How To Avoid A ‘Nightmare Experience’ with a Virtual Assistant

Lots of Amazon sellers ask me for advice on how to scale their Amazon business. The first thing I ask is whether or not they have a virtual assistant (VA). Almost everyone says ‘No’, citing the terrible stories that they’ve heard about virtual assistants and how hard they are to train. 

It’s not that there aren’t bad VAs, but almost always when someone tells me about their ‘nightmare experience’, they are doing a lot of things wrong. VAs are not mind readers. Additionally, if you’re hiring an overseas VA (and even if you’re hiring domestically) you will find that almost all the things you didn’t think to mention, because they were ‘common sense’ or ‘common knowledge’, are the things that wound up causing problems.

What to hire a VA for?

There are generally two types of people with Amazon businesses. One has capital and a dream of passive income. Their emails go kind of like this: 

“Hi, I would like to have your warehouse do the receiving and the shipping. Also the listing. I would like for you to do the customer service as well if possible. I will have a VA do the buying and my goal is to have this business run fully independent of me. Please let me know how to do this.”


The second type of person dipped their toes in. They figured out the registration. Then the buying. Then the listing. Then the bookkeeping. Then the pricing dynamics. And so on. So many aspects of the business that they had no idea existed when they started. But they’re getting along, and things are working pretty good.

They write to me and say “I’m selling 400 items per month, but I want to scale to 1000 items per month. How do I do that?” They’ve done the math and realize that, if they’re out of time doing what they’re doing right now, there’s no way to get any bigger. 

This is where a VA comes in. 

There are two philosophies of hiring: 

  1. Hire out for a whole role– say, purchasing– and immediately free up a large chunk of time
  2. Hire out numerous smaller tasks that don’t meet a certain threshold of importance

 

I tend to favor the latter technique until your business is much further along. The first technique is great, if you can find a specialist and bring them on at a decent wage, but it’s capital-intensive and it doesn’t free up as much time as you would think — certainly not immediately. And, don’t forget, you have to actually find a person with a suitable skillset first.

Instead, I think that people should hire for low- and medium-level tasks, starting with admin. 

EVERYONE has numerous daily duties that just involve recording information in the appropriate places. It’s time-consuming, and is no place for the business owner to spend their time. 

Even more complex tasks can be broken up. For instance, if you hire someone to do customer service emails, they don’t even have to do ALL of them. They can handle routine questions like “Has my item been shipped?” but text you to respond if a customer emails with a complaint. 

Researching and organizing information is another great way to transfer some of the mental burden off your shoulders. A VA can be given certain general parameters and then go through a database of wholesale inventory to provide you with a shortlist to refine and make decisions on. 

A lot of people think about the initial hurdle of finding and training a VA, and balk at the temporary blow to efficiency. That’s why, ideally, you’d start recruiting and training a VA before you got too overwhelmed. But, whether you do or you don’t, the situation will never improve until you invest the time and the energy to get that person in place and trained up to a point where they can work independently. 

Once you have that person in place, you will suddenly have a TON of ideas about the tasks they could potentially take on.

Where to find a VA

I suspect that part of the reason people complain about VAs is that they pay bottom dollar. While you can find a VA for $3 an hour, you often trade off technical skill and English fluency. 

At the same time, I doubt I could convince anyone that $25/hr (the average rate of a US-based VA) is a good investment, especially when they’re just starting out and just need someone to organize their orders into a spreadsheet. In e-commerce, most VAs are generally Philippines-based.

I consider $5-8 to be a good rate to get most low-skill work done. And, generally, my strategy has been to: find a worker at this level, start them off with low-skill work, and gradually train them for higher skill work. This is a good deal for an ambitious VA, because they are getting paid to learn new skills. Normally, VAs only accept work for things they are proficient in. But, if you are going to train them, then they get both skill and experience, and can eventually raise their asking rate.

