Virtual Assistants

13 Qualities of a World-Class Assistant

 January 7, 2021

By  Uriah Guilford, MFT

minute read

Uriah: Hi, this is Uriah with Productive Therapist, and I’m here with my assistant Tracel today talking about “13 Qualities of a World-Class Assistant.” Hi, Tracel!

Tracel: Hi, I’m happy to be here today.

Uriah: Yes, happy to be talking to you. And we know a lot about this topic, don’t we?

Tracel: We sure do. (laughs)

Uriah: Yes. Through hiring many, many assistants, and trial and error, and finding what works, we have learned what to do and what not to do.

Tracel: Right. We also have learned what doesn’t work by learning what works.

Uriah: For sure, and actually, last year we hired 16 assistants. So I think that was the most we ever hired in one period of time for sure, right?

Tracel: It makes me tired just thinking about that number, (laughs) I didn’t realize it was that high.

Uriah: But we have some fantastic people!

Tracel: Yes, we do.

Uriah: And I think there’s quite a few tips we’re going to share with people today. But I think the overarching thing that I think about is that you want to hire a person that’s highly competent and also a pleasure to work with. Both of those things are important, aren’t they?

Tracel: They are absolutely important because it can make or break the atmosphere you already have in the workplace. If you bring somebody into that, that is caustic or just doesn’t fit what you have going on already.

Uriah: That’s true, and we’ve learned that the best-looking resume doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best candidate, does it?

Tracel: No, it doesn’t.

Uriah: Some of the best advice I’ve ever received on hiring is this. It’s very simple. Hire slow and fire fast. So the idea is really take the time to vet the candidates and find the best person. It’s worth the effort and it’s worth the time, because like you said before, if you hire the wrong person, it actually costs more time and money in the long run and potentially hurts your culture as well.

Tracel: Right.

Uriah: So, take the time that you need to find the right person. And if you get into a position where you find that you have hired the wrong person, it’s a good idea to move as quickly as possible to move them on. It’s just good for everybody, right?

Tracel: Yes, absolutely.

Uriah: Yeah. And in my mind, a world-class virtual assistant is not only somebody that can check boxes and complete tasks, but they’re also going to become a little bit more of a partner in your business to start to anticipate your needs and really help you grow. They’re going to be committed to your success and become a crucial part of your team. That’s really what I’m looking for.

Tracel: And when you have somebody like that that is invested, then they’re not only going to care about the work that they produce, but they’re also going to be a problem-solver when something comes up instead of just bringing problems to you. If they feel like they’re part of it, I really think that is the best employee that you’re going to be able to have because they’re just going to work with you instead of against you, I guess.

Uriah: 100 percent. I always like to hire people that are smarter than me and can tell me what I need to do. (laughs)

Tracel: (laughs)

Uriah: I mean, seriously, like, some people think the opposite, but I think maybe it’s a good example of talking about our working relationship. And when you came onto the team a couple of years ago, I think the way that we’ve grown together, I really look to you to tell me what you think is best, and I trust your skills and your abilities because you actually embody all of these things we’re talking about.

Tracel: Well, thank you for that. But I do the reason I think our relationship does work well is because you are open to somebody else’s opinion or idea or even suggestion. And then when you have that in a working environment, then your employee is excited about bringing ideas to you because you know that they’re not going to be shot down. So I think it works both ways very well.

Uriah: Definitely. We’ll have to do another episode on the “Qualities of a Good Boss.” (laughs)

Tracel: That’s right. I think so. (laughs)

Uriah: OK, so here are the 13 qualities of a world-class assistant. We’ll kind of break them down one by one.

The first one that we look for is some actual admin experience, and you can choose how many years you want. Ideally, we kind of go for 3+ years of prior admin experience. We just want somebody who’s done similar jobs before. It makes a big difference, right?

Tracel: Right. They know what a spreadsheet is, they know what G Suite is, all of those little minor things that are going to take you time to have to train somebody if they don’t just know those basic things.

Uriah: And I think as we’ve progressed in hiring assistants more and more, we want people who come with a certain set of skills that we don’t have to train. I mean, on the one hand, it’s true that you can train people to do most tasks and you can’t change their character or their personality. But still, it’s just a bonus if they come with prior admin experience.

If somebody comes across and we interview them and they just seem amazing – personality, character, other qualities – but they don’t have exactly 3 years of admin experience, I will flex on that for the right person. But I think some of these things will also deter people from applying who don’t meet the qualifications. So 2-3 years of prior experience, I think is really good.

