Choose the best virtual assistant course

Virtual Assistant Training – what to look for

If you’re a newbie VA, one of the first things you’ll look at is finding the best virtual assistant course.  I am probably going to get very nasty emails about this post – I know there are going to be good friends who think I’m being unreasonable, picking on people who offer training, and who cut off all contact with me.  I had second, third and fourth thoughts on writing it, but felt it needed to be said:

What to avoid in a Virtual Assistant Coach

Now I am going to put a disclaimer here:

VA coaching can be very, very good – I’ve paid for some myself, I have been lucky enough to review a few others, and there are some extremely competent coaches out there who will shortcut your journey to running a successful VA business.  I also believe that people’s time is worth money, and if they are teaching you how to make more money with your business, that has a value which you should pay for.  I’m definitely not anti-coaching, nor am I anti-capitalist – everyone deserves to make a living.

I occupy a fairly unique position in the VA industry – I make money from my VA business and SVA is run as a side project which( just about!) covers its costs via people donating time and money to help, buying the SVA products, buying our recommended reading via our Amazon link, accessing the SVA Premier content, and joining us in the Big Meet.  I freely list any event or product which might be useful to UK VAs, and I’m happy to help anyone who is out to improve the industry.  Therefore I can say the things which a lot of people won’t admit (see The 6 Figure VA)

But there are coaches out there who are, quite frankly, charging for professional advice which is (at best) misguided, and (at worst) downright erroneous.  I am not naming any names here – but if you recognise your virtual assistant training in here, think again about marketing your services to SVA members, because they’ll be asking you some difficult questions after reading this article! It contains some essential insider info for those entering the industry – given freely and without strings.

Question 1: Where is the virtual assistant trainer based?

This may seem utterly unimportant because being a VA you’ll be used to working virtually, doing online webinar sessions and phone meetings.  But if they are based outside of the UK, or if they have based their course on an American template system, you’ll get into trouble very quickly if you use their contract templates.

Our legal system has significant differences in subcontracting which will affect both your client contracts and your own VA subcontractors.  You could end up being classed as an employee or employer unless the terminology would stand up in a UK court of law, leaving you liable for National Insurance contributions and extra tax or declaring the whole contract null and void.   Ask whether it was drafted by a UK lawyer or whether it was adapted from a US template.  Ask them how much it cost – we’ve yet to find a lawyer who’ll charge less than £500 for doing this work from scratch.

Question 2: How many hours do they think you need to work a week in order to replace a PA salary?

This is a somewhat loaded question, because it tests two things: how honest they are and how realistic they are.  Now I know from experience that starting a VA business from scratch, you need at least 20 hours a week to work on your business and that some of those hours have to be in the traditional 9-5 Mon-Fri working week.  (Seasoned VAs: Feel free to disagree with me on this, but remember I’m talking about newbie VAs, not those with established client lists.  We all know of VAs who maybe only work 10 hours a week and earn a decent amount!)

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You need some of that time to be in working hours because you’ll need to do things like go to the bank, the post office, and speak to clients working traditional hours.  The 20 hours is my own experience of working with VAs over the years – for me to be able to subcontract work to them, they need a reasonable amount of availability as otherwise every time I ask them to do something, they won’t be able to meet a reasonable deadline.  Even if you ignore the client side, you need to have time to develop your business plan, do research and market your business.

VA Coaches who are merely flogging their course without any regard to helping people to create a proper business aren’t going to be upfront about the time commitment involved.  They will say you can scrap childcare and replace a PA salary easily.

Let’s shatter that myth: According to The UK VA Survey less than 6% of VAs have no childcare in place and only 35% of VAs earn over £20k, with the majority earning between £10-20k/year.  That’s not to say it’s impossible to earn more money on less hours – but just that it’s unlikely according to the industry standard.

Question 3: How long has this person been a virtual assistant?

I make a good living from being a VA.  If they are good at being a VA, they could make money too – which beggars the question: why are they doing virtual assistant training instead of earning money from their VA business?  This is a biggie for me, and you’ll get loads of wide ranging fluffy answers.  Drill down and get the real story.

If they say they are currently a VA, go look at their website – is the blog up to date?  Do they have an active twitter account?  You’ll often find that those who aren’t active as a VA will have out of date social media or concentrate a large chunk of their marketing on selling their VA courses rather than snagging new clients.

It is preferable that they’ve spent at least a while being a VA themselves – otherwise how do they know what marketing strategies work for virtual assistants?  Or what you could realistically make in profit?  Or how to stay in business long term?  Or the practicalities of hiring a subcontractor for client work?  There’s industry specific knowledge they will only gain by doing it themselves.  You don’t have to have been a VA to offer VA training – but you do need to have industry specific knowledge in order to claim you are offering a specialist course.  (We’ll come onto how you test that later!)

