Virtual assistants are a cost-effective solution for busy businesspeople who need part-time help handling office administrivia, or who want particular tasks taken off their plate so they can concentrate on strategic work or have more leisure time.

There are many benefits to hiring a virtual assistant. A good assistant can save you time and money, relieve stress and become a real partner in your work. However, some people find the experience frustrating. They hire the wrong person, fail to get along, or deal with confusion and a steep learning curve. Often, it's not the assistant's fault so much as the person or business not being ready to take on a virtual employee. Whether you go to a freelance/crowdsourcing service or a virtual assistant service, here are five things to ask yourself before hiring a virtual employee:

1. How are your interviewing skills? A virtual assistant is more than a faceless automaton who accomplishes a task. He or she may be the first contact someone has with your business. They will have access to your company's communications and maybe even its accounts as well as some of your own personal information. Therefore, you want someone competent, trustworthy and who reflects the right image of your company.

Most virtual assistant services vet their employees, but you should still interview candidates to make sure they are a good fit. If you hire from a freelance service, you need to do the vetting yourself. Do background checks, ask for references and resumes, and get a feel for his or her personality. Don't go with the first person you talk to – interview a few people before making a decision.

2. Have you defined your needs? One mistake employers make is expecting to have a virtual assistant who can do it all. A close second to that is not knowing what you want your VA to do. Whether you are posting a job description on a freelance board or working with a virtual assistant service, you need a clear idea of what you want them to accomplish.

Sit down and make a list of duties. Be detailed. What kind of calls and to whom? What objectives do you have for the research you want them to conduct? What kind of business correspondence should they handle? Also think about the time considerations – two hours a week? One hour a week with occasional surges? Are you looking for a long-term employee or a one-time project – or do you want to hire for a trial period? What software do they need to use?

If you hire a virtual assistant with the intention of putting him on special projects in the future, then be sure to look for those skills. Don't assume a VA will take personal time to learn something in order to keep working with you.

3. Are your procedures well defined and written out? Many small businesspeople and solopreneurs have a system that makes sense to them but might not be intuitive for others. Before hiring a virtual assistant, be sure you know the steps you take to accomplish tasks. Write them out (with illustrations as needed). This makes it easy for your new virtual assistant to jump right in.

Also think about what procedures you can give up. Does it matter how the accounts are recorded as long as the information is there? A virtual assistant may have more experience with specific tasks and programs – are you willing to change your ways in order improve efficiency?

4. Are you ready to train? Even the most skilled virtual assistants need you to walk them through procedures, familiarize them with software and teach them your standards. This means a lot of upfront time commitment by you. Just remember the benefits of time saved later when your assistant can fly on their own.

5. Are you willing to follow up with critique? Even though your virtual assistant isn't in the office, you should still check their work, pointing out areas for improvement and giving praise when applicable. You may need to make a special effort at it since you won't see the person in the office.

More Top Stories