Though the term is thrown around in business circles with relative frequency, a straightforward definition of ‘virtual assistant’, and what they can provide a business or individual remains elusive to many. In an age when virtual assistants may be confused with artificially intelligent bots with limited capabilities, it’s important to understand that virtual assistants are very much human, and capable of handling a host of business-related tasks that can save you invaluable chunks of time and money.

What Exactly is a Virtual Assistant?

Once concise, accurate definition of a virtual assistant, or VA, is ‘a highly-skilled, independent professional who remotely provides administrative, technical and/or creative business support services.’ The inception of virtual assistants arose out of the technology boom of the 1990s, which allowed for businesses and independent contractors to be better connected than ever before. Work that previously had to be completed on-site could be delegated to remote assistants facilitated by the internet and other forms of streamlined communication.

Virtual assistants are more than mere secretaries who happen to be off-site individual contractors. A rise in companies that specialize in providing virtual assistants, as individuals who want or need to work from home has meant greater specialization when it comes to what services a virtual assistant can provide. Because virtual assistants tend to provide services for numerous clients, they provide flexible scheduling options that mean you only pay for the hours which you truly need them to work. This is a stark contrast to full-time administrative assistants, whose full-time salary can range anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000 before benefits and bonuses are accounted for. Regardless of whether you are an accountant, designer, lawyer, or virtual assistant yourself, there is a high-quality, cost-friendly virtual assistant out there who can be at your beck and call whenever you need them.

What Circumstances Call for a Virtual Assistant’s Assistance?

While ‘virtual assistant’ is a broad term that encompasses anything from a retired expert in the financial field to somebody who is well-versed in handling an array of administrative tasks, there are common tasks that virtual assistants tend to be capable of handling with proficiency. The marketplace of virtual assistants is growing and specializing daily, but some common trends in the hiring of virtual assistants have been well-established.

Typically, virtual assistants have about five years’ experience in an office setting, often as a paralegal, office manager, administrative assistant, and other similar positions. Still, a virtual assistant’s qualification may come from being experienced as a virtual assistant, so consider references and experience on a case-by-case basis when finding the right fit for you or your business.

Many virtual assistants specialize in tasks which all businesses need, but which they cannot handle in-house or would rather delegate to an off-site contractor who is more than capable of doing the job on a long-term basis. Anybody who feels that time constraints are limiting their ability to focus on the progression of their business or career is a prime candidate for hiring a virtual assistant. Often, solo practitioners and small businesses are in the greatest need of the skills which a virtual assistant provides.

Some of the administrative tasks that a virtual assistant will be expected to handle by their client include organization and maintenance of contact lists, spreadsheets, and calendars which need regular updating, transcription and correspondence on behalf of the client, bookkeeping such as billing and accounting, blasting e-mails including newsletters, and responding to client inquiries. For the administration of these tasks, VA’s can expect a market rate of approximately $20 – $45 per hour depending on their experience and the client’s budget. Some virtual assistants, especially those that are offshore, may be available at far lower rates. For businesses seeking a remote assistant, consider that the idea of an all-powerful ‘super virtual assistant’ may not be as realistic as one would like. Most virtual assistants specialize in a fixed arena of tasks and should only be hired to work within that skillset, so consider that hiring two or more VA’s may be worth the money, and can still be cheaper than the cost of hiring one full-time assistant.

For small businesses and sole proprietors, consider the hiring of a general virtual assistant, or GVA, before embarking on your business’s strategic vision. These GVA’s come well-versed in fulfilling the benefits that a full-time administrative assistant would provide, and can serve as the time-saving assistant that any business or individual needs to get their brand off the ground.

Why Small Businesses and Individual Contractors are Ripe for a Virtual Assistant

The benefits of using remote assistants and services to complete the many tasks which they are capable of range beyond money saved. While these assistants typically do provide a more financially-sound alternative to the cost of adding a full-time assistant, added value lies in the VA’s status as an off-site contractor.

The ability for a virtual assistant to work at an off-site location and provide their own equipment means that your office will be less crowded, and you won’t have to worry about adding another computer, phone, and other expenses to the balance sheet. Even though they will rarely, if ever, be present in the office, a quality virtual assistant will be available for correspondence whenever you need them. Of course, reasonable work hours apply to virtual assistants just as they do full-time employees, but your business is unlikely to be taken advantage of by client-dependent virtual assistants. And, if they are unresponsive or you find their services to be inadequate, their status as an individual contractor means that finding a replacement is not as costly as it would be for a full-time assistant.

For small businesses and individual proprietors, the ability to save on costs whenever possible while maintaining high quality of work is imperative. This applies to the unfortunate circumstance of needing to replace and upgrade any employee, another circumstance which crystallizes the value of a virtual assistant over a full-time employee.