Virtual Assistant Skills – unique to the industry!

Virtual Assistant Skills:  “I’ve been a PA for 26 years – I don’t need told how to write a document” – except this aspiring virtual assistant most definitely did need told, because she had just completed our virtual assistant skills spelling test and had spectacularly failed it leaving in misspelt words, inconsistent formatting and hadn’t known how to use headers properly.  Virtual assistant skills are not that common.  Sigh…

It’s a common misconception that PAs or secretaries make great virtual assistants.  They don’t.  Whilst they share a lot of the same skill sets, I believe being a VA requires a whole new range of skills, which are often lacking in traditional secretaries.  Additionally the support network on being in a company eradicates a lot of the common issues VAs deal with daily.

They often go completely unmentioned in training courses or start up books, so I thought I’d elaborate a little on these “Essential Virtual Assistant Skills”. 

Juggling – different priorities and deadlines

Most PAs will be used to juggling multiple tasks – especially if they’ve worked in the relatively new phenomenon role of the Team Assistant where you work with multiple managers.  However, the overarching hierarchy of the company means that when there are competing priorities from 2 managers, there will be a big boss who makes the final decision on what is most important.

As a VA, you have to make that decision yourself if 2 clients have urgent jobs.  Is your policy first come, first served? Do you make a judgement call on what’s really the most urgent? When do you say “I’m sorry – that’s not possible”?

As PAs, your job is usually to be amenable and to say Yes.  As VAs, you are letting everyone down if you can’t learn to say No.

Working remotely

There’s two elements to this: Firstly there’s the technical side of uploading large files, using online workspaces, figuring out a way of getting your client’s receipts to you for processing safely… There’s a million ways of doing this, and different systems will suit different VAs and different clients.  We’re not going to go into all of them here, but you need to be comfortable with looking into the functionality of these and using them.

The second part is slightly more esoteric…  How good are you at building relationships without the casual contact that you would get in the office?  You don’t get “water cooler moments” so you need to build those into your emails, into your communication with the clients.  When I judge the VA Awards, I always ask how much of the time is spent on site with clients, because it tells you whether or not the VA has mastered this essential VA skill – if they are going on site, they don’t have it!


I really struggle personally with this one.  But a VA is their own boss, they need to be motivated to get things done.  Often we are great at hitting deadline on client tasks, but scheduling our own goal setting is troublesome.

That includes all the planning and goal setting which would happen automatically in a business.  A lot of VAs have the aim of creating themselves a stable job – and then what?  Once you’ve done that, what’s the next goal?  And the next?  A business which isn’t moving forward is stagnating and will fail.  A lot of training focuses on starting up or expanding to include subcontractors – and rightly so, but the next step is yours alone.

Additionally being self-employed means that you are only as good as your last piece of work.  Like our friend above, the offended PA, no one at her work had ever told her that her work wasn’t up to standard.  Neither will clients, they simply won’t use you again.  Therefore each and every piece of work you do must be an advertisement for your skills.  High personal standards are essential virtual assistant skills.

Marketing and sales

This is one of the areas we get asked most questions about at SVA.  Getting those first few clients as a newbie, how to market yourself to specific niches, how to present yourself as a professional.

I once heard self employment described as:

“A job which fits exactly what you want to do, with a boss who is just like you, unlimited earnings, freedom to choose your own clients… and the only downside is that it’s a commission only salary!

If you can’t sell, you can’t build a business.  If you don’t want to sell, you need to structure your business so that you don’t have to do that – that might be working as a subcontract VA, it might be just doing jobs on the side via People Per Hour or ODesk.  But if you’re charging VA rates, some of that hourly rate is for the marketing and promotion of your business…  (If you really hate it check out our Sales Don’t Need To Be Sales-y post).

The business admin

This was the part I was most scared about when starting my own business – because I don’t “do” numbers.  As my maths teacher told me at school “You won’t always have a calculator in your pocket”.  Oh, but I do now in the form of my mobile phone!!!

Still, numbers scare the pants off me and I hated the thought of doing the number crunching involved in billing, bookkeeping and making sure my pricing was correct (P.S. If you are still struggling with this, check out Jo Sparkes’ pricing worksheet).  Thankfully, The Princes Trust helped hugely with my knowledge gap back when I started so I could do my own books.  But even now I have a bookkeeper (a long suffering, intensely wonderful bookkeeper!!!), I truly believe that the business management side of being a VA is intrinsic to your success.

To me “business admin” covers stuff like getting insurance sorted, making sure contracts are in place, your bookkeeping and tax, making sure you comply with all relevant legislation, and that you build in allowances in your hourly rate for sickness/holidays/quiet periods/new equipment etc.

We often see a trend in VA businesses where someone starts up, gets lots of clients, is a great VA, really enjoying the work.  Then round about 2-3 years into the business, they give it up and go back to a job.  Usually it’s a combination of burn out and tax liabilities which force them back into employment…  Both of those boil down to bad business admin.

Article written by Caroline – Society of Virtual Assistants