- Businesses should consider hiring a call center when manning the phone lines takes resources away from key operations or maintaining an in-house call center is too expensive.
- Answering services are niche and industry specific, while call centers are general and capable of handling high call volumes.
- Pricing includes more than just the per-minute rate; beware of additional fees, incremental billing, agent work time and other considerations that could drive up costs.
Oftentimes, when running a business, there doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day. Small businesses, especially, require staff to wear many hats; certain tasks, such as answering the phones, can easily fall by the wayside. While manning the phone lines might seem like a distraction from more pressing operational requirements, good customer service is key to both retaining existing customers and securing new business. When you don't have enough people on hand to manage the phones, or when your call volume is spiking beyond your capabilities, a call center service could fill the gaps.
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Businesses of all sizes employ answering services and call centers to manage their phone lines in a variety of ways. Some companies work with call centers only if call volume increases momentarily, while others contract with them for regular, around-the-clock answering. A call service that can serve as a professional representative for your company at all times is essential if you want to maintain a high customer satisfaction rate. After all, customer support is a key consideration when people are choosing which businesses to buy from or work with.
Whether you need someone to capture overflow calls or to represent your brand, there are a few things you should know before hiring an outsourced call center.
What does a call center do?
Call centers, at their most basic, answer the phones on behalf of your business. When your business receives an incoming call at a phone number you've forwarded to a call center or answering service (or set up specifically for the call center,) an agent responds using either a script or set guidelines relevant to your business. A good call center agent is indistinguishable from in-house staff, making your customers feel as though they've reached your business directly. Core inbound call center services include message taking, call forwarding, answering frequently asked questions, and even order taking and processing.
Call centers are generally capable of more than just these basic inbound services. Many also offer email and social media monitoring and management, as well as live web chat services. Some include outbound services, which can help your business drum up new leads or reach out to existing ones. Regardless of the services you need, though, call centers should be transparent and communicative, ensuring you have access to all caller information so you can follow up as time allows.
There are also many bilingual call centers or multilingual call centers that can help businesses cater to multilingual clientele. The most common languages call centers support in the U.S. are English and Spanish, but many support a range of languages. In some cases, when multilingual service is unavailable, a call center might partner with a translation service.
Answering services vs. call center services
Answering services and call centers are similar in many ways, often offering several of the same services. However, they differ in important ways that make answering services more useful for certain businesses and call centers the go-to option for others.
Answering services can be conceived of as smaller, niche providers, often working in fields that have specialized needs. For example, attorneys' offices often require added security or a personalized touch when dealing with clients, and so a legal answering service could step in with particular expertise.
The healthcare industry also frequently employs medical answering services, which come with significant experience in communicating with patients and appointment setting, not to mention healthcare-specific regulatory considerations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Answering services' focus on specific industries and markets means they can generally operate to a greater extent independently from the business. Instead of just answering phones and taking messages (which answering services certainly do), businesses can partner with answering services in situations where more complex decision-making is required. This focus on specific market segments tends to differentiate answering services from call centers.
Call centers, on the other hand, tend to be more general in their approach and often have the capacity for managing larger call volumes. Call centers are also more likely than answering services to provide outbound services, such as lead qualification and remarketing campaigns. Some call centers engage in cold calling and lead generation services, though these are somewhat rare to find.
Across the industry, many call centers have rebranded themselves as a contact center or "business process outsourcing" (BPO) company to more accurately depict the scope of their service offerings. As more businesses have taken a digital, omnichannel approach to marketing and customer services, call centers have expanded to include new channels, including email, social media, live chat on websites and even SMS text messaging.
How much does a call center charge?
Generally, in the call center industry, rates are based on the amount of time an agent spends handling your account. Most call centers charge per minute, sometimes associating your rate with a monthly minimum requirement. Some offer "pay as you go" plans for businesses with a small call volume or that only need infrequent coverage.
The rates an answering service or call center charges vary greatly from company to company. Generally, rates depend on several factors, including the services requested by the client, the expected call volume to be outsourced, the incremental billing policies of the call center, the time an agent works on your account, and any fees or additional costs charged by the call center.
- Services requested: Some call centers offer a vast menu of services to choose from. The choices you make could ultimately affect the rates you pay. For example, basic inbound services like message taking and order processing are likely to cost less than outbound services, which require dedicated agents that often make an hourly rate. Select the services you need to help keep costs down. Always compare estimated monthly costs with a projection of what in-house staff would cost you to perform the same tasks.
- Call volume: Call volume is a key variable that will affect the overall cost you pay when partnering with a call center service. The higher your call volume, the more you will pay.
- Incremental billing: One of the biggest "gotchas" in the call center industry involves incremental billing, which refers to the way call centers round up call times. Most call centers bill in six-second increments, meaning they round up to the nearest one-tenth of a minute. Some call centers round up more than this – sometimes as high as the nearest minute – while the best call centers don't round up at all, instead billing only for the real time agents spent on the phone.
