The Best Answering Services of 2020

By
Adam Uzialko
,
business.com staff
| Updated
Jul 28, 2020

Our teams have compared the best answering services for 2020. See up-to-date reviews and prices for these top-rated services.
Featured Sponsor
Suitable for business of all sizes
Live operator answering
Message and order taking offered
Best Overall
Eight pricing plans
Second-to-second billing
14-day free trial
Best for Small Business
Six pricing plans
6-second incremental billing
14-day free trial
Best for Budget
16 pricing plans
Second-to-second billing
Optional add-ons
Best Customizable
Six pricing plans
No setup fee
Free trial and instant activation
Our teams have compared the best answering services for 2020. See up-to-date reviews and prices for these top-rated services.
Updated 07/28/20

We've updated our review to include more answers to frequently asked questions about answering services.

Finding an answering service that can treat incoming calls from your customers with respect and professionalism is of the utmost importance. After all, an answering service is an extension of your company – it represents your brand, and customers will glean a lot about your company from their interactions with the service. We researched and examined more than 50 services, and considered a number of factors, including cost, the types of features offered and the customer service provided by the service.

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How We Decided
Our team spends weeks evaluating dozens of business solutions to identify the best options. To stay current, our research is regularly updated.
53
Considered
12
Researched
4
Selected

Compare Our Best Picks

  Specialty Answering Service PATLive PCMSI BPO American
Pricing Starts at $31 per month Starts at $39 per month Starts at $67 per month Starts at $29 per month
Billing increment

Second-to-second

6-second increments Second-to-second Second-to-second
Free Trial 14-day free trial 14-day free trial No Three-day trial and instant activation
Charged for agent work time No No No  Yes

Our Reviews

XACT: Featured Sponsor

XACT offers a variety of answering and call center services that can service businesses of all sizes in all industries. Multiple pricing plans are available, and businesses can use either shared or dedicated agents. Among the inbound and outbound call center services businesses can choose from include those for customer service, help desks, appointment scheduling, hotlines, email management and web chat. Live agent answering, message taking, order taking, and appointment scheduling are among XACT’s available answering services.

XACT is a flexible answering service and call center with a variety of plans and services suitable for businesses of all sizes and growth stages. It is moderately priced, and includes both shared and dedicated agents. The company has 22 locations across the U.S.

Pricing

XACT offers both shared agents (XACTreps who work on your account and other XACTclient accounts), as well as dedicated agents, who work solely for your company. Dedicated agents cost more, but they perform more advanced services and go off-script. Shared agents are suitable for companies that have more basic needs and lower call volumes.

The rate for shared agents starts at 89 cents per minute for monthly plans ranging from 2,500 minutes to 10,000 minutes. For plans ranging from 10,001 minutes to 25,000 minutes, shared agents cost 85 cents per minute. These costs are higher compared to the fees charged by other call center services we evaluated, but they are not excessively high.

However, XACT bills in 12-second increments, which means it rounds usage up to the nearest 12-second mark. For example, a call lasting 1 minute and 1 second will be recorded as a 1-minute and 12-second call, or 1.2 minutes. This is a common practice in the call center and answering service industry. The average incremental billing time we noted with the services we evaluated was 6 seconds. Some companies do not charge in increments, while others charge much higher increments.

Monthly fees for two to 10 dedicated agents equal $26.95 per agent, per hour, while teams of 11 to 25 are priced at $25.95 per agent, per hour. If you require 26 or more dedicated agents, XACT can provide you with a price quote.

Besides agent fees, XACT charges setup and programming fees at a rate of $75 per hour for call center services. Setup commonly takes about 10 hours, for a total of $750, which was comparable with the other services we reviewed.

Agent training is $22 per hour, which could ultimately cost $1,000, according to a company representative we spoke with. This makes upfront expenses to launch a program with Xact Telesolutions higher than average among the call centers we reviewed.

