When you first start an e-commerce store (or any business), you’re going to be responsible for everything.
Yes, you’ll come up with fun and creative strategies to grow the business. But you’ll also be responsible for the boring administrative work that needs to get done.
At a certain point in the growth of your store, it makes sense to hire a virtual assistant so you can focus on the bigger picture and grow the business.
Mitch Harper, the co-founder of leading e-commerce platform BigCommerce, recommends monitoring how much of your time is spent doing (tactics) vs planning (strategy). If you’re spending most of your time on tactics, it may be time to hire someone to get that time back to strategy.
- Dan and Ian from The Tropical MBA recommend hiring once you have at least 50% of your profits available to set aside to pay staff.
- Neil Patel, co-founder of KISSMetrics, recommends doing the work yourself until you have a really clear understanding of the job duties to avoid hiring too early.
The “when to hire” point varies for different e-commerce entrepreneurs, but that point always comes if you’re growing your business.
Virtual Assistants Can Help with Many Tasks
A virtual assistant is not going to grow your business for you, but can take the burden of administrative or mentally draining tasks off your plate so you can focus on growth.
Here’s a few examples:
Responding to Order Status Emails – Even with a shopping cart that provides order status functionality to customers, you’re going to get customers that email you asking for an update on their order.
- You can easily have a Virtual Assistant monitor your email inbox for these emails,
- Check the order status in the system, and then
- Reply with a semi-templated response.
See example email template below:
I just checked on your order. It is [status]. You can also visit [order status link] to see this status immediately if you’d like.
Thanks [Name] – let me know if you need more help,
Update Product Information from Suppliers – If you have more than 10-25 SKUs and work with a few suppliers, you’re probably going to have a reasonable number of product information updates to make throughout the year.
A virtual assistant can easily take the information you give them and make basic changes in your e-commerce site. You can easily delegate this by recording a screencast of you doing it once so they can use a similar process. More on delegating here.
Basic Bookkeeping Tasks – A virtual assistant is not going to be your account, but basic data entry bookkeeping is something a good VA can handle with training. This can be incredibly helpful if your e-commerce platform doesn’t easily sync with your accounting system.
There’s many more tasks a virtual assistant can do for you, but for now we’ll get back to the hiring process. If you’d like a full post about what work to delegate, let me know in the comments.
How to Get a Large List of Applicants
Most job postings get a ton of responses, which can be overwhelming. But if you have a process in place for filtering these applications efficiently, then having a large list of applicants is great since you’ll have a solid pool of applicants to pull from.
Here’s how to get a large list of applicants.
Create a Simple But Clear Job Posting – Creating a job posting that says “I need a virtual assistant to help manage my e-commerce store” is not detailed enough.
Share more details and requirements:
- What ecommerce platform do you use?
- What niche is your ecommerce store in?
- What are a few types of tasks you’ll need done?
- What is the estimated time requirement per week? Will this grow over time?
- Will you provide templates for most communication with customers, or will the virtual assistant be expected to write most emails?
One important part of your job posting is to instruct applicants to start their reply with something unique (i.e. “yes, I read the entire post”). Bury this instruction in the details of your post so that only the applicants that actually read the entire post will start their reply with this requirement. This will allow you to filter applicants really easily which you’ll see below.
Post on Elance and Odesk – There are tons of job boards out there, but Elance and Odesk are the most popular so you should focus your time there.
Yes, there is a lot of spam and low quality workers on Elance and Odesk, but if you use the process below to filter down applicants then you’ll find the great workers.
Publish the job posting you created above on Elance and Odesk, usually with the below settings, and let applicants apply over the next 3-5 days.
By the way, you’ll notice the job posting is focused on “virtual assistants” below. This is because there are a large number of applicants seeking virtual assistant work, though their skills are also well suited to e-commerce administrative support. By selecting virtual assistants as the category, you’re expanding your job posting exposure.
Focus on Applicants with Work History
Once the job posting has been live for 3-5 days, you will have received a large number of applicants.
- The specific number depends on your job posting, but at least 100 per posting is realistic.
- If you’re getting significantly less, consider going back and editing your job posting to be a bit less specific so that more applicants that have relevant experience apply.
This is the part most ecommerce store owners get overwhelmed by.
- You login to Elance and Odesk, see 385 applicants, and then start manually looking at each profile.
- Hours later, you’re left with many more applicants to review and you feel like this is a waste of time.