- Fees and additional costs: Many call center services charge additional fees, such as account setup fees or holiday and overage fees. Some offer additional services for added costs. For example, many call centers will set up an interactive voice response (IVR) tree (think "Press 1 for sales, press 2 for customer services," etc.) at a separate rate from inbound calling services.
- Agent work time: In the call center industry "agent work time" refers to the time an agent spends working on your account, whether they are on the phone or not. Some call centers do not charge for agent work time, instead only charging you for the time an agent is actually on the phone.
To avoid any surprises, request a breakdown of all pricing from any company you are considering before signing up for their services. Ask the representative to include any setup fees, monthly minimum fees and additional costs in the proposal they send.
If you are unable to obtain or decipher an itemized list of costs, that's a red flag the call center isn't dealing with you in good faith. A business's relationship with its call center must be based first and foremost upon trust; if you cannot establish trust in the discovery phase of your buying process, then it's best to look elsewhere.
What companies need a call center?
Any company in need of a customer service representative but without the internal resources to dedicate to the role can hire a call center. This includes both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) companies, despite their very different customer service needs. If you are leaving inbound calls unanswered, it could be an indication that you need to partner with a remote call center to bolster your customer support resources.
However, even if you have your phone lines covered internally, a contact center can still offer key support in other areas. A contact center can manage your email and social media channels, for instance. You could also work with a contact center to set up a live chat on your website, a channel that many customers are increasingly looking toward as a first point of contact. Finally, if you want someone to comb through your existing database of leads and ensure the information is up to date and accurate, a contact center could be your best bet for getting it done quickly and cost-effectively without diverting in-house staff.
Answering services are best suited for certain companies, generally those that operate in niche market segments or require more advanced work on the part of the agents. These companies can include those operating in the following industries:
- Information Technology
- Real Estate
Of course, answering services are not limited to the above industries. If you feel your business has specific needs or you want a more flexible agent picking up the phones on your behalf, consider an answering service instead of a call center.
Are there call centers for startups?
Many call centers offer services that startups might find valuable. In addition to their core competencies, which helps take the burden of customer service off a startup's limited staff, they support internal operations, such as recruiting and making hiring decisions. For example, a call center can formulate interview questions and even administer pre-employment tests for job candidates; this is especially important when you're hiring employees with seed capital and trying to get a new company off the ground.
A call center with robust outbound sales services could also benefit a startup by generating early revenue. While finding a call center that offers lead generation services, such as cold calling, isn't always easy, there are call centers out there that offer these outbound services.
The many reasons to hire a call center
Whether you need assistance answering incoming calls, help managing omnichannel communications or a boost to your marketing efforts, there are many good reasons for a small to midsize business to partner with a call center. However, take your time and do your research into each company you are considering. There are a lot of call centers out there, but some charge exorbitant rates and pile on the hidden fees, driving up your costs to an untenable level. Others might charge low rates but provide poor service, which could reflect poorly on your brand, harm customer satisfaction and ultimately lose you business.
When choosing a call center, the first consideration should always be trust. A trusted partner is key, because the call center you choose will represent your brand directly to your customers. Only sign up with a call center when they have demonstrated to you that they are transparent, considerate and honest. Anything short could leave your business picking up the pieces.
Although it is important to proceed with caution and do your due diligence, there are many excellent answering services and call centers out there. Most are capable of scaling with your company as well, so once you find a partner that works for you, it's easy to maintain the partnership, even as your company grows. A good call center service will be instrumental to the growth of your business and, as such, will be invaluable to keep by your side as your business finds success.
Pros and Cons of hiring a call center
While you are researching call center prospects, it can help to consider the general pros and cons of using a call center at all.
- Cost Efficiency. Outsourcing your calls to a call center puts the onus of cost efficiency on the contractor. You don't have to train or staff the call center. Additionally, the call center can have multiple contracts, splitting the operation costs between you and their other clients.
- Infrastructure. Call centers require specific infrastructure investments in order to operate. Your contractor already has that infrastructure in place. They can handle your volume and reliably scale with it.
- Consistency. An established call center can often guarantee nearly 100% uptime (although its operating hours won't necessarily be 24/7). It can take time before you can match that level of consistency if you keep everything in house. Outsourcing provides that consistency immediately.
- Customer satisfaction. Contracting with a call center creates a new layer between customers and your business. No matter how good the call center is, they may not be able to resolve customer issues to the degree that you can. This can negatively impact customer satisfaction.
- Security. When you outsource calls to a service, they will likely process customer information and other sensitive data. Outsourcing may mitigate risk overall, but it is imperative that you talk with the call center about the security measures they have in place.
Our best picks offer a closer look at some of the best call center services out there, along with detailed reviews of each company.