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The Best Answering Services of 2020

By
Adam C. Uzialko
,
business.com writer
|
Dec 30, 2019
Image Credit: scyther5 / Getty Images
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Answering services are a specialized version of call center services, geared specifically toward small offices, unique businesses and niche industries. For example, many legal offices employ answering services, as do medical practices, both of which have stringent security requirements and particular regulatory compliance considerations. Answering services generally handle incoming calls, capturing customer information, taking messages, forwarding information to the relevant parties at your company, and taking customer orders. They offer 24/7 live answering, even if your business is closed during the hours a customer calls.

If you're looking for someone to manage the phone lines, but operate in an industry with special considerations, look no further than answering services. This guide will help you choose an answering service that's right for your business. We review some of the major companies in the industry and provide our recommendations of the best answering services.

Best Picks

Editor's note: Looking for the right answering service for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

Reviews

Below are our reviews of the best answering services for businesses.

Answering Service Costs

Answering services vary in their pricing models. They are often priced by the minute or through monthly subscriptions. Some employ long-term contracts, but this is uncommon. The model you should choose depends on your call volume, level of need and how long you intend to work with a given company. 

It's important for your answering service to understand your business, so agents will be trained with a specific script and given details about your company. Answering services are highly personalized, meaning it will take some time for agents to learn your business inside and out. Some answering services require a setup fee for this period, while others build it into their rates. 

Answering services may charge various other fees and upcharges. When you call for price quotes, ask about upfront fees (such as for setting up your account) as well as any recurring and incidental fees (such as overages or holiday rates) that you may be charged. Before selecting a service, you should read the company's contract to make sure you're aware of all possible fees.

Answering Service Features

Answering services offer many different features, but there are some core features that most include. While every service is different, you can certainly expect to come across each of these features in your research. Consider which are most important to you, which are nice to have and which won't be necessary before requesting proposals.

  • Live answering: Answering services are best known for live answering, which is when an agent picks up incoming calls on a client's behalf. Agents often act as if they are employees of the business they are answering for. The most basic services include a simple greeting and request for the caller's information, while more advanced services can handle asking questions and assisting customers.

  • Message taking: Commonly included in even the most basic services, this is when agents take down messages along with caller information and forward it to one or more points of contact you've provided for your business.

  • Call transfers: Many answering services will transfer calls to a client-provided point of contact when needed, whether the caller requests a transfer or the agent simply cannot assist the caller further.

  • Order taking: Some answering services help customers place e-commerce orders by walking them through your business's online store, capturing payment information and even sometimes processing the order completely. This service can reduce cart abandonment issues. Some agents will even try to upsell or cross-sell.

  • Appointment setting: Some answering services include appointment-setting functions through a shared calendar. When an agent sets an appointment with a caller, you'll be notified automatically via the calendar, email, text or all three.

  • Email and text notifications: Answering services rely on regular notifications to the client, oftentimes sent via email or text message. Some answering services also rely on web or phone notifications.

  • Live webchat: Some answering services will implement and manage a live chat channel on your website, which gives customers another way to interact with your business.

  • Client portal: Some answering services maintain client portals that include account information, the ability to run reports, and customization options such as scripting and adding features.

What to Expect in 2020

In 2020, automation will continue to change how customer service is performed. Experts predict that 85% of all customer service interactions will be automated in 2020, especially with the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) supporting automation of the simplest tasks.

However, it remains important to have an actual person who quickly responds to customer inquiries. While automation provides a great avenue for finding new efficiencies and reducing costs, failing to provide your customers with a human touchstone when needed is a surefire way to turn them off of your brand for good.

While many answering services offer automated interactive voice response trees (think "press 1 for sales, press 2 for technical support, etc."), do not overlook person-to-person customer service when it comes to boosting satisfaction and retaining loyal customers.

The upside of the automation boom is that human answering service agents will have more time to handle one-on-one customer service calls, increasing the quality of service they can deliver. As AI and automation continue to evolve in this industry, agents should have more time to provide attention to customers with complex inquiries or issues. The impact it will have on your brand is significant.

In 2020, the key consideration for companies that outsource customer service to an answering service should be how to effectively blend automation with human care to balance efficiency and quality service.

Frequently Asked Questions

When selecting an answering service, it's important to ask the right questions. There are quite a few industry policies that aren't immediately recognizable to outsiders. In some cases, these policies can significantly inflate the cost of an answering service, so it's critical to find out the details of a company's policies before making a purchase decision. These questions will help you identify an answering service that's worth your time.

