reports; editing documents; sending out marketing materials; handling thank-you notes, gifts and follow-up letters; setting up and maintaining databases; handling billing and bookkeeping; and updating Web sites.

Some VAs even help clients manage their personal lives, doing such tasks as arranging for pet-sitting, calling the plumber, scheduling doctor's appointments, planning an upcoming family reunion, or coordinating a move.

A VA may be in your local area or anywhere across the county-after all, he or she communicates with you via e-mail, phone, fax and IM. By using software like Symantec's pcAnywhere, you and your VA can even access one another's computers, or you can jointly coordinate work tasks via software housed on Web sites.

The typical background to look for in a VA would include experience as an administrative or executive assistant, office manager or customer service rep. But because the kind of work VAs do varies, you also want to look for someone who has experience in doing the specific tasks you need help with. Since you'll want a VA with good problem-solving skills who can communicate well and be counted on to get things done, consider working with someone on a time-limited project first to see how that goes before entering a long-term relationship.

VAs usually charge a higher hourly or daily rate than other office-support professionals because they do more complex tasks. Expect to pay $30 to $45 per hour or more. Find VAs through two professional organizations: Virtual Assistance U and the International Virtual Assistants Association.

If you can't find an assistant to do the full range of tasks you need, or if a VA is too pricey, here are a few lower-cost options to consider:

The IRS considers any business service you get through bartering to be income, but the business services you provide through bartering are deductible as business expenses. So keep records of your exchanges and claim values that represent actual market rates.