Although huge global services, like Upwork, are typically mentioned in blog posts about VAs, you’ll save yourself time and frustration if you find a VA that is experienced in eCommerce (otherwise, the default is often customer service reps). 

For this, I recommend two methods:

  1. Ask in a large-ish ecommerce Facebook group if anyone has recommendations for a VA. Many people have VAs that they are happy with, but cannot give them too many hours. By finding a couple more clients for their VA, they can make sure that their VA is in a stable financial situation and doesn’t have to take a fulltime job.
  2. Use a service like FreeeUp. Freeeup has expanded in recent years, but their core idea was grouping together a pool of ecommerce specialized VAs. However, although Freeeup offers to help facilitate any concerns with your VA, you are better off handling it yourself. They just forward your email to the VA, so there’s no value-add there. There are a few other services like FreeeUp, but I have not tried them. Happy to update this article with any recommendations!

The next step is a small ‘test task’. I usually select some small, stand-alone task, so I don’t have to get them integrated into any of my systems. Usually this is some kind of research task, and often I have them write up a summary. This is how I verify English proficiency, see if they ask clarifying questions, and how well they handle open-ended tasks. 

Keep in mind that if you’re not hiring for research, they might not actually be very good at it. For instance, if you are hiring someone to deal with Excel, at least have them build a table and run a few formulas as a result of your test task. Test tasks are routine, so VAs will not be offended by the request (as long as the work is paid) but make sure it isn’t makework, because no one likes to do things that are pointless.

What To Understand About Filipino (or any other) VAs

A lot of people find working with VAs frustrating because they just don’t act how you expect them to act. I’m not Filipino, and therefore can’t speak from direct experience, but the Philippines seems to be a culture that defers strongly to authority. People who are lower in the hierarchy (the ones taking orders) are not expected to ask questions, figure out better ways to do things, or really, interact with the plan in any way except to follow order PRECISELY as they are laid out.  

Because of this mindset, they particularly do not do well with any tasks that involve judgement calls. You can eventually train a VA to make judgement calls, but it’s tough. They need time to learn how you think. They need to trust that you won’t punish them for a bad call. And they need to understand the situation as well as you do. Know this going in and you’ll save yourself a lot of headache. 

The top three biggest mistake Americans (and I assume most Westerners) make when creating tasks for VAs is:

  1. Making them open-ended, without sufficiently defining the parameters of the task
  2. They have them make a judgement call FAR too early in the relationship. And remember, you might not realize you’re asking them to make a judgement call. Ask someone to “create a spreadsheet” and you’re going to be surprised at all the different ways people organize information! Give them a template to fill out instead.
  3. Assuming that they will come to you for clarity if they have questions

Most VAs are EXTREMELY mindful of how busy you are, and they are not going to ask more questions if they can possibly avoid it. Even if you assert in the strongest possible terms that you like questions, you LOVE questions, you’re not going to get many questions beyond “When is this due?” 

The other thing that is a problem commonly encountered by Westerners hiring Filipinos is that when the task is not clear, by and large, Filipinos merely await further orders. (Especially if you’re paying weekly salary.)

A stuffy colonialist: It’s not a good look

I’d say fully half of the “nightmare” stories I’ve heard from Westerners involve a task where the VA did not understand the assignment well enough to take a stab at it, and the Westerner did not follow up to ensure that things were progressing. 

This is a cultural difference, and if you persist in characterizing it as laziness, you just sound like a stuffy British colonialist.

 

From the VA’s perspective YOU are too important to interrupt. As your lowly subordinate, any questions need to wait until you have time in your busy schedule to take notice of them again. I’ve explained this to Americans; I’ve explained this to American VAs and it seems to shock everybody. In our individualistic culture, if you don’t know what to do, you ask, and if there’s no one to ask you take your best shot. Even in the military, the most hierarchical organization we have going, they have the saying “In the absence of orders, take appropriate action”

Fortunately, now that you realize this you will take steps to mitigate, following up frequently with your VA, especially in the early stages

How to pay for a VA

There are two ways to think about how you’re going to pay for a VA.

