Virtual receptionists, also known as answering services, can improve your customer service while freeing up your staff to focus on more pressing tasks.
A virtual receptionist, also known as a live receptionist, does more than just answer calls. Virtual receptionist companies offer a variety of services that can improve your business's ability to manage incoming calls from customers, adding a layer of professionalism to your consumer-facing communications. If you're considering a virtual receptionist, you should be aware of the benefits one could extend to your business.
Is a virtual receptionist right for you? Here's what you should consider.
What is the role of a virtual receptionist?
A virtual receptionist serves the same role as an in-house receptionist, such as answering phone calls, taking messages and setting appointments. The difference is that a virtual receptionist is located at a call center facility or other remote location.
"These services allow small businesses to have a receptionist give personalized attention to small or variable call volumes without requiring the business to hire, train and manage a full-time employee, along with all the added expenses and burdens," said Jason Junge, CEO of PointerTop.
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How does a virtual receptionist work?
Outsourcing to a virtual receptionist allows a business to manage inbound calls in a professional way without requiring in-house staff to stop what they are doing to man the phone lines. Instead, a virtual receptionist will handle inbound calls based on the needs of your business.
"The virtual answering service will answer all of your calls for you," said Shayne Sherman, CEO of TechLoris. "You will work with the service to determine the script for the representatives to follow so that it's pertinent to your business. Important calls will be forwarded to you, and messages and prospects will be compiled and sent to you to distribute to your sales team."
For example, if you know certain types of calls can wait for a response, a live receptionist could be instructed to take down a message and send it along to the relevant parties to address at a later time. If you want certain types of calls to be forwarded to you immediately, a virtual receptionist can be instructed to patch them through. Some virtual receptionists can even answer common questions on your behalf, depending on the sophistication of the service you choose.
The best virtual receptionists are flexible and adaptable to your business needs. They should understand your business well enough to field incoming calls with the knowledge and professionalism to boost customer satisfaction. They should also be willing and able to pivot services as your business's needs change.
What is the average virtual receptionist pricing?
The precise cost of a virtual receptionist depends on the service you choose and its pricing model. These are the most common pricing models:
Per-minute rate: A per-minute rate is often based on your selection of services and call volume. You'll be charged the nominal rate based on your monthly call volume and how much time a virtual receptionist is connected with customers on your behalf.
Monthly subscription: Some answering services offer monthly subscriptions, which include a prepaid package of minutes to be used as needed. Generally, these minutes do not expire, though that depends on the terms of the agreement you sign with an individual service. Commonly, there are monthly minimums that specify how many minutes you must use to keep your account active.
- Pricing tiers: Other answering services offer tiered pricing, allowing you to prepay for only the services you need. If you just want a simple automated menu to direct customer calls to in-house staff, for example, you might choose a lower tier. More sophisticated services, such as a live agent who can respond to frequently asked questions, might be available at a more expensive tier.
Rates vary by the complexity of services and your business's expected call volume. Typical per-minute rates range from about 75 to 95 cents.
The answering service industry is known for including fees and behind-the-scenes upcharges, so you should thoroughly examine any agreement before signing. For example, some services charge for what is known as agent work time. This refers to time an agent is not actually on the phone but still performing work related to your account, and it can greatly inflate your monthly bill.
Another common upcharge is incremental billing, which is when companies round your minutes to the nearest increment. A standard increment is the nearest sixth second of a call, but some companies round up by as much as the nearest minute. Incremental billing can also significantly inflate your monthly bill, even though the nominal per-minute rate might seem inexpensive.
To avoid surprises on your bill, request a black-and-white breakdown of every fee and cost that you could incur during the life of your agreement with any answering service or virtual receptionist. A reputable company will be more than happy to provide you that information.
What features are most important in a virtual receptionist service?
The features available from a virtual receptionist depend on the individual answering service you partner with and your specific needs, but here are some of the most important features a virtual receptionist offers.
Auto attendant: Generally simpler and less expensive than a live virtual receptionist, auto attendants and interactive voice response (IVR) trees can direct callers to the right place the first time. An auto attendant reduces the burden on your internal resources to direct call after call, as well as improving customer satisfaction by helping them resolve their inquiries quickly and easily.
Live answering: Virtual receptionists can give your customers a real person to answer the phones on your behalf, adding a layer of professionalism and personal touch to your customer service. Live receptionist services allow you to customize the greeting agents use when answering calls and to determine how agents should handle each type of call you expect to receive.
Message taking: One of the most basic virtual receptionist services is taking messages, which involves recording caller information and the reason they are calling. Messages can then be passed to the relevant parties you've specified.
- Patching and call transfer: Virtual receptionists can patch calls directly to the relevant phone number, which you can specify in your agreement with the answering service. Transferring callers who need immediate assistance to your staff members streamlines the answering process and resolves customer inquiries more quickly.
- Appointment scheduling: Many virtual receptionists can integrate your preferred calendar application to schedule appointments on your behalf. You can specify times and locations at which your business is available for appointments, and the virtual receptionist will handle the rest, alerting you when new appointments are added to your calendar.
FAQs: Some virtual receptionists will maintain a list of answers to frequently asked questions about your business so they can help callers who just have common questions. If you provide this list to the answering service, it can reduce the call transfers or messages delivered to your in-house staff.
- Response time: It's important to understand how quickly your customers' calls will be answered. Some virtual receptionists guarantee a call will be answered before the third ring, for example. Make sure your customers won't be left waiting.
