What do I need to know before hiring a VA from the Philippines?

Hiring a virtual assistent is a big step in growing your business…it can be a lot of work, it can be a large expense, but it can also catapult your business to the next level once you remove yourself as a bottleneck.

I used to have a full time transcriptionist in the Philippines but wasn't overly impressed. She frequently disappeared for weeks at a time, the work was passable but not great, and as time went on it got worse and took longer. About a year after letting her go, I was emailed by a guy claiming to have been her boyfriend and the person who did the actual work and asking for me to hire him, but I told him that the work was barely passable and not delivered on time so there was no chance of that.  Now, I use a contract based transcriptionist; he does one thing, he does it well, and he's much more cost effective than having somebody local in the United States and does not have any overhead. If I have work, I send it to him and pay for it; if I don't, then there's no cost to me.

Having a VA (no matter where they are located) requires a few things:

  1. A clear plan of action for what the VA is going to be doing
  2. A system that can be followed for each task that the VA needs to do
  3. Training for how to use that system
  4. A way to vet the language skills and any specific skills you need the VA to have
  5. Patience

First, you need to know what the VA is going to do.  That might be the end-goal of every task you want to get off your plate, but it should start with something relatively simple and that can be given to a new hire a piece at a time so you don't overwhelm them. If you don't have a clear idea what you are going to be having them do, you aren't ready to start looking for somebody.

Next, you need a system for each task that you can hand off.  If you don't have a system, then it will be hard for you to give clear and concise directions, and it will be hard for you to evaluate whether the work was done right (or even if it was done at all, in some cases!)  If you haven't broken down your tasks into systems, then this is a good time to do so. You'll find ways to improve your own processes, and may discover you don't need a VA yet. You may also find that you aren't doing something as efficiently as you could be once you see the steps on paper for what is actually happening, and it is best to try to find the best way (within your abilities) to do something before offloading that task. Once you have a VA trained and used to working with you, you can let them develop new and improved systems for getting things done. There should be clear action steps and clear results that can be listed that answers a specific question. Think a check list (for action steps) and short answer questions (for results reporting).

Third, you need to have a way to train your VA in the system that you created to complete the task that you appoint them. Your VA will not be a mind-reader, and if they aren't native to your country they may not have the same cultural frames of reference or assumptions as you do.  Provide training in a clear way, preferably with some sort of demonstration (screencasts with jing are great for this!)  I think the biggest problem I've had with work I've outsourced has been that I haven't been clear enough in communicating my needs and what I want to see as results.

Next, you need a way to vet your VA. Can they communicate? Can they follow directions? Are they trainable?  If you can't for sure answer in the affirmative to all 3 of those, don't waste your time on them. Specialized skills are less important. In fact, unless you need a specialized skill (such as programming or graphic design), hire somebody that's trainable and doesn't have preconceived notions that may not agree with yours. You can always start out with a simple task or two, get them used to doing that, and then add new tasks as you go along as they become comfortable with new technologies and your workflows.  You may also want to consider using a service to find somebody for you; they can do the initial interviews per your specifications and then present 3 or 4 candidates for you rather than you having to wade through 15 or 20 people.

Last, be patient.  You are going to have to spend some time getting your business ready for somebody else to step in and help out. You are going to have to document your systems and training procedures so that you can hand off your tasks.  It will take a while to find the right person.  That person will probably not be the first (or even the second, or third) person that you hire.  Hire on a trial basis – if they can't get into your program and do the work for 10 or 20 days or a month or whatever the case may be, let them go and find somebody else, hopefully having learned some lessons each time.

Bonus tip: Learn local employment practices if you hire outside your country. Know the local holidays, local work schedules, what the 13th month is, local weather patterns and whether internet outages are likely and at what times of year, etc. You want to be sensitive to their needs as well as your own. Especially if you hire in the Philippines, you need to foster an environment where they feel comfortable asking questions (because I guarantee they won't!) A big problem is when they disappear because they are embarrassed to ask a question or admit they don't know how to do something. You'll need to check in daily for a couple months to make sure work is getting done and they are getting the training that they need.  Require a daily check-in by email that lists what was accomplished each day, the biggest hurdle or difficulty that they faced (and require them to fill that section out no matter what!) and what work was not finished.  Check in multiple times per week by skype if possible early on, and gradually reduce that to once per week minimum or whatever schedule you need to regularly need to discuss their goals on any given project.