Question 4: What’s included in the fee?  Are there any hidden costs like travel, accommodation, books, software you need etc.  Are they happy to give you a synopsis of what is included in the course?

Fairly obvious question, but often newbie VAs assume that if they buy a VA specific course, it’ll cover everything they need to know about working as a VA.  That’s a tall order, but as a minimum I’d expect them to cover:

  • Equipment including back ups, phone lines and websites.
  • Marketing including examples of at least 10 different proven strategies, how to identify a niche, planning and budgeting.
  • Business set up – picking the right format, what you legally need to do in terms of notifying HMRC and bookkeeping, T&Cs/insurance/client and VA contracts.

Don’t be fobbed off by them saying that you’ll get X number of webinars or Y telephone calls – you need to know exactly what you are buying.

The other trick is for them to say that you’ll be getting thousands of pounds worth of materials in the course – check if anyone has actually ever paid full whack for them on the SVA forum – you’ll get some honest answers from the real VAs.

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Question 5: What qualifies them to be a VA Coach?

Even the very best VA might not be a great teacher – they are different skill sets.  Ask what teaching or coaching qualifications the VA Coach has.

Be skeptical of those who claim to be “experts”.  Personally, I’m not sure there is anyone qualified in the UK to claim to be a “VA Expert” (I’m certainly not one!).  I can think of maybe 3-4 people worldwide who I’d classify as being VA experts.  (Seasoned VAs: Can you guess who???)

From my experience of being on the board of www.VACertified.com it made me realise that being a VA is not just about time served, the industry reputation you have or your skills, it’s about those things taken holistically to give an overall picture of you as a person.  I know VAs who have great skills and are rubbish at making money.  I know VAs who have been working as a VA since 1985 and have no idea how to run a proper business but somehow muddle along.  I know VAs who have been on every course going and still can’t deliver a piece of work on time.  Offering a course on being a VA should be about getting all those elements correct – and it’s a tough order to be able to find someone who understands all those concepts well enough to teach them.
Question 6: Ask some innocent questions

Do they recommend specialising in just one nicheI attended a freebie training webinar recently and I thought the host was doing rather well until she fudged this question.  Again, it’s a loaded question designed to catch them out.  Most marketing professionals will tell you that you should specialise in just one niche because it’s easier to market to just a small sector of business.  This is very true, but it’s not what you should aim for overall in your VA business.

Unlike other businesses we tend not to work on a contract basis so if someone wants to stop using us tomorrow, they can.  If you specialise in just one industry and it suffers an overnight crash (e.g. property circa 2007/2008) you’ll be left without an income.  VA industry best practice is to make sure you market to 2-3 different niches, ensuring that your risk is spread throughout different industries and that you have no more than 50% of your income coming from any one sector or client.  This is a relatively new marketwide standard due to the recession, so if your VA coach hasn’t worked as a VA themselves recently, they may not even be aware of this but it’s about futureproofing your business.

What would you recommend if you get asked to offer a service which you don’t offer?  Again, a nasty little trickster of a question!  The rogue coach will tell you to say to the client that you can do it and then subcontract it to another VA who does offer this service.  A seasoned VA will actually have dealt with the reality of subcontracting and know that the correct answer to this dilemma is to recommend another VA who can help but to make sure the client knows it is them who is doing the work.  The reason being: If you don’t offer the service, you won’t be able to check the work has been done properly or know if the rate charged is realistic or help if the subcontractor lets you down.  It’s your name that gets dragged through the mud if this outsourced piece of work is not up to scratch.  Therefore most VAs would not outsource a piece of work which they aren’t able to complete themselves.  They can still make money on a referral fee from the VA they recommend, but they won’t be overseeing the work.

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I have some other stinkers of questions, but if we put them all here, the coaches will just read up the correct answers!  If you’d like them, please drop me a line on info@societyofvirtualassistants.co.uk – I’ll be delighted to help.

Question 7: Do you need the whole course or is there an option to buy individual subjects or in group coaching or online training which may reduce the fee?

I’ve been taken in by this – I did a business coaching course which was frankly eye-wateringly expensive and could have been summarised by buying 5 books written by the course leader at £20/book.  (Having said that, it did involve having a business coach come chase me with a big stick every week to make sure I’d done everything on my list.  I could probably have got Emma the Call Answering Queen to do it just as well though – she’s much scarier and less expensive!)

Ask if there’s an online or group coaching option as it may well be cheaper.  And if they have supporting books, it might be an idea to read them first to see if you like their style of teaching.

You may only need a small section of the course – ask if you can buy it separately.
Question 8: Can they give you testimonials which you can check?

