|If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that I use a Virtual Assistant. When and how to get help is a question that FBA sellers often face when they get to a certain size/level of activity. In my case, I’ve used an assistant in my day job for years. When I first published my Make Thousands on Amazon in 10 Hours a Week! book, I had my assistant help with design, layout, setting up my book and blog, HTML, etc., but I was still handling my FBA business myself. Over time, I brought her into the Amazon business. Since so much of an FBA business is technology-enabled, it is easy to delegate certain tasks if you are willing to take the time to train your assistant.|
Currently, I have a weekly commitment with her and I spread her time out over my Amazon business, tasks related to my blog or marketing my book, and my day job. She is mostly Amazon/blog/book now with a few hours a week focused on my day job or other tasks. Here’s what most people ask me about working with a Virtual Assistant:
Q. What are the benefits of working with a VA?
A. The biggest benefit to working with a VA is you can delegate tasks to them that you do not like to do or do not have time to do. They work when you are sleeping (mostly) so you can get quick turnaround on tasks. If the work can be done over the internet, consider if working with a VA will save you time to focus on what is most important to you. They are less expensive than workers here in the U.S., more skilled, better trained and less entitled. I’ve had assistants since 1988 and what I have learned is that a good assistant is worth his/her weight in gold and nearly as hard to find. Most of the time finding a good one is as much about me as it is about them. If I want a quality assistant, I need to be a good boss. I could write a book on this topic alone (but I will spare you!).
Q. How will my VA work with me?
A virtual assistant is flexible and will work with you the way you desire. I use Skype with my assistant for IMs and the occasional phone call. We also use email a lot, of course. If I want her to see my screen or vs. versa, we use http://join.me along with a Skype call for training. For sharing documents I’ve used free collaboration programs like Google Docs and others (that I was using with my clients, basically). She is in the Philippines so the time difference between us is 13 hours (she is nearly a day ahead of me). We communicate directly by IM or call in the evenings or early mornings my time.
Q. How much does it cost?
A. It varies depending on the kind of work your VA will do for you. I found my current assistant through a professional company in the beginning and they quoted me a rate after assessing my needs. You can pay anywhere from $5-$15 an hour depending. Over the years I’ve paid $5-$8 an hour for administrative support but your results may vary. If you want someone who is trained on Quickbooks, for example, that will cost more than someone who will mostly use powerpoint, word and excel.
Q. What is the commitment?
A. I am committed for 15 hours a week on average. Sometimes I’ll have a heavy week one week and then a lighter week. I pay twice a month. I’m running three businesses. Your needs may be less or more than mine. Generally you hire a VA by the project or with a weekly commitment of some kind.
Q. Where do I find a VA?
A. There are hundreds of VA companies. The smartsheet is like a yellow pages of VA companies – mostly smaller shops. This article on the 20 Places to Find a Top Notch Virtual Assistant is also good. I suggest Angie’s List, the Online BBB and a google search to determine reputations. You want a VA and/or VA company where you can check their references with actual customers. Don’t just read stuff on a website. In addition, check out http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/outsourcing-life/ by Timothy Ferris. He’s written quite a bit about the topic. Some of his blog posts include names, ratings from customers and more. Chris Ducker is also known as a VA guru. Check out his blog at: www.chrisducker.com. He has a helpful article that lists resources for business owners looking for a VA and wanting to know how to work with a VA.
Ducker also owns a company that acts as a matchmaker between business owners and VA companies called Virtual Staff Finder. I have not used them, but I know a couple of business owners who used them to find their VA. They were very pleased with the service. It took a lot of the pressure and research time off their shoulders.
I suggest a professional company with offices in the U.S. as well as overseas to begin with. They will likely have a large base of assistants to choose from. They take care of all the taxes and foreign requirements but you can talk to an American if you have questions/problems. American based companies have greater transparency and accountability which helps and many of them bond their workers.
Q. What kinds of tasks are appropriate for a VA?
A. Just about anything you can think of that does not require a physical presence. This includes bookkeeping, taxes, research, reservations, programming, HTML, etc. Here are some of the Amazon FBA tasks my VA handles for me:
- Correct listing errors
- Reprice my books (I handle other items myself) using my repricer
- File and pay my sales tax for all the states where I am registered (we use TaxJar.com)
- Track reimbursements
- Monitor listing changes for me
- Update listings with pictures, etc., as needed
- Run reports from SellerCentral
- Dispose/Return unsellable and/or very old items as appropriate
- Compile certain reports for my CPA
- Petition Amazon to remove negative feedback
- Set up advertising accounts for me on facebook and google
- Set up my affiliate program with Amazon (embedding HTML into my blog, etc.)
