Lessons from a Digital Marketing Virtual Assistant who actually does the work:
Wondering what exactly a VA should charge for, and when? Whether you’re a business owner or a working VA, you’ve probably asked that question more than once. Especially when you are charging (or paying) by time increments. So here are my answers and suggestions for this very common question from years of working in the field.
Keep in mind, there are quite a few models for how a VA can charge clients. Some high level freelancers like Sarah Masci charge day rates. Other VAs work with package rates, where they accomplish specific niche tasks every month for a flat fee.
But if you’re a small business owner who is just starting to build a team, OR an up-and-coming unicorn VA who is doing all the things every month, it can be more realistic to charge directly for the actual time worked. And that can vary a lot every month, especially if you’re in the middle of a launch or doing a complete social media overhaul. You need that flexibility.
And of course, VAs want to be valued and paid appropriately for their hard work. Meanwhile, business owners and solopreneurs want to pay a fair rate and not feel like they are being nickel and dimed to death without seeing expected results.
So here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind, whether you’re the VA or the business owner, to keep things fair and flexible for everyone.
1) Understand what VAs should charge by time increments
I’m going to keep it real and put this out here, first thing:
A high-quality, unicorn VA should never be billing time in five-minute increments.
Yep – I said it. Because it’s truth. If you’re a business owner, don’t expect it. If you’re a VA, don’t do it.
I know there are plenty of people out there in the world who will work in five-minute increments. And that’s fine if it’s purely small, admin tasks that don’t take a lot of brain power or higher level effort. You can hire a basic VA service or admin company to do that for you.
But for a real unicorn VA – a high quality freelancer who becomes a true, trusted business sidekick – it’s not ok. At best, it takes up too much time and mental effort in tracking. At worst, it is insulting and implies a complete lack of trust and professionalism.
Keep in mind – high level freelancers and professional VAs will often charge by the HOUR. Of course, not everybody is quite at that level yet.
If you’re talking about a brand new VA, it’s ok to start tracking in 15-minute intervals. That will give you an accurate idea of how much time a task really takes.
Hint for VAs: It might be worth tracking any new or unfamiliar tasks in shorter increments just for your own knowledge. Here are some of my favorite time tracking tools to put on your radar.
But for most of my clients and VA students, I recommend tracking in 30 minute increments. I’ve found that’s a good place to start – it’s flexible but also fair.
2) Be open and communicate clearly about what the VA will charge right from the original contract
The key to a good partnership between business owners and freelance VAs is trust and communication.
A virtual assistant should only charge for approved services.
If it’s something you didn’t ask for or talk about, you should give your approval for the service. A good VA will bring ideas and digital marketing tactics to the table and the business owner will ultimate decide if it’s in the budget or scope of their vision.
Sometimes I did extra services because I wanted to learn or get better them and couldn’t help myself. I didn’t ask permission. I didn’t charge for that.
A business owner should feel that they are getting their money’s worth, and a VA should feel valued for their knowledge, experience, and contribution to the long term goals of the business.
The original contract should be very clear about what work will be done, how it will be charged, and what will be included.
Respect the professionalism on both sides. If you’re a business owner who don’t trust the work ethic and quality of your VA, then maybe it’s time for an honest, open conversation. It just may not be a good fit.
Because let’s be honest – there are some people who you hire as a VA who just aren’t always up to speed. They charge for hours of work but have little to show for it, or the work that they produce is mediocre (or worse).
On the other hand, you might have an awesome VA on board but not quite realize the large amount of effort some tasks take behind the scenes. Especially when a VA is first starting and learning your systems and style, it can legitimately take hours of time invested upfront before you see any real results.
And that’s normal. Some of these initial steps are slow-burner tasks – they don’t produce instant results or a quick ROI. But they will pay off tremendously in the long-run for your business. And that’s why open communication is critical.
3) Understand the tasks that a VA should be able to charge their business owners...
Obviously, a freelance virtual assistant should charge for any tasks that they complete on the business owner’s behalf.
But that can get murky. Sometimes the most time-consuming tasks are the hardest to see on the surface.
So here are some of those gray area tasks that don’t always have an immediate tangible outcome, but are definitely appropriate to bill to a business owner:
- Onboarding meetings, specialized trainings, and learning the business SOPs
- Auditing the current systems and social media profiles
- Cleaning up accounts, organizing files, and implementing new tools
- Revamping social media schedules and doing keyword and hashtag research
- Improving the tech stack flow and making processes more efficient
- Reviewing old published content and cataloging existing material
- Researching similar companies and products in your niche neighborhood
- Finding the perfect stock images and flat lays (ugh this can take so much longer than you think!)
- Designing graphics and doing the revisions (again takes longer than you think)
Also, if a business owner has any unique tech platforms or specific services that are unusual, it’s ok for a VA to charge their time to learn that specialized system. Again, though, it needs to be well communicated, understood, and agreed upon ahead of time.
Same for specialized trainings! In my own work as a unicorn VA, I’ve had several long-term clients that have discovered a new strategy or tool that they want to start using. In those cases, they’ve paid for both the training costs (course enrollment, webinars, etc) as well as my time to learn to use it with their business. When you have that great partnership, this becomes a win-win situation.