As much as I’m skeptical about testimonials (see Testimonials: have you ever seen a bad one?) the strength of the course has to be measured by the results that the participants get from it.  The VA Coaches will be somewhat hampered by confidentiality, but you could always ask on the SVA Forum whether anyone else has done the course and if it helped them in their business.

I’ll happily put my head above the parapet here – I offered training in the run up to my maternity leave to cover my absence – so I am one of those VA Coaches!  I hope I’ve been useful to the people I coached – I was very upfront about what they could realistically achieve and what my background was.  I did turn down a few people who would simply not have been able to run a proper VA business in their personal circumstances.

What prompted me to write this blog was yet another course popping up claiming to specialise in VA marketing which was patently giving out incorrect advice.  It intensely annoys me when people attempt to make a quick buck off VAs who don’t know any better – SVA was set up so that newbie VAs can avoid the potholes of starting up and make their own business a credit to the industry as a whole.   If you are thinking about paying for VA training, please do ask these questions of your trainer.  You’ll be shocked by how many coaches cannot answer them properly.

Now I know I’m going to get a lot of flack for this article – but I’m confident that those VA Coaches and Trainers who are running an ethical business would be able to answer all these questions confidently.  Do you think I’ve been unfair to the VA trainers?  Should coaches specialising in VAs have been a VA first?  Did you do a course which was worth every penny?  What’s your opinion on the training and coaching industry?

EDIT: In the latest UK VA Survey we asked people if they had done VA specific training and then looked at their turnover to create an average for that specific training course… If you want to know the courses who added value to the business compared to VAs who had not done any training CLICK HERE.

  1. Justine Curtis on 13 May, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Great article Caroline. Your sound advice should help those looking for training weed out some of the charlatans. Good for you.

    • Caroline on 13 May, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      The problem is, how does a newbie know what questions to ask? If it has a great website and they seem very professional, you’d think that was enough. But there are so many out there who are taking money for giving out wrong advice, and that does annoy me!

      Glad I’ve not been blackballed by one training provider then! =)

  2. Carole Meyrick on 13 May, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    A very well-written article, Caroline, and one which covers one of my particular bugbears: why does this person presume to teach others about becoming a VA? What experience has she had which she thinks makes her an expert, able to pass whatever knowledge she has to others aspiring to become VAs? Getting answers to the questions you’ve raised will go a long way to sorting the wheat from the chaff and making sure potential VAs who decide to buy training will get good value and knowledge for their money.

    I don’t enter my culinary confections in the local village show for a similar sort of reason: I know my shortbread is the best, and so is my rich fruit cake, etc… What qualifies anyone to tell me any different? My you, the one time I did enter, said shortbread won first prize!!!

    • Caroline on 13 May, 2013 at 3:46 pm

      There’s definitely things we can learn from one another (my little issues with numbers and geography for example!!) but I’m hard pushed to recommend courses a lot of the time because what they teach is fundamentally wrong, due to the course leaders not actually being VAs.

  3. Steph Middleton on 13 May, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    This is also one of my big bugbears and something I’m often ranting about. I agree with most of what you say Caroline, and there’s definitely some sound advice here. I have a real issue with some ‘trainers’ in our industry. That being said, it’s not just the VA industry. The coaching and training industry, and any industry for that matter will always have a share of good ones and bad ones.

    One thing I would definitely say to any newbie, or even experienced VA is that you should never believe everything that everyone tells you without questioning whether it is sound advice, and you should get help, advice and training from many sources. I invest a lot of time in my business getting mentoring and training, reading books etc. from various business gurus, and in my honest opinion, if you want to get genuine support on running a business successfully, you should probably be looking further than just a VA trainer. You want a decent business coach.

    On the subject of niching, I think I actually disagree with this. If you ask any successful business expert, not just for VAs, they will tell you the way to get to the money is to niche. The tighter you define your target market, the more chance you have of being successful. I understand what you are saying, eg. with the property industry, but if you are genuinely good in business, then you should be able to predict change, move with the times and handle what arises. Just because you have a niche doesn’t mean you can’t take on clients that are not in that particular field, it’s just about marketing to a niche market rather than focusing your efforts on being a jack of all trades. I recently read Joe Calloway ‘Becoming a category of one’ – takes niching to a whole another level and I’d recommend it for both newbies and seasoned VAs.

    In terms what qualifies people to be an expert, actually, more to the point it’s whether you can actually say they are not? I am on the fence with this one. If you look at many leading successful people, they very often have self annointed titles! I know one business owner that branded his business ‘the fastest growing franchise in the UK’ – nobody gave him this badge, he didn’t win an award, but he did some research on google, saw the rate of growth of other UK franchises and decided his was the best. That’s how he justifies it, and actually as there is no defining stats on it, you an’t really argue against it. Nobody in this life is going to tell you that you are the best, its up to you to market yourself as the best as sadly we are yet to develop an expert-o-meter!