Tracel: And when you’re talking about somebody working virtually, they need to have this experience because they are at times going to be working completely on their own. And so you want to know that they are a self-starter and can be motivated, and they’re going to be working on electronic platforms, all sorts of things that they’re going to need some of this experience that’s going to help them with the other things that they don’t know.

This is going to give them a good basis for those other platforms that they may need to use.

Uriah: For sure. And we now prioritized number 2 here, which is experience working virtually.

If somebody has prior admin experience, but it’s in an office, it translates, but it doesn’t fully translate to working from home and working on a virtual team. So this is not a “make or break” one for sure. But if somebody has experience already working from home, which now a lot of people do have, right? That’s a real bonus for us because. Just different communicating and working virtually as just a whole different game.

Tracel: That’s true, that’s true. Yes, there is a learning curve there, and when you’re not in the same place with somebody to be able to show them exactly how to do it, when it is all virtual like we are, it really is beneficial if somebody has some of that in their tool bag on how to work virtually. Because it is so different than being in an office setting with other people around, not somebody looking over your shoulder, but you know what I mean.

Uriah: For sure. And that goes along with what you said earlier about being a self-starter. I’ll kind of jump down the list, but that’s something we look forward to, is somebody that’s highly motivated as a self-starter, someone who’s going to take initiative and be proactive. And that ties in with the experience working virtually because some people just work better when they have oversight, when they have people walking by their desk.

We don’t want those types of people. And you likely don’t.

Even if you’re hiring for an in-office position, you want somebody that’s going to work just as well, whether or not you’re watching them in the moment. And I mean, what do you think about this? How do we assess that in the hiring process? How do we know if they’re motivated and a self-starter?

Tracel: I think there are certain questions that you could ask somebody specifically even describing what their workday may look like. If they have worked virtually, what that day looks like? Then whether they are having to check in with somebody on a frequent basis or whether they have a set schedule and they can keep to it. You know that I love a paper planner, a calendar still, but –

Uriah: (laughs)

Tracel: But, how do they track their time? All of those little things that we just get used to doing because we do it all the time. I think those things can be beneficial in finding out how they work and whether that would translate to them working virtually.

Uriah: And those are all questions that you can ask when you’re interviewing an assistant. Two things that come to my mind in terms of assessing motivation and initiative is whether or not they followed the instructions in the application. So for us, submitting a cover letter and an introduction video.

Tracel: Definitely.

Uriah: So, if they didn’t do those things that I know that they’re not paying attention to detail and really going that extra step as well as when we get into the interview with them, if they clearly haven’t done any research on our company.

Tracel: Right, mmhmm.

Uriah: That’s a sign, both positive or negative. And then also, if we asked them the question, “do you have any questions for us?” If they haven’t actually given that some thought, that is a concern for me. So those are a couple of things that I think about.

Tracel: Yeah, absolutely. And we have disqualified people right from the beginning if they haven’t submitted that video for sure. That’s a deal-breaker for us. Not only are they not following direction, but it doesn’t give us an opportunity to even get a little window into who they are. And that’s really important for us, I think.

Uriah: Mmhmm, definitely. So that ties into the next one here, which is somebody who is personable and friendly.

And this is one of the advantages of asking people to submit an introduction video, which we’ve been doing for more than a year, I think.

Tracel: Yes.

Uriah: And that really gives them an opportunity to convey their personality. It actually checks a lot of boxes in terms of seeing what they’re capable of, but I like to see their personality come through.

Tracel: Right.

Uriah: And in fact, we just had somebody apply this week who seemed really qualified and great but didn’t quite communicate that on the video. So that is something we consider.

Tracel: Right, right. And we realize that’s not comfortable. You’re not an influencer, you’re not on Instagram, so we understand that might not be comfortable for you, but your personality still should be able to come through a little bit in that situation.

Uriah: I would hope for that, for sure. And, whatever the role you’re hiring your assistant for, you’re going to be working with them day in and day out quite a lot. So, you want them to be enjoyable and you want there to be a good connection between you and them, so that is key.

Tracel: And especially if they’re going to be doing any sort of customer service for you and talking to talking to your clients on the phone, you really want them to be personable and friendly.

Uriah: Warm and friendly, yes. So the first one is the prior admin experience. Second one is experience working virtually. We jumped ahead, did touch on being motivated, self-starter, someone who is personable and friendly. And then also number four here is patient, flexible and able to confidently solve problems.