The most clear-cut way is to have them do the things that make you money, eg, sales pitches to potential suppliers. However, I think that those sorts of tasks are largely too complex and important to outsource. 

The second way to do it is to have your VA do things that free you up to do more of the things that make money. So if you’re spending 3 hours a week updating orders on a spreadsheet and another 5 hours figuring out replens, then even if your VA spends 25% more time (eg. 10 hours) that’s still 8 hours you just freed up to talk to more suppliers or making purchasing decisions. 

I particularly think it is useful to split a large and involved task, like niche research, down to two stages, “Information Gathering” and “Analysis”. If you outsource ALL the information gathering and restrict yourself to analysis, you would be SHOCKED at how many more opportunities you uncover. 

Things to understand about your responsibility to a VA

A VA is a human being. Because you basically never see them, it is easy to lose sight of that and just start thinking of them as a machine– orders in, results out. Even worse when that machine feels glitchy and unreliable. 

Your VA, like all human beings, wants to do a good job, because it feels good to do a good job. Of course they like to be paid fairly, but they are still motivated to do well because succeeding feels good. Therefore, if there is ever a disparity between what you wanted and the results you get ASSUME THAT YOU DID NOT PROPERLY EQUIP THEM TO SUCCEED.

There are a couple of caveats to this, but only a couple. 

  • Sometimes the mutual comprehension is just not there. YOU should try not to speak in idioms, but if plain English is still a struggle or s/he doesn’t understand the technology, then do go ahead and find someone else.
  • Sometimes your VA (who is human, as you’ll recall) simply doesn’t like a certain type of work. If you have someone who likes dealing with people and you put them in spreadsheets all day, don’t be surprised if they produce only mediocre results. Some people are better than others about expressing what they like to do, but the answer, when you find someone excelling at a task, is to give them more like that, not to say “Oh, you’re really good at [X] and I trust you, so I’m going to assign you to [completely different thing]” and then wonder why your VA struggles.

You may or may not have ever been an employer before, but you for sure have been an employee, so I encourage you to think back to all the things you hated your boss or supervisor doing and resolve to NOT DO THAT. Things like:

  • Not providing adequate training or resources
  • Not transmitting important information either at all, or not until the last minute
  • Giving too short of notice of when you were needed to work, causing you to have to cancel or juggle plans
  • Changing gears or priorities without any explanation, notice, or transparency
  • Assuming that “I pay you, therefore you’ll do whatever I say.”

 

Top Do’s and Don’ts

There has been a lot of information thrown at you here, so I’m just going to send you off with a few dos and don’ts:

DO

  • Start a VA off with ONE relatively simple task, and allow them to master it before adding the next one
  • Over prepare. Don’t just throw a task at a VA and expect them to catch and run with it. You need to provide training material, practice, and feedback if you expect them to work independently and confidently.
  • Show, don’t tell. I like to prepare 1) a video walk through, where I demonstrate the task start to finish 2)a written SOP for reference (you don’t want them to have to rewatch the video to refresh their memory of a certain step when a few words will do) and sometimes, for an important task, a video call where I talk about the task, why it’s important, the purpose that it serves, and what the most common pitfalls are. A task completed without context is never going to be performed to your satisfaction. Getting your VA up to speed requires that you orient him/her.

DON’T

  • Underestimate the learning curve. You know a lot more than you are aware of, and it’s critical to realize that so that you can anticipate and fill those gaps with your VA
  • Let yourself off the hook. The biggest mistake I see people make is to assign a task and then turn the VA loose. YOU are the person responsible for training the VA. Their success or failure at the task rests on your shoulders
  • Expect one person to do everything. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Some people will take to the tedium of repricing and enjoy it. Other people prefer responding to customer inquiries. Expect to have several people on your team rather than one person who does everything you don’t have time for.

 

I hope that helps! 

Cheers, 

Shanna

 

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