    Obviously I’m not saying everyone is worthy of calling themselves an expert, and I’m playing devils advocate here because as I said, this is actually something that annoys me alot! You certainly need to be able to back up your claims as an expert if challenged, and if you get found out not be then, then so be it, but I actually think everyone has the right to call themself whatever they like, and if they are not up to the job word will soon get around and they’ll show themselves up. I’m actually delivering a topic this week at OIVAC on niching and differentiating yourself (‘becoming an expert’) so this is a very timely blog post!

    It’s great to have some proper debate around important issues in our industry though Caroline, so well done for opening up a conversation that I hope will get blood pumping and people talking!

  4. Caroline on 13 May, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    On the niching – usually I’d recommend people market to niches, but have perhaps 2-3 specialities so they don’t end up high and dry. One figure which has been bandied about is not to have any more than 30% of your business from any one client and not to have more than 50% of your business as any one niche – that would be the ideal, but obviously something to work towards rather than firing clients to make the numbers work!
    Maybe we should develop the “expert-o-meter”???

    • Steph Middleton on 14 May, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      Lol! Yes we should – I’ll get to work on designing one right away…. although if we design an expert-o-meter, does that mean we think we are experts in what makes an expert?? Hmmm… might have to think that one through a bit more 🙂

  5. Angela Dawson on 16 May, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    I love this article, Caroline. I love the frankness and openness about it.

    As someone who is embarking on a new VA training course having resigned as being a licensee for another training company, it is very interesting to see how trainers are perceived. I have an outline of my business model and it’s good to see that some of that is contained within the positive elements of this article.

    I want to be a VA trainer because I love being help to people and I love the training delivery. I also see myself as more of a mentor. I like to share my experiences as a VA and advise people accordingly. I quite often get people contacting me to pick my brains and I’m always more than happy to help them.

    I do think a VA trainer needs to have the industry knowledge. I think it’s the personal experiences that you can share is what a lot of newbie VAs value the most.

    I am in no way an expert and would never profress to be. I just love doing what I do and if I can help others get a leg up, then this makes me happy.

  6. Angela on 20 May, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    I have been reading about becoming a VA and as I am disabled I was hoping I could do this when I have my better days and when not well leave it until tomorrow is it possible to do this??

    • Caroline on 20 May, 2013 at 3:51 pm

      Hi Angela
      It might be difficult to work as a client VA on that basis, but you could certainly do subcontract work for another VA who would then take over if you were unwell. A good book to read would be “The VA’s VA” – we have an interview with the author here: https://www.societyofvirtualassistants.co.uk/2012/11/15/unusual-niches-patty-of-time-is-of-the-es-cents/

      You could also look at working just on small projects via People Per Hour, Elance, Guru.com, Odesk outsourcing sites – although the rate of pay on most of these is pretty dire.

      Hope that helps,
      Caroline

  7. […] get to see the fall out from inexperienced trainers and it’s not pleasant. You really need to ask the right questions when thinking of doing a […]

  8. Gemma on 23 February, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    Hi, I have been a PA for several years and would like to work from home due to young child I’d like to work around. Can you recommend a suitable course preferably online that I could do around keeping my current job? Thanking you in advance

    • Caroline on 24 February, 2017 at 10:27 am

      Hi Gemma

      SVA have an online download here. Look for SVA Premier.

      But as a mum myself, I’m always VERY honest about this with aspiring VAs:
      It’s not an alternative to childcare.
      You need to have some time during 9-5 Mon-Fri where you can make phonecalls, arrange meetings, know you have uninterrupted time to get stuff done and ask questions whilst doing it. I think a lot of the time these courses are sold to people on the basis that they can cancel their childcare and still earn a replacement PA salary… That’s not realistic, and you need to plan out the finances and your time very carefully in order to make it work, especially if you throw kids into the mix.

  9. Tanya on 30 March, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    Hi Caroline,

    I came across your article and I must thank you for your frankness. I’m currently trying to launch my VA business and I feel like I need some help. I do want to enroll in a course that gives clear direction on pricing/packaging, marketing, landing clients and necessary technology. But most of all I want genuine support and an accountability coach from the course i choose.
    I’ve come across many persons offering courses and I guess because of my paranoia and present tight budget I haven’t enrolled in any yet.
    I’m tired of people beating around the bush and seeking their own interests while pretending to be of help to others. Can you please direct me to a course/courses that would provide my aforementioned needs?
    Thanks again for the post.

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