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Outsourcing Masterclass

Hiring Your First VA – Outsourcing Masterclass

When I hired my first VA, I made mistakes – BIG mistakes.  It took me hours and hours and hours to set her up.  It seemed like I was wasting time by explaining how to do stuff, and it would be quicker if I just did it myself.  I estimate that the first VA I hired took me probably 4-6 months to get set up and working properly.  Now it takes about a week to get someone working.  The difference?  We have a set of rules outlined from Day 1 which deselects anyone who I don’t want to work with…  Therefore I don’t waste time training or talking to VAs who aren’t going to make it pay for me.  That’s the point – they should be making your life easier and making you money – otherwise, why bother?

Why should you outsource?

A lot of the reasons why we recommend that clients use us would apply when hiring your own VA – make your time more effective, do the tasks you enjoy, be flexible with your workload, take on bigger projects – all without the headache of hiring an employee and all the red tape and cost it involves.

What don’t you want?

I asked a few seasoned VAs for their outsourcing horror stories – and boy, they didn’t disappoint me!  But there’s a common thread in almost all the nightmares: they all outsourced due to time pressure.

The number 1 thing you can do to avoid a disaster is to set up your new VA when you have time. 

Lots of things can go wrong, here’s just a sample of the ones I got told about when I did my straw poll:

  • VA submitted work late
  • Clients didn’t like not dealing directly with me
  • VA submitted work that I had to do again because it was so bad
  • The work wasn’t done how I would usually do it
  • VA didn’t tell me how long it had taken her so I couldn’t bill the client
  • I found it was easier just to do the job myself
  • VA nicked the client for her own business
  • Outsourcer didn’t know how to do the job and ended up misquoting to the client
  • VA took 10 times longer than the job should have taken and expected to be paid for it
  • The VA tried to trade under my business name
  • VA simply never got back to me any time I tried to contact her to do work
  • When I was busy and needed the help, the VA was never available
  • A graphic designer without any graphics software
  • VA didn’t have any childcare so work was done late at night and was poor quality

It doesn’t matter much where you find the VAs – you may get people contacting you via your website, you can put a post on the SVA forum, you could advertise on Skype rooms, business forums, meet someone at a networking event…  But the important thing is to make sure they all go through the same process.

How To:

So, you’ve thought about this in good time, decided it would be useful to have a VA who’s able to do overflow work – what do you need to do next?

  1. A job description: You’d be surprised by how many people skip this off their To Do List.  Write down a job description of your ideal VA – will they be local, have certain skills, be reliable, available at particular times, able to type at 100wpm?  If your candidates don’t match these criteria – DON’T HIRE THEM!!!  You have time here, if you think you are perhaps asking too much of one person, do two separate job descriptions and hire two people.  Knowing what you want is the first step to getting it.
  2. The tests: This saves me a lot of hassle speaking to people who wouldn’t have the skills I need.  Once you have your job description, design a test for them to submit along with their CV when they apply.  It might be a spelling test, a task they must complete, a simple piece of research.  Whatever you would need them to do on a daily basis.  It’ll give you an idea of what they are capable of.  And here again: If they don’t pass the test, DO NOT HIRE THEM.  You will spend your entire life checking their work and you’re maybe missing out on working with an excellent VA!
  3. A contract:  This is NOT negotiable.  Before they find out anything about your business or your clients, they need to sign a confidentiality contract – it protects both you and your clients.  SVA has a template for this (https://www.societyofvirtualassistants.co.uk/va-products/), but whatever you use, make sure it’s not a US based contract, as the UK has very different laws on restraint of trade and “golden handcuffs” clauses.  Including these types of clause in your contract could very well make it null and void and unenforceable under UK law.  Additionally, you need to make sure your VA is definitely self-employed, rather than an employee – again the UK is much stricter on this than the US, so you must make sure it is very clear in the contract as it will protect you from becoming liable for National Insurance contributions etc.
  4. Availability: Over the years I’ve gradually reached the conclusion that people with less than 20 hours a week are no use to me.  It’s perhaps a personal niggle, but I can pretty much predict that if you hire someone with less availability, that when you have work for the outsourcer, they won’t be able to help you.   Plus there may be times when you urgently need to get hold of them to query a bill, something they did for a client, where they saved a piece of work etc – if they aren’t available until next day, it could really screw you up.  If you’re going to spend time training them, you need to get a return on investment for that.  If they are never available to work, you won’t be seeing the returns for a long, long time.
  5. Training: Once you have your VAs in place, you need to teach them how you do things – give them templates, give them guidance about how you work, FAQs clients might ask them, set them up with an email address that you have access to which they should use for all your work (this saves a lot of hassle when it comes to managing absences).  Set out how you are going to work – will they tell you their availability every Monday morning?  When will they get paid and what do you need on their invoice?  Check they have Microsoft Office, proper anti-virus software plus anything else they would need to complete work for you.  Tell them you won’t pay more for a task than your estimate unless they contact you and give you the option of reassigning the work to someone else.  It’s a good idea to document this set up and have it saved somewhere – it makes it easier to outsource next time too.  I call this setting out the rules of the game: this is how we play it here.
  6. Sort your systems: If you need the VA to share documents, have access to internal information, have an email address set up in your company name, set it up now!  You’ll also want to think about billing – when should they invoice you so you can safely have enough time to check it and invoice your clients the right amount?  Do you need them to tell you how long each piece of work has taken them, or do you have somewhere they should record this centrally?  VERY IMPORTANT: Even if you don’t get paid by your client, the VA was hired by you, so you still have to pay them!
  7. Outsourcing Your Own Tasks:  Their first task should always be an internal one – this gives you a massive indication of how they usually work without risking any client contracts.
  8. Tell your clients:  If they are used to dealing solely with you, they are going to freak out being handed off to someone unknown…  Introduce your new VA in your monthly newsletter perhaps with a little bit about them and their expertise.  Explain individually to the clients that you’ll remain responsible for their work, but that you are getting some extra help from your new VA in order to improve the service (you could say give them quicker turnarounds, improve quality, allow you to focus on more strategic elements of their work).
  9. Back off:  This is one I’m particularly guilty of myself… We all have an inner control freak.  Keep it under control – unless you figure out how to clone yourself, no one is ever going to do everything exactly how you would do it.  The main thing is that your instructions are clear on what is not open to interpretation.  Anything else – well that’s your own fault for not specifying!
  10. Lastly, be prepared for extra admin time:  You’ll need to set aside extra time for checking the work before it gets sent back to clients, and you’ll also need to build in admin time for paying them and organising the schedule.
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How to outsource:

