Don't feel embarrassed if you can't answer this question. I couldn't either until I began researching an idea for a new business enterprise that would cater to small businesses and entrepreneurs in need of hourly administrative services, graphic design and copywriting on a flexible basis. It wasn't until then that I realized there was already a name for this niche called Virtual Assistance.
Based on my own prior lack of familiarity with this relatively new field, I've been leery to use the term in networking situations, or as part of my all-important 'elevator speech.' And rightly so. I attended an event a few nights ago and thought I'd test the waters to see whether there had been any progress in awareness on this front. By the glazed look that overcame 95% of my new acquaintances when I described myself as a Virtual Assistant, I realized that this niche remains a bit of an enigma.
When I thought it over afterward, I realized that, outside of the virtual nature, there are few hard and fast rules applied to the services or providers within this field. Virtual Assistant Services can be as basic as Transcription or Data Entry, and as diverse as Administrative Consulting, Marketing, Research, Graphic Design and Ghostwriting. This in no way diminishes the value of virtual assistance; it merely illustrates what an incredibly diverse resource this has become, in large part due to the recent state of the economy and to the much advancement in technology.
Generally speaking, Virtual Assistants are experienced professionals who have worked in a variety of corporate, administrative and creative fields, and provide support on an hourly, weekly or monthly basis. Many are former administrative assistants, bookkeepers, human resource and office managers, executive secretaries and paralegals. Some have retired from careers in corporations to raise families, to put an end to the dreaded commute, or to gain more flexible hours. My own business came from a desire to group together and utilizes all of my varied talents, instead of working in just one field day after day.
In fact, the only thing I'm confident that Virtual Assistants have in common is that they are independent contractors who pay their own taxes, insurance, and overhead, work from their own home offices via the internet and cloud based services, and that successful virtual assistants have great insights into many of the aspects of running a business as they are themselves entrepreneurs.
The term is even loosely used by outsourcing agencies who hire out individuals from third world countries with minimal skills for pennies (many of whom have never worked in a professional environment). I don't minimize these agencies or the services they provide, however, there is a great difference between outsourcing and virtual assistance, the main one being that the first is an anonymous, hired hand with no accountability, and the second a one-on-one, skilled resource with a vested interest in the success of your business.
Rapidly changing economic times require flexibility, and Virtual Assistance is a sign of the times. There's never been a better time to get familiar with this field and try one out. As for me, I intend to keep working my elevator speech, defining my own niche, and putting virtual assistance on the map. It is, after all, an amazing resource with a thoroughly modern concept, and it's time the word got out.