08 November

What's in a Name: Should You Call Yourself a Virtual Assistant?

When I began writing this post, I thought of a quote from Shakespeare:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)


We often paraphrase this to mean that the name of something doesn’t affect what it is. But is that always true? Have you ever wondered whether a title by any other name would perform better for you when marketing your Virtual Assistant business? It’s an interesting question.

How Important is Your Title?

Is it sufficient for people to know that you’re a Virtual Assistant, Online Professional or Freelancer, OR is it MOST important that they know the skills you possess? Are you defined by your title or by WHAT YOU DO in this market?

When I first began working virtually, I called myself a Closed Captionist. I learned transcription through a court reporting program at a college. Some people taking the course would become court reporters, and others would become closed captionists. But it was the same skill – transcription.

When I told people my job title, they’d ask me what a closed captionist was. I’d say, “I provide closed captioning for television shows.” My answer was still a bit confusing, so they’d reply, “Oh, you’re the person who does sign language on TV while someone’s talking?” And then I’d explain that, no, I transcribed all the dialogue and sound effects that were displayed on the screen as text.

Looking back, I wonder if it would have been just as correct to call myself a “transcriptionist.” I loved my work and was very proud to be a Closed Captionist, but when I moved on to other contract work, I discovered that the transcription skill itself was marketable. Audio-to-text transcription could translate into many other business opportunities:

– Court Reporting
– Virtual Event transcription
– Podcast transcription
– Oral storytelling transcribed into book form

In this way, being identified by the skill led to more mobility and a greater variety of tasks.

Virtual Assistant Definitions

Many of us reading this post would call ourselves Virtual Assistants. Tawnya Sutherland provides a good definition of this title on her site VAnetworking.com

“A Virtual Assistant (VA) is a highly-skilled, independent professional who remotely provides administrative, technical and/or creative business support services.”

These screenshots from a Pinterest board provide some other great definitions from the client’s point of view:

If that’s what clients think of VAs, it might be good to give yourself that title. As always, the key is to know your target audience. When you say you’re a VA, do potential clients seem puzzled, or do they greet you warmly and imagine the great load you’ll be taking off their plate? Do they offer you tasks that interest you and that you’re skilled in?

Let’s think about this again… Is it important for people to know you’re a “Virtual Assistant,” or is it most important that potential clients know the skills you possess? Are you defined by your title or by what you do in this market?

Arguments for Calling Yourself More than Just a Virtual Assistant

Susan Mershon has written an interesting article called “Virtual Assistant is NOT a Title,”  where she stresses that the term Virtual Assistant is an industry, not a title. She says people either “don’t know what one is” or “think you’re an administrative assistant.” In this case, she advises, “It’s not about your title… it’s about what you do for your clients.”

She recommends using a title related to the services you offer, like “Email Marketing Manager,” “Social Media Specialist,” and others.

In another article called “Virtual Assistant, Such a Deceptive Phrase,” Stephanie Watson-Barry of Barry Publishing stresses that Virtual Assistant is an important search term because people still use it when they’re looking for help. However, she gives the following advice:

“The point is to use terms that help your audience find you and then define your niche in a way that best describes what it is you really do.

“Therefore, I believe virtual service providers or virtual assistants should call themselves what they believe will work to attract their ideal clients. Without worrying about the term other than as a search term. I plan, organize, and create effective content strategies. Therefore, I call myself a Content Strategist, but I also consider myself a VA due to how I perform my duties.”

The common thread here is highlighting your skills. Using a title related to your services is in essence communicating your area of expertise.

Finding a Middle Ground

But what if you do want to call yourself as a Virtual Assistant, Online Professional or Freelancer based on your target audience and your business preferences?

Including the term Virtual Assistant in your title, for example, keeps you connected to the greater Virtual Assistant community within the industry, so you can identify with like-minded business owners who share common goals and concerns.

