As a business owner, you’re doing all administrative tasks: filling orders, responding to customers, marketing your business, and running day-to-day operations.
While there are many reasons to pursue entrepreneurship, having less time isn’t one.
That’s why a virtual assistant should be the first “hire” online business owners make to take on the daily tasks and processes involved in running their business, so they can focus on growing it.
A virtual assistant (VA) is like having an extra pair of hands without the overhead of hiring a full-time employee. If you’re experiencing the “good problems” that come with growth (like stress and more tedium in your to-do list), it might be time to hire a virtual assistant to reclaim a few hours in your day.
Consider these things when hiring your first virtual assistant
- What is a virtual assistant (VA) and how can they help?
- When should you hire a virtual assistant?
- How much does a virtual assistant cost?
- Where to hire a top virtual assistant?
- How to hire your first virtual assistant
- How to divide and conquer your work day with a VA
What is a virtual assistant (VA) and how can they help?
A virtual assistant is an efficient generalist who works remotely to execute tasks or processes delegated to them, such as responding to emails, scheduling social media content, and entering data, often for a fixed hourly rate or a retainer with a set number of hours per month.
A VA can operate anywhere in the world, manage multiple clients, and is often competent in areas like content writing, bookkeeping, or design.
What can you hire a virtual assistant to do?
Virtual assistants won’t take on an entire function of your business, but rather own specific processes or tasks. For example, a virtual assistant won’t build your entire website, but they can help you manage parts of your online store. They probably won’t write and manage all your content, but they can help with research or product page updates. Here are other functions virtual assistants can help with:
- Answer customer emails, social media comments, and phone calls
- Perform community management tasks like moderating comments on your Facebook ads or monitoring Twitter for engagement opportunities
- Build blogger/influencer outreach lists based on specific criteria
- Research statistics and examples for upcoming content
- Process orders and returns from customers (you can find VAs who have experience with Shopify specifically or coach them on how to follow a process)
- Perform bookkeeping duties or data entry from different sources into a single spreadsheet
- Make sales calls when provided with a script and guidelines on how to respond to common questions
- Schedule meetings or book appointments for you
- Run remote-friendly personal errands like ordering flowers or online gifts (some virtual assistant services empower them to make purchases on your behalf)
When should you hire a virtual assistant?
While VAs aren’t permanent employees, they offer an affordable way for ongoing help running your business without any of the additional expenses of a full-time hire (plus their services as a contractor are often tax deductible).
You might consider hiring a virtual assistant if:
- You’re working in your business more than on your business because you’re overburdened with administrative tasks and you feel any organized and capable person could do just as well from a computer.
- You’re willing to spend $100 to $3,000+ per month to buy back your time, depending on the hours, time zone, and skills you need for a trustworthy dedicated VA.
- You already know the specific recurring tasks and processes you want to outsource, such as customer service (e.g., you’re an introvert) or bookkeeping
- Your biggest weaknesses are organizations and administration. VAs are, by trade, organized and efficient, doubling as an “accountability partner” for many solo entrepreneurs whose strengths lie elsewhere.
- You feel overwhelmed by the growth of your business, are a busy parent, or work a 9-to-5 and are building your business on the side.
Since a virtual assistant is a contractor and not a full-time employee, it’s up to you how long you want to employ them. An underrated benefit of employing a VA is the ability to delegate some non-business errands too.
You can hire a VA when there’s an especially busy period coming up in your work and personal life. Here are some tasks you can delegate:
Comparison shopping for furniture to furnish your new place
Create a detailed spreadsheet for influencer outreach, including Instagram handles, contact info, audience size, and engagement rates
Conduct research for a personality quiz and lay it out in a single document
A virtual assistant can do the necessary work you don’t enjoy and free up the mental space (and time) for you to tackle the work you do enjoy (i.e., business strategy).
When should you not hire a virtual assistant?
Bringing on a virtual assistant doesn’t mean someone will come in and take over running your business so you can enjoy four-hour work weeks on a beach.
Before you hire a VA, understand the steps needed to perform the task or process you want to outsource. You’re trusting them to represent your brand, talk to customers, maybe even make payments on your behalf, so you’ll need to be able to teach them how.