- Hours of availability: Many answering services offer 24/7 availability, which is important if you want to offer your customers a point of contact after business hours.
When choosing a virtual receptionist or answering service, small businesses should also ask about the organization's internal processes, including how it hires its staff, said Shawn Breyer, owner of Atlanta House Buyers.
"Make sure that the company you are vetting trains its employees initially and ongoing," he said. "Ask them to explain their training process in depth with examples. Most times, this individual that you are hiring is the front line for your company. They will be the first impression that your customers have of your company. Nailing this with well-trained individuals will set you up for success, while untrained people will lose you customers and money."
Also see how involved you can be in the evolution of how the agents answer the phones on your behalf. You should be able to be an active participant in the way they handle your account, Breyer added.
"It's easy to think that, since you are hiring out a virtual phone service, you can wash your hands of developing and training that role," he said. "If you want the money you spend on the virtual phone service to be an investment versus an expense, take responsibility, and spend time training and giving feedback to the person who is taking calls."
5 reasons to use a virtual receptionist
Virtual receptionists and answering services can be a huge benefit to your business when you select your partner carefully.
"The main thing you should look for when implementing a virtual answering service is, does it solve your current front-desk phone problems?" said James Harper, founder of AgencyFlare. "Where many small businesses fail is they don't truly look to see if the virtual answering service can be customized to their phone challenges and needs. You should only implement a service like this if it's solving a problem. It shouldn't create more work for your front desk."
If you're considering using a virtual receptionist for your business, here are five benefits an answering service should be able to offer you.
1. Free up internal resources
Many small business owners and their employees wear multiple hats, and manning the phone lines can take away from other important tasks. Outsourcing your calls to a virtual receptionist takes the burden of customer service off your in-house team and places the responsibility with an agent trained in boosting customer satisfaction.
2. Improve customer experience
A good virtual receptionist guarantees that your customers' calls will be answered promptly and handled with professionalism and care. Virtual receptionists are trained customer service professionals who understand the right way to represent your brand. The right answering service can have a positive impact on overall customer experience and, ideally, boost your retention rates.
3. Offer after-hours support
When your small business closes for the day or weekend, who is there to answer your phones? With a virtual receptionist, your callers will still feel as though they are being taken care of, and their messages will be available to you when you open your doors the next morning. If your virtual receptionist can answer common questions on your behalf, your callers might even have their issues resolved then and there. Expanding your customer service hours is yet another way to boost customer satisfaction.
4. Streamline appointment schedules
Setting appointments can be a tedious process, especially if multiple staff members are handling it in multiple systems. Passing off the task to a virtual receptionist unifies the appointment-setting process and keeps every stakeholder up to date with automatic notifications and shared calendars. Some virtual receptionists can even deliver appointment reminders to reduce no-shows and last-minute cancellations.
5. Appear more professional
Maintaining a receptionist gives an appearance of prestige to your business. When a receptionist answers the phone on your behalf, it signals to customers that your business is a formal organization with a refined workflow. In other words, a virtual receptionist can reinforce your brand as a professional business with great customer service.
A virtual receptionist streamlines customer service communications
There is a wide range of reasons you might want to hire virtual receptionists. At their simplest, they offer automated menus to properly direct your customers' calls. At the more sophisticated end, virtual receptionists answer customer questions and set appointments on behalf of your business. Ultimately, a virtual receptionist serves to streamline your customer service communications and bring an element of professionalism to your brand without costing as much as a full-time, in-house receptionist.
Virtual receptionists to consider
If you are looking for reputable virtual receptionist companies, you should certainly consider the following companies:
Best Pick for Virtual Receptionist
- Specialty Answering Services: Founded in 1985, Specialty Answering Service is a call center outsourcing firm that is based in Prussia, Pennsylvania. With a team of 30 employees and a national network of freelance customer support specialists, they provide customer support and non-voice business process outsourcing.
Additional virtual receptionists to consider
According to The Manifest, other top virtual receptionists include:
Nexa: Nexa is a virtual receptionist company that is based in Phoenix. They have a team of over 440 people and focus primarily on voice services.
Smith AI: Another virtual receptionist company is Smith AI, which is located in Palo Alto, California. Founded in 2015, Smith AI has a staff of over 100 employees. They specialize in website chat, live calls, and working with companies in industries such as law, finance, hospitality, e-commerce, healthcare, and real estate.
Ruby Receptionist: A voice services firm that is based in Portland, Oregon, Ruby Receptionists has a team of over 250 employees. They specialize in voice call support, conventional answering services and appointment management.
Back Office Betties: Founded in 2014, Back Office Betties is a virtual receptionist company that is based in Scottsdale, Arizona. They have 13 employees and specialize in providing receptionist work and voice services for small businesses and law firms.
Unity Communications: Founded in 2009, Unity Communications is a BPO company that is headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, and also has offices in offices in Global City, Philippines; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and San Jose, Costa Rica. They mostly provide non-BPO and back-office services; they also provide IT strategy consulting, cloud consulting, and SI.
Abby Connect Receptionists: A virtual receptionist firm that is stationed in Las Vegas, Abby Connect Receptionists employs a team of 40+ employees. They specialize in helping companies in finance, law and the business services industries.
- MoneyPenney: A communications outsourcing firm based in Charleston, South Carolina, MoneyPenny was founded in 2000. They have a team of 750 employees and offer a wide range of services such as switchboard, answering services and customer support.