And actually, I probably consolidate that one into: We want to hire people who are problem-solvers.

Tracel: Right.

Uriah: That’s pretty key because in this role, and especially if it’s virtual, there’s going to be constantly be problems that need to be solved. And what you don’t want is an assistant that comes to you with every little thing, like, “Do you think I should put a comma here in this?”

Tracel: Right.

Uriah: That’s an extreme example, but you want somebody that’s going to do what they can to solve that problem before they come asking for your help, right?

Tracel: Right. Because even if they’re using platforms that are unfamiliar to them, Google should be your best friend. You can learn so much, and then if you hit a roadblock then, you can go to your employer and say, “Look, I tried to do this. I tried to do that. Can you help me?”

And then I think that demonstrates something that they do have that ability to try to solve a problem. And they still may need your help, but it lets you know what they’ve tried to do on their own, and I think that shows a lot of initiative, actually.

Uriah: That’s definitely a pet peeve on my part! If one of my employees comes to me and I can give them the answer in 60 seconds, and they haven’t Googled it? (laughs)

Tracel: Right! (laughs) Oh, no, don’t do that.

Uriah: I know, I know. Virtually doesn’t happen very often. (laughs)

Uriah: So, confident problem-solver is key. And the next one, number 5 is excellent verbal and written communication skills.

Seems obvious, but this is maybe one of the most important things that we’re going to talk about today, because they’re going to be talking to and writing, communicating in writing, to the therapists, to potential clients, to you. And that needs to be one of their best skills, honestly.

Tracel: Right, and then especially when it’s in a virtual environment, you’re going to have to maybe over-explain things, over-communicate things, to make sure that everything is clear.

Uriah: Right. And this comes across in, I know it’s a little old-school, but requesting people to submit a cover letter shows you a little bit about their writing abilities.

Tracel: Right.

Uriah: And I know that I’m really particular about grammar.

Tracel: And formatting is a big pet peeve of yours! (laughs)

Uriah: I’m very particular about it! But like if somebody can’t spell the word “productive” when they’re writing? I mean, everybody makes mistakes, so we’re not trying to be like super, super – well, we are being kind of super picky, (laughs) but if it’s clearly just bad, then I’m like, look. That is a disqualifier for this job because we need that.

Tracel: Right, right, because you need that attention to detail. It’s super important in this particular field. And then this was reminding me of the book that we just read, which was so helpful.

I mean, I thought I was a very good verbal and written communicator myself, but that No Fail Communication book that we just read was really eye-opening in helping in a virtual environment, ways to really sharpen those skills that you have and be more effective as a communicator.

Uriah: It helped me a ton as well. I highly recommend that one.

Tracel: Yeah, that was great.

Uriah: Next one on the list here is high level of comfort and proficiency with technology.

And this is just – I feel like every one of these ones, I’m saying “this is a deal breaker,” (laughs) but you’ve got to be able to know how to use technology, how to learn new technologies, because there’s a good chance of the person you’re hiring, unless they have prior experience working in a group practice or in a practice with electronic health records and other things, they’re going to need to learn those technologies.

So they need to be competent and confident in learning new platforms.

And sometimes we’ll ask that, and sometimes people that we interview will actually bring that up. They’ll say, “I’m really good at learning quickly, and I know all of these software platforms, but I’m good at learning new ones.” And when I hear that, or when I ask the question and hear that back, that just helps my confidence in that person.

Tracel: Right. And somebody that’s not afraid to try a few things, like if I click this button, what’s it going to do? I mean, you’re not going to ruin anything, but there have been times where some people have been so nervous to just try to see if they can figure something out on their own. And again, I think that goes back to the problem-solving, and what are they willing to learn on their own?

Uriah: Definitely. And if somebody is really a nerd like me, then that makes me more excited, because then I can tell them, “Hey, go figure out this new software tool that I bought and tell me how to use it.” (laughs)

Tracel: Right, right. (laughs)

Uriah: So, the next one is a skill set match with the tasks you need help with. And this seems like common sense, but with the years of prior experience and working virtually and the things we’ve talked about so far, you really do want somebody that knows how to do the job that you’re hiring them for.

And that’s really clear if you’re hiring for insurance billing, really clear if you’re hiring for a practice manager, or something like that.