A virtual assistant’s job isn’t to set up the systems for you, but to execute within the systems you’ve set up for them.
Don’t hire a virtual assistant if:
- You haven’t prepared clear guidelines, guardrails, and step-by-step instructions. Otherwise, a virtual assistant can end up costing you more time than they save you, because you’ll need to micromanage their work.
- You need specialized proactive support. A single VA may have exposure to different contexts, but not necessarily deep experience in yours. If that’s what you’re looking for, consider hiring a specialized freelancer instead. (Shopify Experts, for example, are freelancers and agencies that know the Shopify ecosystem inside and out.)
- You don’t have time to invest in training and feedback. Great VAs will end up requiring less oversight over time. But no matter how much experience they have, they’re starting a new job and will require onboarding.
- You jumped to outsourcing without considering automation first. As a general rule, if the process you want to outsource can be expressed with “If this specific event happens, then do that specific action,” it’s probably more cost effective to automate it with Shopify Apps, Zapier, or other built-in software automations and integrations.
Automate before you outsource with Shopify Flow
Shopify Flow lets you eliminate repetitive tasks by automating specific processes within your Shopify store. You can select a trigger within Shopify or a compatible app, pick a variable to check for (like a specific number or label) and then execute an action whenever the conditions are met.
Shopify Flow is available on Shopify Advanced and Shopify Plus plans and can:
- Notify your supplier or specific staff member when inventory is low
- Send a handwritten thank you note to customers placing their second order
- Add order information to a Google Sheet or Asana board
- Create branching logic to execute different workflows based on the scenario
How much does a virtual assistant cost?
Prices for virtual assistants can vary from $5 to more than $50 per hour, with US-based and specialized virtual assistants costing more than overseas and admin-focused ones. Many charge by the hour. Some charge a monthly retainer of $500 to $4,000 or more for a set number of hours. There are also virtual assistant services that charge per task or project—these services can be as low as $20 per month.
An hourly rate is usually the best route to begin with in most cases, especially for daily tasks, so you can monitor your invoices to ensure there’s a consistent hourly output.
If you’re a busy and established entrepreneur who’s willing to pay a higher rate, you can also hire an executive assistant, who can act as your right-hand person and support your business while also tackling a wide range of business and personal tasks on your behalf.
The platform you use to hire a virtual assistant will also impact the amount of time you spend managing that relationship, which you should also consider alongside the price.
Some platforms offer:
- Built-in contracts and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs)
- Portals enabling your VA to make purchases for you
- Secure login information and file sharing
- Time-tracking and reporting features
- Delegation strategy sessions to help you integrate a virtual assistant into your business
Where to hire a top virtual assistant
While you could recruit a virtual assistant the traditional way through job boards, there’s no shortage of virtual assistant marketplaces, agencies, technology-enabled services, and independent contractors to help you find someone depending on your price and needs.
Here are some places to start your search to hire a virtual assistant.
1. Freelance marketplaces
Freelance marketplaces are a good starting point for finding a dedicated virtual assistant when you have specific needs in mind and don’t mind spending some extra time on onboarding them.
Upwork, Guru, and Fiverr are popular freelance marketplaces for hiring a virtual assistant, and if you’re going this route, you can prioritize your industry or specify essential skills as part of your search.
Many freelance marketplaces include:
A review system to ensure quality and transparency
A chat feature for sharing files and feedback
Easy invoicing and global payments
A non-disclosure agreement built into their terms of service
Payments via an escrow service, so you only pay for the work that gets done
Pricing: $3 to $90 (or more) per hour.
Tasks covered: Whatever you need done, you can search for the marketplace for independent virtual assistants specializing in your niche and needs.
Best for: Entrepreneurs with specific pricing or skills in mind, who have time to interview, vet, and manually onboard a virtual assistant.
2. Time etc
Time etc connects businesses and busy professionals with a dedicated US-based virtual assistant experienced in many aspects of running a business.
The company offers a free trial and money back guarantee, so it’s a low-risk option for test driving what hiring a virtual assistant can do for your business.
Price: Starting at $310 per month for 10 hours per month.
