Using a virtual assistant can shave hours from your workweek, but knowing which tasks to delegate can be tricky, whether you're starting or growing a business. Most virtual assistants are contract or freelance workers who do their jobs from home and focus on administrative tasks that are similar to those of an executive assistant or secretary. Websites that specialize in contract workers, such as odesk.com and elance.com, have thousands of listings for virtual assistants.
With the number of virtual assistants are growing, their expertise now runs the gamut, making it easier to find someone who fits your organization, says Jaleh Bisharat, vice president of marketing at oDesk.com, which is based in Redwood City, Calif. In 2012, oDesk had 25,000 postings for virtual assistant jobs, compared to about 2,500 in 2008.
Entrepreneurs can use virtual assistants for everything from making vendor or customer service calls to sending out thank you cards to prospective clients. It's important to build trust, just as you would with a permanent employee. "They become a team member who just happens to work remotely," Bisharat says. Not sure where to start? Here are 10 ways you can use a virtual assistant to improve your business.
Bookkeeping: Keeping tabs on bills and other bookkeeping matters can be one of the easiest things to assign to a virtual assistant, says Kathy Colaiacovo, marketing director for the International Virtual Assistants Association, a Henderson, Nev.-based trade group. Many small businesses choose to share their bookkeeping systems with their virtual assistants who can then follow up on tasks such as outstanding invoices or unpaid bills. "You will need to hand over some control [including] passwords and access to accounts," Colaiacovo says.
Related: 10 Questions You Must Ask Before Buying a Business
Online Research: You can easily farm out Internet research to virtual assistants. Common requests include finding information on corporate websites, exploring new products and vetting potential employees or business contacts, says Sue Kramer Harrawood, president of Peace of Mind Virtual Assistance, an Orland Park, Ill., firm that provides companies with virtual assistants. Be sure to send clear instructions, along with user names and passwords so assistants can get access to specialty search tools or paid websites. Tristen O'Brien, an eBay marketing expert in Westfield, Indiana, asks his assistant to help him find blog topics, as well as occasionally proofread his blog [link: www.theebayentrepreneur.com] on eBay selling. "She researches what is trending and reports back to me," O'Brien says.
Database entries: Whether it's a slew of new business cards picked up at a conference or updated information for existing contacts, keeping databases current is a suitable task for virtual assistants. Be specific about your needs and expectations, and make sure the virtual assistant has done this type of work before so there's less room for errors, Kramer Harrawood says. "Follow up is a huge thing for business owners. Sometimes clients will fax or scan business cards to us, and [virtual assistants] will plug them into the database."
Data presentations: Turning raw data into a clear PowerPoint presentation or summarizing research findings in a Word document can be a huge timesaver when prepping for meetings, says Rich Pearson, chief marketing officer at eLance.com, a jobs website for freelancers in Mountain View, Calif., who uses a virtual assistant himself. The data "comes back in a format I can share," he says.
Related: 5 Easy-to-Use Tools to Make Business Email More Secure
Managing email: To keep you from wasting time in your email inbox, some virtual assistants will filter your most important emails and respond to the rest on your behalf, Colaiacovo says. Such email management is easy to do remotely, but you need to provide guidance on how to pick out key emails and ask the assistant to copy you before sending out any responses to reduce the risk of errors.
Social tasks: Virtual assistants can be a good bet to handle tasks such as writing holiday cards or sending thank you notes, says Bisharat, who notes that social chores have become a very common assignment. Such tasks can become "all consuming" for business executives, she says, "but a good virtual assistant can take care of all of it."
Travel Research: Virtual assistants are a great resource for finding hotels, booking airfares and mapping out trip itineraries both for business and pleasure, Pearson says. The assistants can take advantage of the growing number of travel research tools and review sites on the Web. They can also deal with the hassle of navigating time zones when booking or researching international travel options by phone.
Related: Packing for a Business Trip? Some Must-Remember Items
Scheduling: Because many scheduling tools are available online, virtual assistants are managing the calendars of many clients, says Kramer Harrawood. Tasks include dealing with meeting invitations from others, scheduling appointments with clients and helping to plan events. "It's about being comfortable and letting go of that calendar" to a non-staff person working remotely, Kramer Harrawood says.
Chasing business: Prioritizing potential business opportunities can be challenging, but virtual assistants can help with the process. When deciding what to sell on eBay, for example, O'Brien asks his virtual assistant to look around for products that can be profitable to resell. "I give them quite a few websites to visit, and they take it from there," he says. "They look for clearance items and other types of products."
Industry knowledge prep: With limited time to keep up with industry news, some small businesses have turned to virtual assistants to keep tabs on the most important happenings. Many executives then use the industry information to update their Twitter feed or bring up interesting developments in conversation with customers and prospects. This helps "executives appear to have timely news," Pearson says.