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How to Hire Virtual Assistants and Open an Overseas Office in the Philippines

Ever since Tim Ferris made virtual assistants (or more commonly referred to simply as “VAs”) famous in 2007 when he launched  the Four Hour Work Week everyone seems to have at least one VA. My company is no exception and in fact my company now has 7 virtual assistants in total. However, the approach I’ve taken with VAs is quite a bit different than how I see many others approaching virtual assistants. In fact I now have an entire Philippines office consisting of seven VAs (I refer to them simply as employees, but for the sake of this article I’ll use the term “VAs”) who can handle much more complex tasks than your traditional VA.

In this article I’ll detail how I went about opening an entire office in the Philippines, how I find incredible VAs, and how I get productivity out of them that matches or surpasses those in America.

Also check out: Podcast 96: Interview with Filipino Office: Hiring, Managing, and Retaining Incredible VAs

Bonus Download (Free): Download 25 things to outsource to a VA (and 7 things never to delegate!)

My Office in the Philippines Now

Taken October 2017 from my most recent visit to the Philippines (bottom left three are not VAs)

First, I’ll give an overview of my office in the Philippines as of November 2017.

Currently, my office based in Cebu, Philippines has 7 full time employees (or virtual assistants as many would call them). All seven employees work from the same office, which is rented from a co-working space in Cebu (it saves me long term lease commitments). Having everyone based in one office has a few decided advantages:

  • Employees like being together, they can learn from one another, and are accountable to one another
  • There’s no internet connectivity issues as you sometimes get from home-based internet
  • It’s easier to recruit high performers

Requiring everyone to work in Cebu does lose the ability to recruit candidates who need to work from home. The Philippines is still an incredibly rural country and Filipinos have large families and many of them have a need to work from home. My experience though is that recruiting people to work in an actual office more easily attracts high performing candidates if for no other reason than it separates my company from the thousands of other companies recruiting. A lot of people don’t like working from home – myself included.

The cost of the co-working space is $150 per person, per month. This includes a place to sit, power, internet, common area, common events, etc. It does not include a computer.  The big thing though is access to reliable internet which can be an issue in many parts of the Philippines. We signed a 6 month contract and now we are just on month-to-month basis which we pay via PayPal.

My Secret Weapon – A Philippines Office Manager

Here’s my secret weapon to having an incredible team in the Philippines – I have a Philippines office manager, Mia. Mia is now in charge of all hiring and managing the team of 7. Most people have two main problems with virtual assistants – hiring and ensuring quality work. Mia solves all of this.

Mia is in charge of all the hiring for me. She’s absolutely incredible at finding quality team members (more on this below). She also keeps everybody on task, focused, and consistent.

When you’re looking to hire virtual assistants, I recommend trying to filter your candidates to one of the cities above.

How did I find Mia? I hired her as a typical VA several years ago. I kept giving her more and more complex tasks and she always exceeded my expectations. She slowly morphed into the role of hiring and now the role of managing. She thrives on the increased responsibility and higher salary. If there’s one tip I can give, it is to try and find a VA that can eventually morph into your overseas Philippines office manager. This probably means you’re hiring someone a little bit older and more experienced and potentially at a slightly higher salary. You should also try to hire someone in a major city in the Philippines that can be a hub for hiring other virtual assistants. Aside from Cebu and Manila, Davao and Cagayan de Oro are two cities that have higher quality candidates.

How I Hire, Train, and Monitor My Staff

As I mentioned, I now have our Philippines manager, Mia, do all of the hiring. However, she recruits candidates the same way you should – through onlinejobs.ph. I love Upwork for a lot of things, but you shouldn’t use Upwork to find VAs any more than you would use craigslist to find a girlfriend – use a site dedicated to hiring Filipino workers.

If you’ve ever posted a VA position, you know that you’ll be swamped with hundreds of resumes. We use the old trick of requiring a keyword in the subject line. In our job posting we write the following: If you’re THE virtual assistant that we’re looking for, convince us why you’re the best fit for the job by detailing it in your cover letter. Write rockstar in the subject line and send it along with your resumeWe only look at submissions with a cover letter and Rock Star in the subject line.