Like I’ve said, it comes down to open communication.
A VA has the responsibility to talk to the business owner about what tasks need to be accomplished and approximately how much time it will take.
And the business owner has the responsibility to clarify their budget and expectations, and trust their VA’s ability to be efficient and smart with their time.
4) One price for all services
Business owners do not want pricing and invoice surprises. Watch this video to learn what NOT to do when it comes to charging different prices for different tasks.
Again, biz owners need to know up front what services cost.
5) ...and the tasks that a VA should NOT charge to the client
On the other hand, I have heard from some business owners who are frustrated when they get a VA’s invoice because they feel they were overcharged. And there are times when I definitely agree.
A freelance VA is not a regular employee. And that has both its benefits and challenges.
For one thing, it means that most of the time, a VA enters the partnership with a solid background and knowledge about the tasks they’ve signed up to do.
When a VA agrees to help a client with specific tasks, they should be ready to hit the ground running.
The client shouldn’t have to pay for training and practice for the basic tasks that the VA was hired to do.
If you’re a VA and you apply for a social media position that is focused on FB ads, you need to jump into that role confident and knowledgeable about how to run a FB ad campaign.
Of course, a VA unicorn isn’t always going to be an expert in all the things right away. It’s ok if you need to brush up on some skills and get more practice in a specific area.
But plan to do that on your own time, unless it’s a unique situation that you’ve already discussed with the business owner.
And if you’re still learning, it probably takes you longer to complete each task. Don’t charge your client for the entire length of time you work if you aren’t working efficiently yet. Cut out some of the time you spend on the learning curve.
Also, if you’re a VA who is tracking time for a client, be honest and reasonable in what hours you bill.
If you’re a WFH mom (like me) who is also refereeing sibling fights and serving snacks every hour, you aren’t always working efficiently for your client in solid blocks of time.
If you’re easily distracted and find yourself getting up and down from your computer all day long, take that into consideration on your invoice.
Honestly, that’s one of the awesome benefits of working from home as a virtual assistant. You don’t have to be tied to a strict 9-5 schedule and you can take care of your home life at the same time.
Just keep in mind that it’s not fair to bill a business owner for 4 hours for a task that could have honestly been completed in 2. If, you know, you weren’t getting interrupted every 20 minutes by popsicle requests and package deliveries.
And don’t charge for your own mistakes.
We’ve all been there. I’ve spent hours on building content for a client, only to accidentally erase it all with the click of a wrong button.
Or I’ve made a tech mistake that crashed a website, taking hours to get it all back online.
As much as it hurts, that’s on you to fix it.
On the other hand, if something goes wrong that isn’t your fault, it’s definitely ok to bill the hours that it takes to fix it.
But again, be honest and upfront. If you’re working with a business owner that has a tight budget, it’s not a bad idea to check in with them first and get approval.
It’s also not a bad idea to be honest when you know that it is something that isn’t one of your strengths.
A business owner should always have the option to outsource a specific job to someone with more expertise who can do the job more efficiently. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that it will be cheaper in the long run).
Related Podcast Alert: 3 big things you NEED in your VA contract
In this recent podcast episode, I dived into three absolute necessities for your next VA contract.
Take a quick break and listen – and get your contracts started on the right foot!
The Takeaway: Being honest and open in your communication makes it much easier to understand what a VA should charge the client each month.
Keep in mind that at the end of the day, both the business owner and the freelance virtual assistant want the same thing.
They want to build success, strengthen relationships, and celebrate wins. And let’s be honest – they both ultimately need to make money.
Money is tricky. It makes people nervous and it complicates working relationships.
That’s normal. Just be open and communicate, communicate, communicate.
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Speak up when things aren’t going like you hoped they would.
Make your budget and expectations clear.
Keep a wishlist of tasks for your unicorn VA to complete, even more than they normally do in a month. Let them know which are priorities and which are the bonus “sprinkle tasks” that they can use to fill in extra time if they have it during the month.
Keep your focus on your long-term goals and not just your short-term profits. Your VA should be driving your business forward.
Be honest and realistic. Don’t promise more than you can deliver.
Keep your business owner in the loop. Explain ahead of time which “invisible tasks” you need to complete so that they understand the work you’re billing.
Be fair in your charges, but also know your worth.
Whenever you have questions, reach out ahead of time.
Keep in contact about any unusual or unexpected situations. Nobody likes surprises.
In your own time, stay on top of your trainings and tech skills. Make sure you’re a valued member of the team, and that you’re paid accordingly for your expertise.
My clients get more from me than what I’m actually billing almost every single month.”
We all know that finances can be tricky in a working relationship. But it doesn’t have to be so stressful. Just put some thought and planning into your upfront contract. And stay in touch to work out the kinks each month.
– Emily, Digital Media Virtual Assistant AND Small Business Owner
“I help smart women learn the in-demand digital marketing strategies and tech skills to get hired as a unicorn virtual assistant.“
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