Tasks covered: Time etc virtual assistants can take over email management, website updates, data entry, social media management, scheduling meetings, writing content, sending invoices and expenses, and personal tasks.
Best for: Entrepreneurs who want a managed service and predictable pricing for an affordable US-based virtual assistant who is available during the work week.
Wing is a “productized” virtual assistant service. The service uses technology to make the experience better for you as a user with features like a workflow builder, login sharing, and a project management board.
You can add tasks to a queue or build workflows you want to hand off, and you can communicate with your VA through their platform, phone, Slack, or text.
Price: Starting at $600 per month for 80 hours per month.
Tasks covered: A Wing Virtual Assistant will manage email, website updates, data entry, and social media management, and send invoices and expenses.
Best for: Entrepreneurs who want a managed service and predictable pricing for affordable US-based VAs.
4. Fancy Hands
Fancy Hands is a lower-cost productized service for delegating tasks to US-based virtual assistants. With the basic plans, you don’t get a dedicated virtual assistant and instead get a set number of “requests” that are the equivalent of 20 minutes of work, each with the ability to roll-over unused requests. You can also make a request for a dedicated VA for a higher fee.
Fancy Hands is one of the lowest-cost virtual assistant services that comes with features like the ability for VAs to make payments or phone calls on your behalf.
Price: Starts at $17.99 per month for five requests (which roll-over from month to month).
Tasks covered: A Fancy Hands assistant can set up meetings, negotiate a phone bill, research topics, perform data entry, and do other one-off tasks (a dedicated VA is required to hand-off processes).
Best for: Delegating personal tasks and running errands.
How to hire your first virtual assistant
Not all VAs are the same. Like any other employee, you’ll need to vet them and that starts with describing your needs in a job description.
But before you write that, make sure you’ve prepared the right onboarding resources.
1. Document your process before you outsource It
Working with a VA isn’t as simple as explaining what you want over the phone and hoping they do it right. You can ensure fewer errors, and that the job gets done the way you want, if you document the entire process and create guidelines for them to follow.
If it involves a basic routine, like managing aspects of your store, there are many efficient methods for documenting the process:
Use Loom to record your screen and every click you make while you’re doing it yourself.
Visualize your workflow in Miro, including what to do or say in different branching scenarios.
Not only does this make it easier to onboard someone to your processes, it also gets you to think through every step you’ll need to communicate to your virtual assistant.
For customer service, social media management, and other tasks where your VA will be dealing directly with customers, partners, or vendors, go through your past responses and create scripts or “canned replies” for every scenario. Consider cases like when a customer asks about the status of an order or wants a refund.
Remember: Your goal with outsourcing is to create less work for yourself, not more.
Nicole Martins Ferreira, a serial entrepreneur who has run several Shopify stores and works with virtual assistants, says: “Training should go beyond a simple document you create with guidelines to follow. More often than not, virtual assistants need all the context you can give to be successful with little oversight—so they can deliver a service to your customers that leads to a positive experience with your brand.”
2. Write a job description to attract the right virtual assistant
In order to find the right virtual assistant, you’ll need to write a job description that can attract someone with the skills and qualities you need. This is a filter for finding the right person and it’s a helpful exercise to get your needs down on paper.
Be sure to include:
The scale of your business (e.g., how many sales/support tickets you typically get)
Past experiences that will make them successful
Language requirements (e.g., “Excellent spoken/written English” if they’ll be communicating with customers in the US)
A specific list of the tasks they’ll be performing for you
Required and nice-to-have skills
Resources you will provide (e.g., customer service scripts)
Relevant keywords prospective hires might be looking up, such as “social media management”
It’s important to consider the tools and platforms you use throughout the process, as it’s far easier to find a VA with experience using certain apps (e.g., Zendesk, Hootsuite, Facebook) than it is to teach someone from scratch.
You can use the sample virtual assistant job description below and adapt it to suit your purposes.
Virtual assistant job description [template]
Hiring a Shopify virtual assistant for store management and customer support.
We run an apparel business that manages 200+ orders and a 20+ customer support requests per week.