We also have the following perks most other companies can’t offer:

  • We have an office (co-working space)
  • We offer the 13th month pay
  • We give paid holidays
  • We have a morning shift (7:00AM-4:00PM) not night shift

BPO companies (call centers) require employees to work night shifts so the fact that our schedule is in the morning is a big plus. We’re selling coloring books and stuffed animals, not nuclear reactors. Urgent messages someone in our America team (often me!) will look after but everything else can wait.  Most freelance jobs also don’t have holidays off. They mostly follow the “no work, no pay” policy. So we also indicate in the post that we offer paid time off and paid holidays. All of these perks work out to less than $200/month. I’d suspect we get a 10x+ return on this.

sample virtual assistant job posting

An example of one of our job postings.

Everyone that comes on board with our company is immediately assigned a bunch of Digital Marketer training to go through. Digital Marketer isn’t cheap – you’re looking at $2000+ for a corporate subscription for multiple users but it’s incredibly a cost effective training that pays itself many times over.

We also use HubStaff to help pay our employees. Hubstaff also takes random screen captures and geolocation monitoring to make sure everyone is staying on task.  While HubStaff is great it doesn’t congratulate someone on a great piece of work or give someone a push when they need a bit of a kick in the butt and that’s where Mia comes in.

How Much We Pay Our Team

We start our minimum wage for our VAs at $500/month. This might sound either incredibly high to you, if you’ve hired VAs before, or incredibly low, if you’ve never hired a VA before. The average monthly salary of a VA is around $400-600 and most of our VAs state $400/month as their desired monthly salary, so $500 is a very reasonable starting wage.

For a technical hire such as someone with light programming experience expect starting salaries to be quite a bit higher. We don’t have anyone like this on our staff but rates for these types of employees are typically $750US/month or more. Most Filipinos also expect what they call the “13th month”. After they work a full year you give them a bonus month of salary. This basically works out to a 7.5% bonus.

We give annual raises to our employees of about 5% per year, much like we would our U.S. team. Obviously this percentage varies according to their performance.

What Tasks Our Employees Do

  1. Majority of our email support.
  2. Majority of our social media response.
  3. Research and put together a social media calendar.
  4. Compose our weekly Facebook live scripts.
  5. Ensure Amazon FBA returns are actually received. Request refund from Seller Support if not.
  6. Calling for technical support (specifically Amazon but other vendors as well)
  7. Content and blog writing.
  8. Post content to our various content sites and repurpose content across different channels.
  9. Manage and respond to negative product reviews.
  10. Writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

Bonus Download (Free): Download 25 things to outsource to a VA (and 7 things never to delegate!)

The big key to getting the most out of your VAs (or any employees for that matter) is having clear Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for everything. I see people make two mistakes when it comes to SOPs: they either have no SOPs or they have way too detailed SOPs. I have Google Drive folder with all my SOPs. For some tasks, like customer service emails, I have a Google Doc with the most common questions and answers. For a task like posting content to WordPress I do a simple screenshare (Screenflow is great for this but there are free options). I also require my VAs to continuously update and create SOPs.

When you’re assigning tasks it is important to have a clearly defined goal. Saying “respond to customer inquiries” is an ambiguous goal that will have ambiguous outcomes. A better goal is “Respond to customer inquiries within 24 hours. If the question can not be answered using our customer service SOP [Link here] or your judgement, assign the task to me”. There’s some other great advice on delegating found here.

How I Retain My Employees and Keep Them Performing at their Best

Offering a great family and workplace life balance is the best thing we do to retain our employees and keep them performing. Many North American based companies require their VAs to work American hours, i.e. 9AM-5PM EST or 9PM-5AM Filipino Time. As mentioned, our employees work 7:00AM-4:00PM (or 3:00PM-12:00AM PST). Give deep consideration to whether you really need to have your VA working on American hours – if you don’t you will automatically be able to attract a lot better candidate.