But if you’re hiring an intake coordinator, there’s a good chance that that person hasn’t done that exact job yet. But if you can find somebody who has done that exact job, you’re going to be able to go further, faster with them.

And I’m thinking about a couple of people that we hired over the years that came to us with “the perfect skill” set that already (Darla’s maybe a good example of that), who already worked for a group practice before and done all the things we wanted them to do.

And so, our eyes light up. We’re like, “Yes!” (laughs)

Tracel: Right, and that means you have to be clear on what skills you need that person to have. And is it going to be just an intake coordinator, or are they also going to do that and billing? And is one of those tasks more important than the other that you really want them to have this? But this other part you can teach? You have to be clear on that. So you know, when you’re looking at a resume or a video, do these skills match what you need?

Uriah: Yeah, especially for the intake coordinator role. You really do want somebody that’s had a job before that has phones involved, basically.

Tracel: Sure.

Uriah: We hired somebody not too long ago who was a receptionist for a hospital. And when I see that on a resume, that is very good to see because they’ve already done it. And then they can just adapt their previous experience to your unique practice a lot quicker. So that’s good.

Tracel: Definitely.

Uriah: OK, the next one here is you want somebody that’s good at managing their time and multiple tasks and projects.

This is a little bit harder to assess because you can look at a resume, you can look at an intro video, you can talk to a person, and everybody you interview is going to try to put their best foot forward.

Tracel: Right.

Uriah: But there are certain questions that we like to ask that suss some of these things out, and we can share these further in the future because we have a list of questions. But you can just simply ask, “How do you feel about your time management and your project management skills, and how have you used those things in past positions?” Something like that, an open-ended question that gets them to talk about their skills in those areas.

Tracel: And especially if you know going in that they have worked virtually before? They should be able to give you a clear answer to some of those questions because they should already have things in place that they have been using that help them manage their time or manage projects and that sort of thing.

Uriah: Mm hmm. This does make me think about our recent conversation about onboarding new virtual assistants, and how we train them to manage time and tasks.

Tracel: Right.

Uriah: So on the one hand, you want somebody that has those skills to some degree, and then you also want some sort of process when you’re bringing them on to help them with those things. And that’s something we’re going to actually be working on, is just some training materials to help them with those things, to know how to do them the way that we do them, and/or just add to their current skills.

Tracel: Yes. Yeah.

Uriah: The next one is you want to be as coachable and willing to learn. Super important, because if you get somebody that’s very competent, lots of prior experience, but just happens to be kind of rigid and likes doing things their own way and not open to feedback, you’re going to run into problems, right?

Tracel: And they are not pleasant to work with if that is their attitude!

Uriah: Mmhmm, yeah. And I’m going to jump down to the last one on our list here, which is three things: you want people that are humble, hungry, and smart. And the last one, smart, is about emotional intelligence. So if somebody is able to listen, able to take in feedback, that’s definitely emotional intelligence.

You want somebody that is smart, and hungry, and ambitious, but they also need to be humble.

Tracel: Right, because you’re never going to have somebody come in unless they’ve done this exact job in this exact environment. They’re never going to be able to come in and be able to handle everything 100 percent. And so if they come in with that attitude that they’ve got it all handled and they’re not willing to learn or be coachable, your life will be miserable. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration! It makes it difficult for everybody in that in that situation.

Uriah: Yeah, even the best people that we’ve hired, we’ve had to give feedback to at some point.

Tracel: Right.

Uriah: And it’s part of the process and it’s part of the culture that we’ve created because I want feedback, and I think everybody benefits from feedback, even when it’s hard to hear. And so that definitely goes into culture, and who’s a good fit for your team? Think about that and how you operate and how you manage and make sure you ask those questions.

There’s going to be people that slip through that answer the questions with what you want to hear.

Tracel: Right.

Uriah: And then end up being a little bit different than you expected. So to some degree, there’s no foolproof process for hiring. (laughs) I wish there was!

Tracel: Right. And we’ve helped that a little bit by adding that question that they are required to answer when they fill out the job application in the beginning, which is, “How do you know when you’re doing a good job?”

Uriah: Mmhmm.

Tracel: And their answer is pretty insightful to answering this here. Are they going to be coachable and willing to learn? And are they humble, hungry, and smart? So, you can add questions like that that can give you a little bit of insight into these skills that you may be looking for.

Uriah: Yeah, like I like that one. I’m always interested to read those answers.

Tracel: Me, too.

Uriah: Sometimes they’re really good. Sometimes they’re not good. (laughs)

Tracel: Right. And I mean, for me, I look at that before I even look at the resume.

Uriah: Do you really?

Tracel: Yes, and before I even look at the video, that is the first thing that I look at to see kind of what direction this person’s headed.

Uriah: And it’s good to know, good to know. So, next to here on our list is the ability to manage and protect confidential information.

And maybe it’s less of an ability and more of a willingness. So, that’s something you can explain in the job application and also in the interview. If they don’t have any prior experience or knowledge of HIPAA, you can talk to them just a little bit about digital security and confidentiality, and are you willing to learn about that and follow the rules with that. So, that’s important, the willingness to manage and protect confidential information.

The next one is the willingness to treat your clients as VIPs. This is important to me because that’s a value that I hold, that the people that are getting in touch with us, we don’t call them “VIPs,” but they are very important people, and they are calling us because they have a need to get some counseling help, and they’re in some level of crisis.

Tracel: Right.

Uriah: And I want somebody in the intake coordinator role who’s going to, like we said before, be warm and friendly, and also be willing to go out of their way to provide a high level of service.

Tracel: Right, and of course, we don’t ever ask this on an interview whether somebody has been to therapy before or not, they often will divulge that. And I think that is such an asset because then they know firsthand the value of that in their life. And that is absolutely going to come through naturally in an empathetic way when they’re talking to somebody on the phone and they will treat people like a VIP.

Uriah: That does help a lot. And you’re right, we don’t ask that, I don’t think it’s even legal to ask.

Tracel: It’s not, it’s not, but a lot of people have just divulged it to us. And I think it’s great when they have that as part of their experience.

Uriah: And, actually how we get to that sometimes is we ask them certainly for the introduction video and sometimes in the interview, “Why do you think that you would be an ideal candidate for this position?”

Tracel: Right.

Uriah: And that gets them to reflect and say, “Well, I’ve had prior experiences with therapy, and I know how powerful it is, and I love the idea of helping other people connect with a therapist.”

Tracel: Right. If it’s tangentially like, somebody in their family has seen the benefit of it there. So even that is really a benefit, I think.

Uriah: Definitely. So those are the 13 qualities. I’m not going to run through them again because that’s a long list. And the last one that we did touch on, I’ll just mention, again, “humble, hungry and smart” is actually from the work of Patrick Lencioni, who’s written quite a few excellent books on building teams, hiring, and managing.

So if you were going to sum all these things up into two phrases:

  1. Hire slow, fire fast, super good, super helpful advice.
  2. Find people who are humble, hungry, and smart. And if they check those boxes, you’re likely going to have a really good person.

Tracel: You’ll be ahead of the game for sure. Yeah.

Uriah: And wrapping up here, I want to share a couple bonus points. Things that some people might want to look for.

  • It’s beneficial if someone is located in your time zone. Not a deal breaker, but that helps.
  • Some folks need bilingual. And if that’s important to you in your practice, then make sure you don’t hire somebody who doesn’t meet that qualification.
  • And then the next one is knowledge of psychology and counseling, or prior work in the mental health field. We’ve had experience both ways where people that we’ve hired that do have that have been great, or we thought that they would be better than they were. (laughs)

Tracel: Right. (laughs)

Uriah: So, I think it helps. But we have learned over time that we can train most of those things. Wouldn’t you say so?

Tracel: Absolutely. I think we have learned that their personality and some of the other skill sets that they come with are more important than maybe something directly related to mental health or even medical field at all, because, like you said, those things can be taught. It’s the other things that you can’t really teach but are so important to this job.

Uriah: Absolutely. And then the last one is on availability. You want to make sure that you hire somebody who has the availability that works for you. You’re likely hiring somebody that’s part-time, so you want to make sure that they have some availability, at least for the intake coordinator role, Monday through Friday during business hours. Even if they have other things, they’re not available eight hours a day, that might be OK, but just make sure that you’re clear about that, what you need, and what they can actually do.

That one’s key.

Tracel: Absolutely.

Uriah: So there you go, 13 qualities of a world-class assistant. I hope you enjoy this, and we’ll talk to you soon. Take care.

Tracel: Bye bye.

Uriah Guilford, MFT


Uriah is a group practice owner and the creator of Productive Therapist. He is a technology nerd, a minimalist travel packer, a rock drummer and business development enthusiast.

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