A Brief History of the Administrative Support Business

A Brief History of the Administrative Support Business

A while back, one of my new-at-the-time colleagues asked me this question:

I guess Iโ€™m too new to the industry so Iโ€™m lost with the concept “team VA” or “multi-team VA.” And “partnering with clients?” It sounds interesting though, could you define for the benefit of the clueless (me)? Thanks!

To understand these terms and concepts, it’s helpful to know the evolution of our industry. With that in mind, here’s a quick history of the administrative support industry.

Originally there were secretarial services. That industry had been around for decades, since at least the 40s or 50s and probably earlier.

However, secretarial services were sort of like a print shop: where someone would go, for example, to get a quick typing or desktop publishing job completed by someone on an ad hoc/incidental basis.

Think of it sort of like a drive-through typing service. It was project-based and there was no deeper role of the secretarial service in a client’s business or consistent relationship than that.

Then, in the late 80s/early 90s, the concept of administratively supporting clients remotely as a business became more formally realized. This new business model differed very distinctly from secretarial services in that the idea was to:

  1. provide a spectrum of across-the-board administrative support to clients (not simply typing or data entry), in
  2. an ongoing, collaborative, partnering relationship (as opposed to the ad hoc/incidental/occasional/sporadic/project-based nature of the secretarial service business model).

In the early 90s, a life/business coach by the name of Thomas Leonard coined the term “virtual assistant” that this new industry adopted in large part to describe this new and distinctly different kind of administrative support business.

What’s funny/interesting is that when the secretarial service industry was first introduced to this idea of an administrative support/partnering business, it was met with cold-shouldered resistance and disapproval (much as most “newfangled” things are met by people who don’t yet understand them).

After a few years, however, more and more these same secretarial services who sneered at the idea started calling themselves “virtual assistants” even while they were still operating as project-based secretarial services (clearly only adopting the term without understanding the concept).

More and more people started using the term “virtual assistant” without understanding the original business concept around it. Which is no wonder: it’s an ambiguous term and one that those in our business didn’t even coin themselves.

Then there came onto the scene people whose thinking was “I know! I’ll make money having a business where I don’t do any of the work (perhaps don’t even have the expertise or administrative background myself), I simply outsource it to third parties, preferably at cheap, third-world rates.”

At the same time, there were others who wanted to have a one-stop-shop kind of business where they had colleagues and others who did things they did not. In this way, they could say (for example) they did web design when really all they were doing is having someone else do that work.

Both of these distinct groups began calling this sub-genre a “multi-VA/team-VA” business.

The problem with this term, however is that:

  1. legally speaking, unless these people are your employees, they are not part of your team, and using that terminology will cause the IRS to think you are engaging in illegal misclassification;
  2. it’s not a collaborative/partnering relationship as defined by the administrative support business concept; and
  3. there is already a term for that kind of relationship between colleagues who are not employees of each other. It’s called “subcontracting.” ๐Ÿ˜‰

In the early 2000s, there also began to be discussions around the aptness of the “virtual assistant” term. Too many people who were not running actual administrative support businesses were co-opting the term, bastardizing it for their own purposes, and confusing the marketplace.

Another problem with the term is that clients commonly do not understand the relationship. They mistakenly think it is one of employer/employee and treat it (and devalue it) accordingly.

It erroneously shapes their expectations and perceptions in negative ways that cause people in our industry problems. That’s because people only understand the word “assistant” one way: employee. Which is why calling themselves assistants was causing a whole host of misalignments in expectations and understandings.

Therefore, a large contingent of people in the administrative support industry began having a conversation around moving away from the “virtual assistant” term and adopting/coining a new term for those of us who were very specifically running ongoing administrative support businesses where we work with clients in actual collaborative partnering relationships.

That’s when our group ultimately landed on the term Administrative Consultant and the benefits have been multi-faceted:

  1. It’s a term WE chose for ourselves, not one that was foisted upon us and defined by a client (who at the time when he was working with his own VAs acted like he thought he was their employer, not their client).
  2. It more clearly denotes our BUSINESS OWNER/CONSULTANT (i.e., NOT employee) status and the fact that our business is specifically administrative in nature.
  3. It isn’t ambiguous and leaves little room for misinterpretation.
  4. It sets better expectations, understandings and perceptions in clients about the correct nature of the relationship (business-to-business, not employer/employee).
  5. In turn, this improves our consultation conversations, the demeanor with which potential clients approach us (i.e., professionally rather than like an employer seeking a worker bee), and our ability to command proper professional-level fees (not employee slave wages).

To be clear, the Administrative Consultant term was never intended to replace the “virtual assistant” term. Many of the people using that term are not running administrative support businesses so our term does not apply to them.

Our term is only meant for those who are specifically running administrative support businesses and who work with clients in true collaborative, partnering relationships. If that’s the kind of business you are running, we encourage you to use the Administrative Consultant term because it is going to help improve how clients view and understand your business and how they treat you as a fellow business owner.

16 Responses

  1. Hi Danielle. I confess I’ve never heard the term ‘administrative consultant’ or the term Team VA. Not sure if these are more common in the US but I’m guessing that, if it hasn’t already, we will start to see these descriptions of VA services in the UK. Now I feel ahead of that curve in understanding why the distinction. Thank you for posting.

