The Identity Crisis of Virtual Assistants: Let’s Reclaim The Name

In the constantly changing and evolving industry of virtual assistance, there’s a recurring debate that echoes through the corridors of online business. It revolves around one simple question: What should virtual assistants call themselves? It might seem like a trivial matter, but it’s far from it.

The issue stems from the term ‘virtual assistant’ being taken over by outsourcing companies in countries like China, the Philippines, and India, where labour costs are lower. Even after the publication of Tim Ferris’s book, “The 4 Hour Work Week,” and the merging of ‘virtual assistant’ and ‘freelancer’ on platforms like Upwork, clients are left bewildered about what exactly a virtual assistant does. I recently had a potential client admit, “I’ve Googled it, but I’m still not clear.” Their immediate association? Call centres – a common misconception.

To compound matters, articles occasionally pop up, perpetuating the stereotype that a virtual assistant is merely a voice on the other end of a call centre in India. However, it’s essential to remember that the virtual assistant industry dates back to the late 1980s and became tech-based in the ’90s, well before Ferris’s book. You can find a history of the first 25 years of the industry here.

Adding to the confusion, many individuals – and even AI – now tout themselves as “virtual assistants”. This has led some true VAs to ponder whether they should adopt a different title. Some have: Online Business Managers or OBMs is one that comes to mind. But, in my opinion, that’s a step in the wrong direction.

In the current business landscape, many companies have transitioned to home-based or hybrid work setups, especially since COVID, creating virtual teams. This transition further blurs the line.

For me, it can be easier to clarify what a virtual assistant is NOT:

  • If you’re a remote web designer, you’re not a VA.
  • If you’re a graphic designer working from home, you’re not a VA.
  • Providing call centre services? Still not a VA.
  • Book editor at home? Not a VA.
  • Event coordinator in your home office? Nope.
  • Copyeditor or proofreader working from home? Not a VA.
  • Remote social media and marketing services? Not a VA.
  • Managing a remote team? Definitely not a VA.

While many VAs offer these services as part of their repertoire, the core distinction lies in providing remote administrative services. The original definition still holds: a virtual assistant is:

“A highly-skilled, independent professional entrepreneur, a business owner, who provides remote administrative, technical and/or creative business support services to clients locally, nationally or globally.” 

Lyn Prowse-Bishop
Empowering Remote Excellence: The True Role of Virtual Assistants

The VA industry traces its roots back to 1981 when the Association of Business Support Services International began supporting work-at-home mothers. The term “Virtual Assistant” was coined in 1992 by Thomas Leonard. However, in Australia, where I’m based, the industry didn’t emerge until the mid-’90s, coinciding with widespread internet accessibility.

Today, newcomers often adopt the title without fully understanding its depth. Some might have completed courses or jumped on the buzzword bandwagon. However, being a VA goes beyond typing or navigating software. True VAs typically have years of office administration experience, specialising in various fields, managing offices, and acting as assistants to business owners. They are what were previously known as Executive Assistants or Personal Assistants – but they were senior. That’s key.

What sets a professional virtual assistant apart is their ability to form a partnership with business owners, gaining a deep understanding of their needs and helping them reach their goals. As I tell my own clients: my success comes when YOU succeed. They streamline processes, serve as gatekeepers, handle emails, schedule appointments, arrange on and offline events, and more, ultimately projecting a professional image for their clients. Many of my clients – who tend to be independent consultants themselves working from a home office – hear from their own “Wow I didn’t realise you had an assistant!”

The list of services VAs provide is extensive, from document production and proofreading to copywriting, bookkeeping, transcription, website design and maintenance, and much more. The key is the personal touch and commitment to their clients’ success. (For a non-comprehensive list of services, see here.)

The responsibility of educating potential clients and newcomers falls on professional VAs themselves. If you’re a VA, it’s crucial to convey your value to clients, emphasising the quality of your work and your dedication to their success. Remember, “It’s never about the money once the value has been established.” Educate your potential clients about your unique offerings and the value professional virtual assistants bring. And remember: ‘fake it till you make it’ does not work in this industry.

For clients seeking quality and professionalism, it’s essential to scrutinise potential virtual assistants carefully. Check their testimonials, have a phone or Zoom meeting to get a sense of their personality and work style, and build trust. Trust is paramount in the virtual relationship and that cannot be achieved by relying simply on what is said on a website or social media – which as we all know is never about truth, accuracy or authenticity!

In the end, it all comes down to the vintage red wine analogy. You wouldn’t settle for a cask when you can have the real deal. Similarly, you can’t equate a professional virtual assistant with someone who merely types or talks a good game. A true VA brings immeasurable value to your business.

It’s time to reclaim the name ‘Virtual Assistant.’ It’s not just a title; it’s a commitment to excellence in remote administrative support. So, if you’re looking for a dedicated partner in your business journey, don’t hesitate to seek out a professional virtual assistant who embodies the true essence of the role.

If you’re after an easy to digest guide of what things a VA can do for you, download my ebook here.

© Lyn Prowse-Bishop