In following with the "no employees" ideology we had at BottleKeeper for the first four years, our virtual assistants (VAs) became a crucial part of our processes. It's really quite amazing: you can hire an employee of another company that is just like your own employee, but completely without the employment, regulatory and tax consequences -- and you both can work and communicate effectively from anywhere in the world.
That's not to say that effective electronic communication is solely reserved for circumstances where a VA is involved. But when you're forced to set up communication protocols and processes a certain way from the beginning, because both individuals live in different states or even countries, you create opportunities to expand your working environment and reach -- allowing you to travel the world, work from the kitchen table in your bathrobe or wherever.
There are, however, some important steps to look out for when it comes to hiring and training your VA. After all, it's highly unlikely that you're going to sit across the table from him or her over coffee, which is where you'd otherwise gain insight on his or her personality and potential fit in your company.
Ask complicated questions, directly and in writing.
This is not going to be an article on interviewing, an entirely separate topic, but it is really important to note that you must dig into complicated questions with complicated verbiage -- not because you want to flex your amazing vocabulary, but because you need to understand how deep your potential VA's understanding of English is. Clearly this is only an issue if you're looking to contract someone that doesn't speak English as a first language.
Once you've had a phone or video interview and are looking to move forward, email the individual 10 or so questions that he or she might deal with on a regular basis and see how the response. It's not important that he or she may not know the particular answers, but considerably more important how he or she writes proficiently in English.
If you leverage an online support system to communicate with your customers, this will largely determine how much of the responses back to your customers are going to need to be canned -- which means pre-written by you so that the communication is flawless.
Document the process.
If you're early on in the startup phase, it's highly unlikely that you've created a training manual for the position you're looking to contract. You've been performing all of the roles and tasks and the time required to make a comprehensive training or operations manual on the fly just isn't available. So you're going to need to train your VA as you go, one step at a time.
What you can do is take advantage of the fact that you have someone, whom is exceptionally competent, to create the foundation for such a manual as he or she is learning. To accomplish this, have your new VA document everything that he or she is learning in a shared format, such as in formatted Google doc. Although the created manual will certainly need a bit of work or clean up, it will save you tremendous amounts of time in creating written instructions for the given position. Then as you grow with your VA, be sure that he or she continues to document everything learned.
Let go of control.
I'll be the first to admit: there is a lot to be said for sitting in an office with someone all day, at least when it comes to building a relationship and trust. With a VA, you aren't going to have such a luxury. The result of the distance and lack of direct relationship is that you're going to be a lot more controlling when it comes to handing over both important and seemingly unimportant tasks to your VA.
This makes a lot of sense at first, but once you've been working together for a month or so and everything seems to be working well, you must continue to delegate tasks -- allowing you to spend your valuable time on more important growth functions. Be sure that you've put in proper oversight, as you would with any employee or contractor, but you'll likely be amazed at how capable he or she is at executing with just a few minutes of instruction.
The above is from one of the many articles I wrote at Entrepreneur.com. I've modified the (much longer) article here and updated as needed for relevance.
You can find the full article here at Entrepreneur.com.