Can I see a breakdown of the monthly price?

Answering services commonly charge fees for setup and additional services. When you're considering an answering service, it's important to obtain a proposal that includes a complete breakdown of the price, letting you see exactly what goes into the total bill. If possible, request a breakdown of a typical month's pricing as well, as the first month often includes deposits and setup fees.

Are there any contracts or monthly minimums?

Most answering services in our review are month-to-month subscriptions and easily canceled. Some, however, require a contract or monthly minimum. It's important to know upfront if there is a mandatory contract or period of notice you must give the company before backing out. In case there is a problem with the service, examine the proposal closely for cancellation terms.

What billing increments does this answering service use?

Billing increments should be a major consideration when reviewing answering services. The billing increment determines how much an answering service rounds up per-minute usage, and it can significantly impact the monthly cost of the service. Some answering services bill second by second, but the industry standard is to bill in six-second increments. This means a call lasting one minute and one second would actually be billed as a one-minute and six-second phone call, appearing on the bill as "1.1 minutes." Some services bill in 12-second increments, and the highest in our review rounds up to the nearest minute. Be sure you understand the billing increments before signing up with a service, because they can make a seemingly affordable service expensive in reality.

Does this answering service bill in a 28-day cycle?

Another common pitfall businesses run into with answering services is the 28-day cycle. When a service bills in a 28-day cycle, it means you have less time to use your minutes. Moreover, it adds a 13th billing period to the year, so you essentially end up paying for an extra month. Taken together with billing increments, 28-day billing cycles can end up elevating costs.

Can I access on-demand reports?

Many answering services offer client portals, which you can access to review your account usage, run reports, and update the script that agents use when answering the phone on your company's behalf. These portals are useful windows into how an answering service is managing your account, not to mention a nice tool to have if you'd like to update how they answer the phones on the fly. Most client portals include an on-demand reporting function that allows you to run detailed reports, granting you additional insights into who is calling and why. Finding out a portal's reporting capabilities could help you make a decision.

Our Methodology

Our process began with the development of an extensive list of vendors in the answering service and call center industry. We gathered these vendors from our existing database and by searching the web, reading reviews, and contacting active companies. Once we established our vendors list, we reviewed each company's website, compared prices and examined features.

From there, we narrowed our list down to about a dozen finalists, which we considered as best picks for several use cases. To determine our best picks, we contacted each service to learn more details about onboarding, services and pricing, and to obtain a proposal from the company. With the proposal in hand, we examined the policies of each company and determined whether there were any hidden fees or charges. We also evaluated the customer service of each company during this process.

For our overall best picks, the decision came down to which companies offer the best balance of affordability, useful features and effectiveness of agents.

Common Answering Service Questions & Answers

Have an answering service question of your own?
Ask an Expert

What's the best way to hire an appointment setter as well as the way to gain new b2b clients?

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Responses
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Focus, Focus, Focus. First remember that B2B clients like to hire specialist that know their industry and problems. You may be able to serve more than one market segment but tailor your pitch to only one at a time. Use a message that is specific to each narrow niche you are targeting. Appointment setters can be had by using Personal Assistant services either in the US or off shore. I use a telemarketing agency to qualify leads for me by calling Ornamental Metal Workshops (there are 6,000...

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Absolutely. Like most things in life, your success will depend on several factors. Having a firm, but a flexible process. Phone, email, etc... Knowing your prospects inside and out. In other words, do your homework. Have a clear, engaging, and consistent message. Time of day and week can depend on the verticals you are calling. I like early mornings and late in the day. Always get the next action. When speaking to a "gate-keeper", don't make it a sales call. For example, you want to schedule an...

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Basically, you need something that will text, email, and maybe even automated-call people. No shared calendar solution is going to do what you need. Everything I can think of would require your clients to have accounts inside their system, and that immediately disqualifies them. http://www.demandforce.com offers something like what you need, but I'm sure if you Google "customer appointment notification system" you'll come up with 10 possible vendors in a heartbeat. Or, call local dentists,...

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I have been using TimeTrade.com. It's an easy app that links to your Google calendar and allows clients to make their own appointments. You just set up the days/hours you want to allow the client to have access to. If your google calendar is already booked for that timeslot, the timetrade.com will show it as busy. It automatically sends a confirmation to the client and yourself; as well as the option for them to cancel or reschedule. You can try it out for free. And it's only $50 for the year....

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