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 or some virtual assistant training. 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 virtual assistant 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 or virtual assistant training 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, affiliate fees and sponsorship. 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 training 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 established VAs who maybe only work 10 hours a week and earn a decent amount!)
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 only 40% of VAs earn over £20k and the average turnover for those working less than 10 hours a week is just £8,333. 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 active social media accounts? 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. The VA industry moves fast – out of date knowledge will wreck your new business.
It is preferable that they’ve spent at least 5 years 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. Check on LinkedIn that they have at least 5 years of being a VA.
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 – and a lot of established trainers assume that rules which work for other industries will work as a VA. They don’t. (We’ll come onto how you test their industry knowledge 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 or virtual assistant training system, 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.
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 niche?
I 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 future-proofing 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.
Do you charge clients for matching me with them?
If the VA trainer is charging the client a fee, they are effectively working as an employment agency. Employment agencies cannot charge people for being on their books – it’s illegal. So if they are charging you to get qualified and then charging the client too, do you really want to be taking business advice from them? Run fast, taking your money with you!!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org – 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.
Ask them if they get paid a commission for recommending the course. Because lots will be propping up a meagre VA income by recommending the course which didn’t produce success for them in their VA 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.
Question 9: Do SVA list them as an Approved UK VA Trainer?
In 2018, after having more complaints in a single year about VA trainers than we’d had in the preceding 10 years, we decided to do something about the bogus VA courses. We invited everyone to take part in an open forum to discuss this issue, and came up with a number of things to tackle it. This was not a naming and shaming exercise, but a real effort to improve the standard of what was being offered.
Firstly we created a best practice guide for the VA trainers. And secondly, we offered a free listing for VA trainers who were able to comply with those guidelines. (Just like the free scheme we run for Approved VAs).
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?