Call Center Service Features

When answering services aren't enough to meet a client's needs, XACT offers inbound and outbound call center services. These services take on more of a client's communication needs, including follow-up over email and web channels.

Here's a look at some of XACT's call center services:

  • Customer service: Beyond simple live answering, XACT agents can act as an outsourced customer service department. Customer care involves answering frequently asked questions, fielding complaints and feedback, and ensuring customer satisfaction.

  • Help desk: XACT offers basic help desk services, extending Level 1 tech support to troubleshoot products and software with consumers. If Xact agents can't help, they forward the caller directly to the appropriate person in your company.

  • Appointment reminders: You can use XACT for outbound services, such as appointment reminders.

  • Hotlines: XACT agents can manage various hotlines for your business, including emergency hotlines and employee call-out hotlines.

  • Locate a dealer: XACT agents can coordinate with your business's consumers to find local vendors and connect consumers to those vendor partners.

  • Email management: XACT agents can engage in a multichannel approach that goes beyond helping you manage your business's call volume. Xact's agents can take the burden of sifting through a full email inbox so you can focus on other aspects of running your business.

  • Webchat: Live web chat can be implemented on your homepage and is manned by a live XACT agent around the clock.

Answering Service Features

XACT offers some, though not all, of the services, we sought out in an answering service.

For all of our answering service recommendations, visit our best picks page.

Here's more about XACT offers:

  • Live operator answering: XACT agents are available 24/7/365 for round-the-clock service. They can answer calls during regular business hours, after hours and assist with overflow calls. Agents rely on a script developed by you and Xact to stay on message, and handle each call in a personalized, professional manner.

  • Message taking: Agents take down callers' names, contact information, their reason for calling and forward the message to you by phone, email, or text message.

  • Order taking: Agents walk customers through e-commerce transactions, explain your business's products and services, and answer questions. They can also accept payments, verify the accuracy of payment information, in addition to upselling or cross-selling other products or services offered by your business.

  • Appointment setting: XACT agents can set new appointments (using your company's calendar) and notify you when a new appointment has been added.

XACT answering services are available for any business, but the company has experience servicing businesses in the financial services, property management, healthcare, hospitality and tourism, and e-commerce industries.

Limitations

XACT's biggest limitation is the upfront cost of its call center service, primarily due to the cost of agent training. At nearly $2,000 for setup, programming and training, the initial investment can be quite steep. However, the agent training fee goes to ensure agents are fully trained on your brand messaging and company details, which is key if you have a complex business model. Ultimately, if you have the budget, the training could be worth the cost.

A second concern with XACT is its 12-second incremental billing policy. While it is not the highest rate, it could significantly inflate usage. Most of the services we evaluated had a 6-second incremental billing rate, while a few did not employ incremental billing at all.

Customer Service

Our customer service experience with XACT was satisfactory. With our initial call, the representative we spoke with asked a lot of questions about our hypothetical business to learn more about the scope of service. She was forthcoming about XACT's services, which helped us understand the onboarding process and the typical dynamic between XACT and its clients. However, we did not initially receive the follow-up proposal we requested after the call.

Specialty Answering Service: Best Overall

SAS' flexible pricing plans include ancillary services like appointment setting and bilingual support.
As a client of SAS, you are only billed for the time agents spend on the phone with your customers.
There is a one-time $50 setup fee that must be paid prior to activation.

Specialty Answering Service (SAS) is our pick as the best overall answering service. It offers inbound and outbound call center services and several flexible pricing plans, making it a scalable service that can accommodate the needs of your growing company. All calls are answered in the company's California-based contact center.

SAS provides around-the-clock live operator answering and advanced functions like appointment scheduling. Bilingual support is also available.

Here's more about the key features SAS offers businesses:

  • Live answering: SAS' operators answer your business's phone calls 24/7/365. Agents use a client-provided script, which you can customize at any time.