Here’s a better way to filter applicants:
- Use the rating feature on Elance and shortlist feature on Odesk to keep track of applicants you want to review further (using below process). On Elance, rate each applicant you want to keep in the list as a 3 out of 5. On Odesk, checkmark “shortlist”. You can then filter to see only these applicants after completing the below steps.
- Ignore applicants that didn’t start their reply with your “*Yes, I read the entire post*” requirement mentioned in the job posting above. You might miss some qualified applicants, but if they’re just spamming the job postings then they’re probably not a good long term asset to your team.
- Ignore applicants that have no work history at all, such as 0 hours or $0 on their profile. You’ll miss certain qualified applicants, but it’s best if you hire someone that’s used to working virtually.
- If you have a target country, you can ignore applicants that are from other countries. For most Virtual Assistant work, the Phillipines is the best country to hire from as you’ll get a mix of high quality workers with strong english skills and competitive hourly rates.
Do each of the above at once for each applicant, as that’s the fastest way to filter through all the applicants.
- Keep applicants using Elance’s rating feature or Odesk’s shortlist feature, and ignore the rest.
- You can “decline” the rest, but that takes quite a bit of time – we just leave them on the applicant list and use ratings / shortlists to track applicants we’re interested in.
At this point, you’ll have a fairly large list of applicants that you’re interested in. But it doesn’t make sense to interview all of them yet.
Filter Applicants Using a Quiz
You can ask applicants that made it to this stage of the hiring process to do a basic quiz. This allows you to gather additional filtering information from all of these applicants quickly, without having to interview each one.
Here’s a few things to ask on your quiz.
E-commerce Platform Experience – Provide a list of platforms, and ask them to note which they have experience with. Make sure yours is on the list of course, but don’t ask “*Do you have experience with (your platform)?”* as some applicants will just say “yes” to get to the next stage of hiring.
Test Ability to Find Answers – Ask them a simple question, such as the cost of shipping to Nevada for your site (i.e. if you have free shipping to the US) or the width dimensions of a specific product on your site (i.e. if width is shown on the page). Make sure there’s a clear right or wrong answer so you can filter the quiz answers based on their responses.
Professional Writing Ability – Ask them a simple question, like “tell me about something special you did with your family recently that you enjoyed”. Ask that they type out a response of 75-100 words. This will help you gauge the quality of their writing.
You can add additional questions based on your requirements, but these cover the basics to ensure you’re getting someone with experience on your ecommerce platform (or other similar platforms), the ability to find answers to simple questions, and professional writing quality.
- Ask all the filtered applicants to complete the quiz by a specific time, usually 48 hours later.
- Then filter down the applicants using their responses:
- Disqualify applicants with really unprofessional writing quality.
- Disqualify applicants that answered the simple question incorrectly.
If you have a really popular ecommerce platform, and you see a lot of qualified applicants with experience on that platform, consider disqualifying applicants that don’t have experience on the platform.
There are a lot of different quiz tools online, but we use Google Drive. It’s simple, and allows us to get responses into a Google Spreadsheet automatically which we can then filter easily.
Once you’ve filtered applicants based on their Elance or Odesk profiles and then quiz responses, you should be left with around 4-6 qualified applicants.
- If you have more than 4-6 applicants, your quiz filtering is not aggressive enough. Go back to your quiz responses, and filter more aggressively on some of the answers. Remember, you can always go back and revisit applicants you filter out at this stage.
- If you have less, your quiz filtering is either too aggressive or you didn’t get enough applicants to your job posting. Go back to your quiz results and adjust your filtering. If that’s not the problem, consider revising your job posting to be broader and let it run for another week.
Now it’s time to interview qualified applicants.
Conduct a Working Interview on Skype
Rather than doing a simple Skype phone interview with questions like “tell me about your experience“, make the interview a working session with tests that gauge their experience.
Schedule the interviews back to back and let applicants know the structure of the interview.
- We use Scheduleonce.com to let each applicant book their interview during a specific block of time, rather than manually coordinating meetings.
- We also share an overview when sending booking instructions. For example, “This will be a working interview. We’ll go through a few specific activities that you’ll need to have experience with for success in this job position. Please be prepared to meet on Skype voice call, with the ability to share your screen during the interview. Please arrive on time for your interview, and send me a quick Skype message (Skype Username) to let me know you’re ready at that time. You can use http://www.worldtimebuddy.com to compare our time zone to yours.”
If someone misses their scheduled interview time without providing notice in advance, we usually disqualify them since the instructions above were clear.