Here’s another hack for keeping Filipino virtual assistants happy: food. Food is the way to a Filipino’s heart. We pay for each new staff member’s lunch out for the first week. Even if you don’t have an office you can do this by offering to reimburse your virtual assistant’s meals for the first week. A $5/day allowance is ample. Ask for receipts.

Team lunches/dinners or team outings and GAs (general assemblies) are popular in most companies in the Philippines. At call centers, this is what the employees look forward to. This would allow the employees to bond outside of work and just enjoy each other’s company. If you have only one VA you can’t really have team outings BUT you can support your workplace culture in other ways (more on that below).

Finally, the most important trick to keeping employees happy, regardless of what country is recognition recognition recognition. If someone does a good job, recognize and it and congratulate them. Did your VA do a great job handling a bunch of unreasonable customers? How about offering to reimburse them to take their family out for dinner on the weekend?

Visit Your Staff Members!

We live in a world of remote working. Departments working in different parts of the world, or all employees working in different parts of the world, is becoming more increasingly the norm. This doesn’t mean you should never meet your team members face-to-face even if they are in the Philippines.

By visiting your virtual assistants in the Philippines you develop immediate rapport you can’t build through email and phone. You can also be extremely productive! Each year I visit my team for at least a couple of days and that is some of our most productive time of the year. Even if you have just one virtual assistant, plan to meet them once a year. Ask them to find a coworking space you can meet at for a couple of days (meeting at their apartment could be a little strange) or book a conference room at your hotel. If you’ve followed my advice and hired in larger cities in the Philippines you can book a Marriot or Hyatt at a reasonable price and feel as comfortable as you would back home. And one final pro-tip: if you live in a colder climate, plan your trip in the winter so you can get a nice trip to a tropical climate that is also a tax write-off :)

Conclusion

This is the recipe I follow to hiring great VAs and keeping them great.

Does your company currently have any VAs? If so how many? Do you have any tricks you’ve used when hiring and managing? If so, share in the comments below along with any questions you may have for me.

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10 Comments

  • Reply
    Natalie
    November 16, 2017 at 6:30 am

    Awesome article Mike! Thank you!!!

  • Reply
    Andrea Ravelo
    November 17, 2017 at 9:16 am

    This is an amazing write-up! Thank you for the beyond valuable info; you answered questions I didn’t even know I had!

    • Reply
      Michael Jackness
      November 21, 2017 at 6:34 pm

      LOL – You’re welcome and thanks for the kind words Andrea.

  • Reply
    CM
    November 21, 2017 at 10:20 am

    After hearing the most recent podcasts I wondered about several of these hiring and retention details. Thank you so much for the thorough article!

    • Reply
      Michael Jackness
      November 21, 2017 at 6:35 pm

      Glad it was helpful for you. Best of luck in your hiring process.

  • Reply
    Dave Starr
    November 21, 2017 at 4:08 pm

    Great article, Michael,

    Although I have no VA’s, I have been living and blogging in the Philippines for 11 years now, and the amount of pure tripe I have seen written about Filipinos, Filipino VA’s and having an office here is staggering. There’s a LOT of bad info out there, in contrast yours is precisely on target.

    One thing about the “Morning shift/Evening shift” issue that many folks don’t fully consider. If your Philippines office comes “on-line” at 3 to 5 PM US time, they have the whole “USA night” yo complete tasks. Everything will be in your inbox when you come to work next morning, US time. It’s like working your US staff 16 hours a day with no penalty for overtime pay.

    Keep writing, I’ll keep reading.

    • Reply
      Michael Jackness
      November 21, 2017 at 6:36 pm

      Thanks very much Dave. I agree that there is a lot of BS info out there – on everything. We try to rise above that. Thanks for reading.

  • Reply
    Janice Salmon
    November 25, 2017 at 9:27 am

    We are headed out to the Philippines on 12/11 to do exactly what you outline for us. Thanks a million for the tips! I am a friend of Brent Haney!

    • Reply
      Michael Jackness
      November 26, 2017 at 8:22 pm

      Awesome Janice. Have a great tip and thanks for listening to the podcast!

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