I like to use the word “freelance” in my title mainly because I want clients to know I won’t be coming into an office – i.e., I’ve sworn off the 9-5, and I’ll be working where the coffee flows freely and the business attire might be pajamas! ☺ “Freelance” is probably my favorite way of describing my work because it gives a feeling of freedom – freedom of location, freedom of time. I include the terms “writer and editor” or “content manager” because I want people to know what my skills are, and that I won’t be offering bookkeeping or accounting services. If I were to say that I was merely a “freelancer,” people would probably ask me, “What kind of freelancer are you?”

So another idea is to give yourself a title that includes both your skills and the industry. You could call yourself a Social Media VA, a Project Management VA, or a Freelance Content Manager. The list goes on…

Some Thoughts to Consider

How generalized or specialized do you want to be? Are you a Virtual Assistant willing to do any tasks required by businesses, or do you prefer to provide services for a business if they fit within your skill set?

What you call yourself may determine what kind of clients you’ll attract – those who know what they need and will hire you for your skills, or those who want to play it by ear and hire you to do whatever, whenever, no matter what type of skills are involved. Many articles have been written about the benefits or drawbacks of specializing, and whether it’s better to be a generalist or a specialist. When it comes right down to it, I feel it’s a personal decision for your business.

If you’d like to specialize, do you want to eliminate a certain scope of tasks and embrace a certain scope of tasks? As mentioned above, I do anything I can to avoid accounting and bookkeeping services, and I wax poetic about my love for content – writing content, editing content, researching content, etc.

I avoid just calling myself an editor, because then I might never be asked to write. And I avoid just calling myself a writer because I also enjoy editing. And if I want to broaden it further to include other tasks I do such as researching content, managing content, and repurposing content, I can also call myself a “Content Developer” or “Content Manager.”

It’s always possible there’ll be some clients who want general Virtual Assistance and will pass you over if you’re too specialized, and there are some clients who may pass you over if you’re not specialized enough. The choice is yours to determine whether you’d like to provide generalized services or specialized skills.

So, what’s in a name? Is your business title important, or the skills you possess? I think it boils down to client opportunities and job satisfaction. If your target clients are able to find you, and you’re offered fulfilling tasks from your chosen niche, you’re communicating your business services well.

Going back to that scene I was talking about from Shakespeare’s play, Juliet was mourning the fact that Romeo’s name prevented her from being able to marry him freely. He was a Montague, she was a Capulet, and their families were rivals.

If you find your title is preventing you from connecting with your ideal clients, do some brainstorming and create a new one. If you need to, you can shed your business title much easier than Romeo could shed his surname.

Now we’d love to hear from you! This is a challenging topic with many viewpoints. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name: Should You Call Yourself a Virtual Assistant?

  1. Elaine Brennan

    Great article, Craig. This has been an ongoing debate for years and we don’t seem to be any closer to resolving it. I find it’s easier for me to say I provide online product and service launches as well as OBM (I don’t use the acronym) services for business and career coaches. It’s my way of saying that I work from home and I’m my own boss while letting them know what services I offer.

  2. Tammie

    Since I have gotten started as a virtual assistant, I have been giving this question a lot of thought. When I meet people and potential clients, I start out saying what my services are, then I tell them my company name and last, I say that I offer virtual services online or breaking it down further that I am a virtual assistant. I haven’t had to really explain what a virtual assistant is because of the way I go into it I guess. For me, it’s more about my services and skills. I could be in a 9-5, still have the same skills and still have to explain to [certain] people what my title is and does. But my skills should speak for themselves and for me.

    I don’t have my skills in my name even though I am specializing but at the same time, I am also offering general services. I see no reason to walk away completely from the general services since those skills are what got me started in the first place. Plus, in my opinion, I want to keep my general skills sharpened.

    “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2) [That is one of my favorite poems] In my off way of thinking, your skills as well as your name says a lot about you the person and you the company and what you can do. My skills are just as much as my name is my name.

    For me, I don’t feel that I need to put “Virtual Assistant” in my title. My skills do and will speak for themselves. Which ever way my title is listed, clients will either need me or not, clients and I will either fit together or not and clients will either stay with me or not. Skills are more important in my opinion. If you build your brand, your skills/services, and your marketing, THEY WILL COME.


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