At the start of the interview, share a few brief details about your company (max of 60 seconds since that’s not the focus of the call) and explain the structure of the interview. Ask if the applicant has any questions at this point, and either answer them now or add a note to answer them later in the call if that’d be best to keep you both focused.
Test Their Skills During the Interview
Then go into a few test activities to gauge their experience, while viewing their screen on Skype.
Here’s a few examples.
Test Activity- Find Shipping Info on Website – Find a website that has free shipping to the US, and that makes this reasonably clear on the website (i.e. they don’t bury this within the website, but it’s also not a gigantic banner on each page of the site).
- Ask the applicant “How much is shipping in the US?”. This should be a reasonably easy answer to find.
- Watch how they find the answer on the website. Do they go to places on the website where you’d assume the shipping information is? Do they freeze up and not do anything? Do they simply defer to asking you since “they haven’t studied the website”?
- Take brief notes on how they perform compared to other applicants.
Find another website that offers free shipping to the continental US, but not to Alaska or Hawaii.
- Ask the applicant if shipping is free to the state of Hawaii.
- Some applicants may not get this correct, but if they do it’s a good sign that they understand that details matter in customer service.
- Watch for the same things as above (i.e. how they find the answer, etc.) and take brief notes on how they perform compared to other applicants.
If applicants have a tough time on this level of question, consider giving them another try on similar style questions before moving forward.
If you did a good job quizzing applicants before the interview phase, then this shouldn’t happen but if it does give them another question or two.
If you’re concerned about their skills at that point, it may make sense to end the interview at that point. If they passed, move forward to the below types of questions.
Test Activity- Find Orders in Shopping Cart – If applicants have experience with your shopping cart platform (this is ideal), setup a demo account or change your passwords and give them access during the interview while you’re viewing their screen.
- Ask the applicant to find an order by customer name.
- Then, ask the applicant to provide specific information about that order, such as whether it’s shipped or not, the tracking number, etc.
- Even if applicants don’t have experience in your platform, this is a good test to gauge how they react to new types of tasks in tools they haven’t used before.
Be sure to disable the account or change login information after each interview once they sign out. This will ensure they’re only logged in while you can see their actual screen.
Take Notes and Compare Applicants
We recommend keeping notes for all applicants in a single document, so you can easily rate applicants on each interview (i.e. “not as good as Sarah with this task”) rather than reviewing all notes after the call.
The goal at this stage is to disqualify applicants that struggled on test activities that should have been pretty easy, and to spot 1 or 2 rockstars that seem like a great match.
If you haven’t done interviews before, then this probably sounds over simplified. But if you’ve started with a large list of applicants above and the filtered down to this point, you should be left with
- 1 or 2 applicants where you say “wow, this guy / girl is great!“,
- 1 or 2 applicants where you say “this one is not qualified at all“, and
- 1 or 2 applicants where you say “maybe…“.
Let each applicant know that you’ll notify them by a specific time (usually 24 hours) of your hiring decision. I rarely share the hiring decision directly on this call, even if I know who we’ll hire as I want to ensure I have time to think through the decision and have found that applicants really respect a well thought out hiring process.
Keep Other Applicants Available
Once you’ve made your hiring decision, let that applicant know and also let the other applicants you didn’t hire know.
For the applicants that were “great” or “maybe” applicants, keep in touch with them. Let the know you’ve hired another applicant, but were impressed by their interview and will consider them in the future.
We keep a spreadsheet of applicants we’ve interviewed in the past and would consider hiring so that it’s easier to hire for future similar positions. This leverages the time you spend during the above hiring and interview process rather than having to start from scratch later on.
Here’s a template of the Google spreadsheet we use to keep track of potential team members to consider in the future that did well on interviews but were not hired for one reason or another.
Want Details on Our Training Process?
This post got pretty bulky by going through our hiring process, but training is also really important.
The specific training material you use will vary depending on your needs, but we’ve found that a mix of static training material (i.e. videos, text, etc.), training meetings (i.e. to discuss training material), and then guided work time (i.e. performing tasks with Supervisor watching or available) works best.
Did you find the above hiring process helpful? Do you want to see deep details re: our training process? Let me know in the comments.
Jon Tucker is CEO of HelpFlow, a provider of 24/7 live chat and customer service teams for 100+ eCommerce stores. Launched in 2015, their team of agents has produced nearly $100M in chat revenue for a wide range of stores using a conversion-focused approach to live chat.
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At HelpFlow, we've run live chat and customer service operations for 100+ brands since 2015. While we offer full service live chat and customer service solutions, we also support leadership teams to overcome challenges and pursue new opportunities through consulting projects.