  • Message taking: Agents can take down caller names, their contact info, reason for calling, and then forward the message to your business via phone, text, or email.

  • Order taking: If your business needs some extra help facilitating orders, SAS' agents can assist your customers with e-commerce purchases. Agents can enter and confirm payment information, and can upsell and cross-sell products to your business's customers.

  • Lead capture: For inbound calls, agents can capture lead information and details about where the caller is in the buying journey, which can help your business follow up on potential new sales opportunities.

  • Appointment scheduling: If your business needs help scheduling appointments, SAS agents can set new appointments, which appear in a shared calendar. Each time a new appointment is scheduled, you are notified. All appointments can be viewed in real time on the shared calendar.

  • Bilingual support: SAS agents can assist English and Spanish-speaking callers.

SAS has eight pricing plans designed to suit the budgets of small and large businesses. Its rates are competitive for its high-volume packages and somewhat more expensive for its lower-volume plans (but are not cost prohibitive). It offers a pay-as-you-go plan for low-volume businesses. A 14-day, no-obligation free trial is available for businesses to try before making a buying decision.

SAS' pricing plans are as follows:

  • Plan A: $31 per month base fee, plus $1.19 per minute

  • Plan B: $117 per month for 100 minutes, plus a $1.09 per-minute overage

  • Plan C: $199 per month for 220 minutes, plus a $1.09 per-minute overage

  • Plan D: $490 per month for 500 minutes, in addition to a 99 cents-per-minute overage

  • Plan E: $925 for 1,000 minutes, plus a 95 cents-per-minute overage

  • Plan F: $2,200 for 2,500 minutes, plus an 89 cents-per-minute overage

  • Plan G: $4,199 for 5,000 minutes, in addition to a 85 cents-per-minute overage

  • Plan H: $7,749 for 10,000 minutes, plus a 79 cents-per-minute overage

Service is month-to-month. (No long-term contracts are required.) Clients can change plans on a monthly basis if they expect a spike or dip in call volume. There is a $50 setup fee; however, SAS typically waives the fee if you become a client following the 14-day free trial.

SAS bills in 1-second increments, meaning that clients are only charged for the time that is used. Many call centers and answering services round up to 6-or 12-second increments, and some round up further. SAS does not round up time and only bills for the time that its agents are engaged with callers.

PATLive: Best for Small Business

PATLive has a 14-day, no-obligation free trial
You're billed only for the time that PATLive agents are connected on your behalf.
The per-minute usage rates are relatively expensive.

PATLive is our pick as the best answering service for small businesses. The company, based in Tallahassee, Florida, works with clients to tailor its services to meet their unique needs. PATLive has a client portal on its website through which customers can view their billing details and call volume.

PATLive offers all the key features we look for in an answering service, plus, as a client, you have the ability (and flexibility) to customize your script through the client portal.

Here's more about PATLive's features:

  • Live answering: PATLive agents are available to answer phone calls on clients' behalf around the clock or during your company's regular business hours, using a custom script provided by the client.

  • Message taking: PATLive agents can take messages for clients when follow-up is required. Messages can be forwarded to you via email or text notifications.

  • Order processing: PATLive agents can provide full order processing duties, including verifying a customer's order, validating the payment method and confirming payment info with your customers.

  • Lead capture: PATLive agents can capture caller names, their contact info, and more, which you can then use to import into your CRM or to create marketing lists.

  • Client portal: The online client portal displays data about your account, such as the number of incoming calls, average call duration and the result of each call. Clients can also change their preferred payment method and customize the script that agents use when answering calls for your business.

PATLive offers a full-featured, 14-day free trial. Clients aren't charged extra for transfer time or agent work time; rather, clients are billed only for the time that PATLive agents are on the phone and engaged with callers. Features and services vary based on the subscription plan you choose. PATLive's pricing plans are as follows:

  • Basic: This plan costs $39 per month plus a rate of $1.95 per minute for one phone number.

  • