Virtual Assistants, In-Office Assistants or Both?

by Chicago Agent

Hiring an assistant can be a significant investment in your business – but do you go virtual, in-office or a hybrid of both?

By Joe Bean

Anyone in this business who wants to be successful knows it’s more than a full-time job – the road to top producer status involves long days and nights, working on weekends, endless catering to customers and prospecting, prospecting, prospecting.

While it’s true many agents work hard all by themselves to obtain top agent status, it’s become a growing trend to have help getting there; according to the 2010 National Association of Realtors Member Profile, 14 percent of agents had at least one assistant, 72 percent of assistants worked exclusively for one agent and 48 percent of assistants are part-time employees. It seems the more clients an agent has or the more transactions an agent makes, the more likely he or she is to have an assistant or two.

What is the difference, though, between an in-office assistant and a virtual assistant, also known as a VA? In-office assistants play a big part when it comes to helping agents keep their schedule organized and on top of clients; an in-office assistant tends to be busy, doing everything from scheduling showings or client appointments for the agent, producing CMA reports for several properties, creating listing presentations for prospective clients, answering calls and taking messages, doing paperwork, and tracking ongoing transactions. As someone who, presumably, is familiar with the area, local knowledge means the assistant can do more in terms of reports and scheduling appointments, knowing how traffic might be and how long it might take for the agent to get from one place to another.

A VA, however, can handle less of the tasks that require constant communication and scheduling and more technological/social media tasks. A VA does not need to actually be in the office with you; this is a person who is working for you remotely, whether from their home in Illinois, or even another country. Virtual assistants can do tasks that don’t require immediate supervision, and especially Internet-related tasks, such as managing any social media platforms and websites, writing and managing the upkeep of your blog, monitoring website analytics and advertising listings on websites. Even tedious but important tasks, such as responding to simple email/Facebook inquiries, helping clean out your inbox, researching what websites are best to invest more of your marketing dollars, and analyzing analytics to your website or blog are all tasks that can be accomplished virtually.

If you’ve felt you’ve become busier and busier, it might be a good time for you to hire an assistant. But hiring an assistant is easier said than done – hiring someone requires money, time and attention; after all, you want to make sure they are helping you achieve your full potential (according to the agents interviewed for this story: typically a salary for a full-time assistant is $40k to $60k; average hourly pay for a VA is $8 to $10 an hour, and no office space or new equipment is required). In addition, in-office assistants aren’t for everyone. Sometimes, a virtual assistant is all an agent needs.

“I tried having an actual, or in-office assistant, but I didn’t like it,” said Gloria Matlin, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Glencoe. “I didn’t care for someone else writing my brochures or setting appointments for me. I believe the client is hiring me – they want Gloria Matlin to provide the personal service I promise. That’s why I don’t want someone else calling them.”

How do you know, though, if you need an assistant as close as the office next door, or if yours could be as far away as the Philippines?

In-Office Assistants
For Robin Miner, a Realtor since 2001 who currently works for @properties in Lakeview, hiring an assistant was a lifestyle issue, meaning, she admits, that she had no life.

“I was way too busy to manage the volume of business I had all by myself, to meet my client responsibilities and to deal efficiently with all the processes the business requires of every Realtor,” she said.

Miner hired her in-office assistant, Rachel Thompson, in February 2004. She interviewed Thompson on a recommendation from a friend whom she had told that she was “just too busy.” Thompson, just eight months out of college with a degree in graphic arts, had no experience in real estate. But that didn’t necessarily matter to Miner.

“I didn’t know I needed someone with real estate experience,” Miner recalls.  “I did know I needed help processing information and paperwork, and I wanted a bright, self-starter with a strong work ethic.”

Miner hired Thompson, and her lack of experience didn’t seem to have an effect on Miner’s business. Miner set up a system from the beginning, which the two continue to develop and refine. Paperwork is not a good use of Miner’s time, she said, so she and Thompson use a flow chart system to organize their respective responsibilities, tasks and strengths. The system serves as a series of step-by-step checklists for the different processes necessary for a successful real estate transaction, from listing to closing.  Keeping the different charts up to date is one of Thompson’s primary day-to-day responsibilities.

In terms of training, Miner says that she and Thompson helped train each other, in a way, and learned together on the job. “We actually trained each other when we started to work together, and we continue to learn together,” she said. And Miner never asks Thompson to do personal tasks, like pick up her dry cleaning.

“It’s a dynamic process that serves us well, and we see ourselves as a team. Rachel works with me – not for me,” Miner added.

All client communications go through Miner, though. Miner relies on Thompson to put together new listing presentations, work with the @properties marketing department, post online listings, and coordinate communication among attorneys, lenders, management companies and others, so that Miner can focus her energies on the service side of the business and making her customers happy.

“I don’t want to manage people,” she said. “Rachel manages herself so I can do what I like to do and what I’m most effective at: serving clients.”

Thompson even got her real estate license in October of 2004, after working for Miner for a few months. She said she felt it “enhanced” her credibility, which is apt, since, according to the 2010 National Association of Realtors Member Profile, 51 percent of assistants are unlicensed. But now that Thompson is licensed, she can conduct showings, and track ongoing transactions and new listings for Miner.

With those responsibilities taken care of by Thompson, Miner devotes her time to her clients.

“We have our systems in place,” Thompson said. “But it’s still important for me to ask questions when I feel I need more information or I want to make sure I understand what Robin wants.”

Thompson added that great assistants also need to be detail-oriented, available and flexible – agents could need things done at a moment’s notice, and assistants, therefore, need to help the agent look exceptional in front of clients, and help the agent show excellent customer service. Perhaps this is why Thompson won Chicago Agent’s “Best Assistant” award at last year’s Agents’ Choice Awards.

“An assistant needs to understand that he or she will be representing a professional in the real estate business,” Miner said. “It’s a fast pace, and you have to be able to multitask, to think for yourself and to learn a lot very quickly.  Learn the ropes – get a mentor, and perhaps get licensed.  Most of all, understand what the Realtor needs – and wants – from an assistant.”

Virtual Assistants
Matlin, a Realtor for more than 20 years, made the decision to employ a virtual assistant because she needed help, but not necessarily with scheduling, appointments and listing presentations. She was having trouble balancing her business and keeping up with new social media platforms and technologies, and properly utilizing them, in addition to just learning to use them. She needed someone with specialized skills and a knowledge of social media, and how Matlin could use those tools to stay in touch with clients and her sphere of influence – Facebook, LinkedIn and her personal web page. She also needed help writing and sending a monthly electronic newsletter to her database.

“The business is changing, and I wanted a fresh look,” Matlin said. “I wanted to supplement the excellent office support Coldwell Banker provides to us.”

Matlin said that with real estate increasingly moving online, and agents needing help transitioning, some agents moved toward having teams, rather than just hiring an assistant. “Pooling resources makes sense for some,” she said, “as a way to maximize their individual strengths and interests.”

But Matlin didn’t feel like she needed a team – she just needed a little bit of help, and only in one area: social media. She didn’t even feel she needed someone to be in the office with her helping her do this – an assistant could help Matlin virtually with this.

Matlin met Keri King while she was working as a weekend receptionist in Coldwell Banker’s Glencoe office at the time, and in addition to her VA work, she continues to work there on a part-time basis.

King had been working as a VA for other real estate professionals when Matlin decided to hire her, and she still does, but none of the other agents are part of Matlin’s North Shore community or in direct competition with Matlin.  In fact, shortly after she hired King, another agent in Matlin’s market area asked King to work for her, but King refused.

“We have no signed contract, but Keri explained that she has an exclusive relationship with me in my market area,” Matlin said. “That’s the way she runs her business.”

King works for a number of agents, including Matlin, from her home office in Lisle, and balances her duties and schedule accordingly. For Matlin, King monitors her websites to make sure she’s getting the desired level of interaction from prospective clients. She also maintains a set of analytics to identify trends, such as who is looking at her sites, what sites they click on, what age group users are in, how often visitors come to the site and how long they stay. King uses these analytics to develop Matlin’s online presence, and if the numbers suggest another website might be a better way to reach Matlin’s target clientele, King can let Matlin know and immediately get started with an account on the new site.

In addition, King keeps Matlin’s database in order and up to date, shares her opinion as to where Matlin’s marketing dollars should be spent in terms of websites and online marketing efforts and helps with special mailings. This allows Matlin to focus on providing the best possible service to her clients. King charges Matlin an hourly rate to complete these ongoing services, and is even “virtually” paid via PayPal.

Since King was hired to help maintain social media efforts and manage websites, which she had experience doing, Matlin said there wasn’t really a training period. Matlin simply told King what she expected to be done, and King “ran with it,” using her experience and knowledge to improve Matlin’s social media efforts and her website’s effectiveness.

While it isn’t part of King’s job to interact with Matlin’s clients directly, she does interact with prospective and actual clients via the web, as she “is” Matlin via social media, eblasts and her website.

“Keri is me to so many – the people who operate the websites we utilize and our support staff at Coldwell Banker, among others,” Matlin said.

Even though King’s tasks can be done virtually, they could also be done by an in-office assistant. If you’re the type of agent who needs constant communication to be ensured that work is being done, a virtual assistant might not be the best choice for an assistant, even if their work would be solely online-based work.

“If you require, need or just want to supervise every aspect of an assistant’s work, don’t hire a virtual assistant,” King said. “There has to be a level of trust. You must be comfortable giving up a measure of privacy and sharing information that many people consider private, such as passwords and access to personal information. You must be willing to delegate and to respond quickly to electronic communications. If you really have a hard time letting go, a virtual assistant is not for you.”

Using Both Types of Assistants
Amy Kite, a Realtor with Keller Williams Premier Properties in Lincolnshire, knew she needed to hiring an assistant. An agent since 2004, she didn’t hire her first in-office assistant until 2008 – and wondered how she lived and worked for those four years.

“I was too busy to handle everything,” Kite said. “I was losing leads, and I could tell that business was slipping through my fingers. I should have gotten my first assistant sooner. But you have to understand you’re losing enough business to cover the cost of another person before making that decision.”

Kite hired her first assistant, Denise Sullivan, as an in-office assistant in 2008. Kite was introduced to Sullivan through a recommendation from another broker.

“She understood the pace of real estate when she came to us,” Kite said. “She knew the local market and she was conversant with real estate lingo.”

In addition, she’s found that there is a direct correlation between having an effective in-house assistant and sales volume. “I expect an assistant to help our team generate three times his or her salary,” she said. Sullivan has helped accomplish just that by helping Kite prospect, scheduling appointments for Kite with prospective clients, closing transactions and maintaining client relationships.

As time went on, while Sullivan was a great help for the business, Kite realized that she needed another assistant – someone who could focus solely on technology, online marketing, getting properties listed on Realtor.com, Zillow, Trulia or other websites, and updating and maintaining Kite’s current websites. These were things that Kite and Sullivan both didn’t really have time for.

“There are so many important things in today’s high-tech business that, while they require a high level of technological expertise, do not require a local presence,” Kite said. So she hired a virtual assistant, Khrizia Sta Ana, who is based in the Philippines, through MyVirtualDesk.com, a service referred to Kite by Keller Williams.

To focus on those specific activities, and to make the most efficient use of each assistant’s time, skills and knowledge, she has her local staff split responsibilities for client relationships, closing transactions and tasks that require local knowledge, while Sta Ana focuses solely on Internet-based tasks, such as online marketing, listing properties on websites and social media efforts.

However, the training period with Sta Ana wasn’t as easy as Matlin had with her VA. When Kite hired Sta Ana, she says it was “a wake-up call.” Training needed to be done, and not only that, it needed to be done online – Sta Ana was on a different continent, and a 14-hour time difference needed to be worked around.

Initially, Kite says, they used Skype as their primary means of training and communicating. “But we needed a better way to explain important tasks,” she added. “We got very good at writing explicit directions before we started making our own training videos. We would videotape a specific task – posting photographs on different websites with different specifications, for example – and either email the video to her or post it on YouTube. It’s worked very well, it’s available anytime she needs to review it and it’s exceptionally cost-effective.”

After working with both Sullivan and Sta Ana, Kite added that she sees a clear difference between in-office and virtual assistants. An in-office assistant should understand real estate locally, because client communications demand a local presence. Virtual assistants’ strengths are working on things that don’t rely on others to get done. But this is why some agents have an in-office assistant, some have virtual assistants and some have both.

“Hybrid” Assistants
In Kite’s case, she has an additional assistant who acts as a “hybrid” assistant – someone who comes into her office from time to time to help Sullivan, and who also helps Sta Ana from his own home when he’s not needed in Kite’s office. Guy Wicke, who Kite hired to help with both in-office and virtual assistant work, approached Kite about a job; he had just been laid off from another real estate brokerage. With Sullivan getting busy, Kite realized her business would probably benefit from adding another assistant.

Kite hired Wicke and evaluated Sullivan’s, Sta Ana’s and Wicke’s strengths and weaknesses, and found that Wicke could help give a local presence to Kite’s social media efforts, in addition to helping Sullivan balance in-office tasks, because he brought experience in both real estate and social media to the team.

Kite says the benefits from having three assistants vary, but ultimately, they help her focus on clients and customer service. She focuses on her own strengths and what she does best while letting her assistants focus on the little details – admittedly not her strong suit – to create a highly effective real estate business.

“I believe in the 80/20 principle,” she said. “My 20 percent is lead generation, listing appointments, showing properties, negotiating contracts and follow-up. A good assistant picks up what needs to be done and does it, and doesn’t have to be trained twice. They get it, and anticipate what’s next.” C.A.


Amy Kite
Keller Williams Premier Realty
[email protected]


Gloria Matlin
Coldwell Banker
[email protected]


Robin Miner
[email protected]

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