SVA designed a very simple email template which leaves zero room for error in terms of outsourcing work – we include this in ALL our sales of our subcontract agreements – we’ve found it super effective in dealing with the majority of issues.

What should you outsource?

Outsource one of your own tasks first – you get to check the quality of their work, their response time, their respect of deadlines… A small piece of internal work will tell you a lot about this person.

One of the major stumbling blocks when outsourcing is to outsource a piece of work that you cannot do yourself…

Let’s say you have a client who asks you to do some bookkeeping – not a service you offer.  You contact a fellow VA who does offer bookkeeping, agree a rate of £25/hour, sign a contract to that effect and the VA goes off and does the client’s work.  She does it within deadline, says it took 10 hours, you send it to the client and bill him £350 (£35/hour x 10).  The client comes back and says “This job should only have taken 3 hours maximum and some of the work is wrong”.  How do you, as a non-bookkeeper, even know where to start on that complaint?

In the event that I get approached for a service I don’t offer, I now just refer them to someone who does offer the service – that way I’ve helped my client get the work done but I’m not responsible for someone else’s work.  You could even ask the VA you referred for a referral fee (standard terms are around 10% of the first bill), so you’d still be making money on it.

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Okay, something’s gone wrong… very wrong!

VAs are human – we all mess up occasionally.  However, here’s where you have to be tough…

fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. 

Hopefully, you’ll have built enough space into your deadline that the client remains unaffected.  You’ll probably not have had very much sleep and are probably rushing all your other work as a result… but the client is unaware there was a problem.  It’s not a disaster – be calm in your approach.

Firstly, tell the VA.  If you’ve had to correct a document, send them the finalised document with highlighted markup showing them where you’ve made changes and where they’ve gone wrong.

Next: figure out how you can stop this mistake from happening again.  Were you unclear in your explanation?  Did the VA have the wrong template?  Was there a personal drama?  Did they have a technical malfunction?

For example, one of my very reliable VAs found that her new anti-virus was removing attachments from emails she sent – and I didn’t get the work.  Her solution to this is to also send it to herself and forward us that file from her Blackberry if we have a problem receiving it. 

If the mistake has cost me money, I usually give the VA the choice of either not charging me for their work or I’ll pay their bill, but I won’t work with them again – mostly VAs want to work and won’t charge you.  At this point I also make it very clear if they were in the wrong, that if they screw up again, there are no second chances.  I work to tight deadlines, my clients expect great work – I can’t have people who let me down on the team.

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Occasionally we have a second problem – and at that point, there’s simply no excuse.  They are unreliable, I can’t work with them.  They have to go.

My own story: We had a VA doing call answering for us – she rather stupidly decided to approach one of the clients about doing some VA work on the side for him (against our contract terms as she should have passed this info to the head of dept who deals with VA work).  Not only did our client immediately come to tell us, but she also gossiped about it with one of the other VAs in our private chat room! She claimed we’d misconstrued what she’d meant in the chat room, but the fact was she hadn’t followed procedure and therefore was in the wrong anyway. 

Before you approach them, cut off all access to their emails/any confidential data/any passwords they had access to before approaching them.  This stops them from approaching any clients or stealing data when they realise they are about to be fired.  It’s the VA equivalent of escorting someone from the building…

Try to do it nicely (say you’ll take them back on once their situation is more settled if it makes you feel better) but under no circumstances should they work for you again.  Remind them of their contract and its terms regarding confidential materials or contacting clients.

It’s sad but true – some people are not suited to being a VA.  However, there are hundreds of really excellent ones out there and you deserve to find one to help you in your business!


  1. Lin MacD on 18 June, 2013 at 11:12 am

    A great article, great tips Caroline, thanks. I am just about to launch a new arm of my business that will rely heavily on outsourcing, this has given me a timely reminder about things I need to get in to place. Estimating turn around time was something I got caught out on while outsourcing and of course that only strengthens your unwillingness to completely let go and ‘back off’!

  2. Caroline on 18 June, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    So often people tell me that outsourcing went horribly wrong for them – but mostly it’s because they haven’t set it up properly themselves. A lot of the time I find it’s because they’ve taken advice from a VA trainer who has never worked as a VA themselves and therefore they haven’t covered these basics.

    And yes, I battle my inner control freak daily!!!

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