We want to hire a virtual assistant with strong customer service skills to help respond to tickets on Zendesk and messages on Facebook. We will provide scripts and answers to the most common questions we receive. You may also be required to log into our Shopify store and look up orders, make changes to orders, or provide refunds.
Ideally, you will have experience with ecommerce, Zendesk, and Shopify. Experience with social media management is also an asset.
Monitoring messages on Facebook, replying to questions
Responding to and solving support tickets in Zendesk
Solving customer problems such as a change in their order
Solving customer inquiries such as the status of their order, how long before their shipment arrives, etc
Looking up and editing orders in Shopify when required
Moderating comments on Facebook posts
Qualities that will make you successful:
Excellent spoken/written English
Courteous and compassionate customer service
Interest in the apparel industry is an asset
Other skills: Shopify, Zendesk, Facebook, phone support, email support
3. Hire and onboard your virtual assistant
While you could post your open virtual assistant role on a traditional job board, forum, or social network, consider the advantages you get from using a platform designed specifically for hiring these kinds of contractors.
Instead, start your search with the freelance marketplaces and virtual assistant service providers mentioned above.
Interview any potential hires over Zoom or Google Hangouts, especially if you found them through a marketplace. Look for references from past clients and other signs that attest to their past performance as a virtual assistant.
Ease your VA into your business so you can learn where they excel and they can understand your business. Things can go wrong if you trust virtual assistants with too much too soon.
“The biggest mistake I made when working with a virtual assistant for customer support was trusting them to post content on our social media accounts without approval,” says Ferreira.
“In one instance, they posted an offensive meme that would’ve been rejected immediately had I continued to supervise all their work. While you might want to give people autonomy so you can focus on other priorities, you should either act as the final approver or ensure that the context you give goes beyond the task and into nuances, like how your audience thinks, and inclusivity for your niche.”
4. Protect your information and accounts
Once you’ve hired your virtual assistant, established communication channels, and trained and set them up for success; you’ll need to ensure you give limited access to your store, social accounts, or whatever else they’ll be using to perform their job.
If you’re not using a virtual assistant service designed for secure login sharing, use a password manager like Last Pass; the free plan lets you share each password with one other user (i.e., your VA).
In your Shopify store, you can also add your virtual assistant as a staff account with specific permissions based on the tasks they’ll need to execute.
Most of the tools you’re already using likely offer limited permission access to collaborate with others:
Facebook’s Page Manager allows you to assign specific roles so virtual assistants can curate and post content.
Customer service tools allow you to add new users with permission to respond to support tickets.
A PayPal business account allows you to specify user permissions so virtual assistants can make payments without providing a credit card.
Gmail has an email delegation feature so your VA can see and respond to emails on your behalf or under your email address.
Since virtual assistants work with multiple clients, sometimes with competitors in the same niche, it’s wise to get them to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
You don’t want them to reveal your secrets, after all. Many freelance marketplaces and virtual assistant services have this covered for you, but double check before you hand your VA any sensitive information.
5. Monitor their performance and evolve their role over time
It’s hard to gauge the pace at which your virtual assistant should be working, or how much work they should be getting done per hour. That’s when time-tracking comes in.
Many VAs have systems that help them track time and report it on your invoices, but there are also time tracking tools like Toggl you could explore.
While you want your VA to function without much oversight, check in with them regularly to see if there are ways you can streamline the process or improve their workflows.
You might even discover your virtual assistant finds a better way to do the task than the way you prescribed, or that they’ve become so familiar with your business they start to offer suggestions like a full-time employee might.
Once your virtual assistant is comfortable with their tasks, you might consider expanding their role and outsourcing more processes, or hiring an additional VA to manage other aspects of your business.
How to divide and conquer your work day with a virtual assistant (VA)
When you think about it, the goal of entrepreneurship isn’t to own a business, but to leave parts of it in capable hands, so your business can run without your full attention.
Outsourcing can feel unnatural for entrepreneurs who relish control. But it’s key to achieving work/life balance. Doing that is even harder when you’re doing everything on your own.
Hiring a virtual assistant lets you focus on the things that matter most—growing your business, spending time with your family, or just giving yourself moments to catch your breath.