- Source images for my listings and size them properly
Q. Is it safe to turn over my passwords/credit cards/bank account/private information/Quickbooks/SellerCentral logins to my VA?
A. Yes and No. It is always a risk to share private data with anyone, but I’ve had more trouble with assistants in the U.S. abusing my credit cards and financial data (three) over the years than overseas (zero). Trust is something built over time. Most professional companies bond their workers and provide some level of guarantee. Amazon.com, my bank and Quickbooks allow me to set up special accounts for my assistant such that they have limited access/capabilities (can’t transfer money, for example). This gives me some control. They never know my login and can’t make admin-level changes like I can. I set up my bank account, etc., with all the different states myself. My assistant can file and pay my taxes but she can’t move money out of my bank account in any other way. That being said, I have a good relationship and a high degree of trust with my VA. I have given her my credit card number in the past to handle certain transactions for me.
Q. How do I pay my VA?
A. With my first VA company, they took a draw from my bank account (like a subscription or car payment – I had a contract with them). Currently I use PayPal and, occasionally, Xoom.
Q. What are the pitfalls of working with a VA?
A. Obviously there are tasks you can’t assign to a VA like doing your filing, running errands or cleaning off your desk (sigh, I do miss that). Also, since you are working with someone overseas there can be language and communication issues that can lead to mistakes and add time to projects in the beginning as you are learning to work together. The onus is on you to be an extremely clear communicator. If you’ve never managed people before, I don’t recommend a VA as your first experience in management. I’ve been managing teams of people virtually here in the U.S. since 1994 so the transition was easy for me.
Besides communication issues, there are cultural issues to consider. As a people, Filipinos tend to be shy and non-confrontational, for example. If you want an assistant that will give you feedback, make suggestions to help your business improve and generally learn from his/her mistakes, you need to create a safe environment for them to do so. They are more likely to take criticism to heart and be genuinely distressed if they displease you. This is another reason to take on the onus of clarity and communications. It keeps the relationship calm and productive if you say, “Oh, I see now that I was unclear with my directions previously. I meant to say….” rather than “you did it wrong! fix it!” This is beyond simple diplomacy and tact – it also helps you get what you want done quickly. A distressed assistant can stay that way for a while which is bad all the way around. I have found with my assistant that I rarely have to say something twice. She catches on very quickly and remembers.
American culture and management style tends to be much more aggressive, brusque and blunt. This typical style will not work with a Filipino assistant. It doesn’t work all that well with American assistants, truth be told.
Others have struggled with getting their VA to understand what they want because they make assumptions and/or don’t know how to break out instructions in a logical way. Also, inexperienced managers tend to lash out and blame others for problems and errors, which lead to poor results. If you can keep it firmly in mind that all communications issues are your responsibility, you’ll find working with a VA a good experience because you can work together to form a great team. Your patience and ability to learn from your own mistakes will lead to increased loyalty and productivity from your virtual partner.
Q. Is a VA an employee or a contractor? What are my tax reporting/payment obligations?
A. Most Virtual Assistants are employees or contractors of the VA company you hire. There are no obligations on your part to report their salaries, etc. The VA company is a vendor to you. In my case, my corporation contracts directly with my VA and was required to fill out additional (heinous!) paperwork for Uncle Sam proving that she is a foreign national and is meeting her tax obligations in her country.
Q. What country is best for hiring a VA?
A. I have worked with an Indian VA and several from the Philippines. I prefer the Philippines. English is their national language so your VA will have excellent communication skills. There is an accent, but it is easier to understand than an Indian accent, in my opinion. Every VA I have ever worked with from the Philippines was exceedingly polite, cheerful, helpful, accountable, professional and hard working. They are eager to learn and eager to please which is refreshing and much appreciated. I’ve hired assistants (employees and virtual) in the U.S. for over 25 years and I know talent when I find it.
Q. Can I work with your VA?
A. Maybe. With her team, she has the capacity to work with far more people than me. She has done a great job for other FBA sellers for whom I made a referral. She knows how to set up sales tax in different states, perform various tasks on Amazon.com, set up websites/blogs, use HTML, etc., and is a resourceful person that I like and trust. Because of this, I’m happy to make referrals to help her business grow. However, I don’t want to waste her time with non-serious inquiries and flaky people.
If you want a referral, please be sure that you can commit to a certain amount of time per week (at least 5 hours) and know what tasks you want done either on an ongoing basis or as a project (like setting up in different states for sales tax or redesigning your blog).
If you want to try a VA to see if the concept works for you, I suggest working with one of the many professional VA companies out there first. They spend time teaching you how to work with your VA to make the relationship productive on both sides. They also have many built-in reporting and accountability mechanisms so you always know what is happening on your account. It is a good way to test the waters and to get help managing your VA in the beginning.