  2. Hi Karen ๐Ÿ™‚

    Yes, since the business concept of administratively supporting clients remotely began in the U.S., other countries are somewhat behind the curve. What I often notice with those in the U.K. countries is they are still in the stages of coming out of employee mindset. So many of them are operating as if they were employees and in my observation are only just now slowly but surely starting to understand that providing administrative support remotely doesn’t mean it has to be done in employee-like ways.

    Be sure to visit our website so you can learn more: http://administrativeconsultantsassoc.com/

  3. Hi Danielle,

    I am new to the business and super excited about the potential of finally not being an employee as an administrative profession but being a consultant! I contracted my first client this month and my goal is to have 3 more before end of month or at least 5 by year end. Your website has been very helpful.

    I prefer to read the blog in the email format. Best wishes!

  4. That’s fantastic, Kendall! Thanks for sharing.

    (Thanks also for letting me know how you like the new blog email notifications. Very helpful!)

  5. Angeline Adams says:


  6. Thanks, Angeline! I’m glad it was helpful. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Chaunte Roberts says:

    Hi Danielle,

    I love that you’ve emailed the entire article here. Thanks for allowing the input!

    Have a great weekend! ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Thank you, Chaunte. I very much appreciate your input and comments. ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Cindy McIlhargey says:

    Hi Danielle ~
    I loved this article (I love all of your articles LOL). You are the one that made me realize that what I will be offering is as a consultant vs. an assistant and I thank you for that! And I love how you explain things in such a way that we can explain it to our prospective clients in layman terms. Keep ’em coming! LOL

  10. Great to know, Cindy! Good to hear from you. Thank you. ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Ilssia says:

    Thank you very much for your very informative articles Danielle. I also liked receiving this entire article in my email.

  12. Thank you, Ilssia. I very much appreciate you letting me know that you like them and find them useful/informative.

    (Glad you are liking the new notification format. I don’t remember why we ever stopped doing that, but it seems to be a hit so I’m glad I decided to go back to full format. Thanks again for your input!)

  13. Kathrine says:

    I completely agree, and funny enough, came across this site as I was trying to think of another title. I’m not an assistant and each time I tried to type it while building my website for VA services, my heart kind of broke a bit each time. Plus, I’m mainly a freelance writer who offers social media and a few administration options, with a referral service in case I’m not able to provide a service. So what do I call myself? As it’s certainly not an ‘Assistant’ role…

  14. Thanks for sharing, and great question, Kathrine ๐Ÿ™‚

    You hit on another problem with the “VA” term. People use it as a generic catch-all term, which isn’t helpful whatsoever in business to clients or the service provider themselves. Specificity is needed to draw the clients who have need for the problem someone is in business to solve.

    And therein lies another problem: A lot of the people calling themselves “VAs” simply don’t know what business they’re in. It’s the online version of a junk sale. All they know is they want to work from home doing anything for anyone willing to pay them. They are looking at things through assistant goggles (back when they were in the work-force and paid to do whatever they were told) instead of business mindset.

    Those people don’t get very far or make very much money. If that’s all they want out it, that’s certainly okay. But, of course, those are not the people the ACA is for or who our message is for. We are geared for those who are specifically in the administrative support business, not the this-that-and-the-other business.

    I’m always telling people (in any business): Call yourself what you are. Of course, if someone doesn’t know what they are, that’s problem #1. The first order of business is clearly and specifically identifying what business you intend to be in.

    In your case, you know what you are. You’ve just identified it yourself. You are a writer. Which is awesome! And that’s what you should call yourself and what you should focus on.

    Don’t distract yourself with “a few administration options.” Waste of your time if that’s not really and truly what you want to be in business to do. And it will be confusing to the marketplace as well. There’s Upwork (or similar) for things like that.

    If the only reason you include “a few administration options” is because you think it will be a way to earn a few bucks in between writing gigs, I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t do that, but don’t include it on your website. You want your website and marketing to be focused and promote the ONE thing you are specifically and chiefly intend to be in the business of. Otherwise, all you do is weaken and dilute your message and confuse the marketplace. And it keep you that much farther from getting the writing clients you want.

    Does this help at all?

  15. Maria Chumas-Baker says:

    Hi Danielle,
    Fab article as so insightful to me as I am re-branding and working on my new website. I am in the UK and class myself as an Administrative Assistant as I always support my clients in addition to working for them on various tasks. It is difficult though to get this across to new clients as I have been a bilingual English/French V.A. since 2002 and have got stuck in my role when knowing full well that I support my clients, make suggestions to them and am there for them when they need advise. I am passionate about my clients and only have one client now that I have kept and have worked for since 2008. I parted company with two of my long standing clients as they really did not know how to work with me and it is so important to “get that right” I charge an hourly rate but I do not want to do this anymore and have bought your “how to price and package your support” course which has been so helpful. Thank you so much. You are correct when you talk about the “junk sale” aspect of having a V.A. business. W

  16. Thanks, Maria. So glad to hear it!

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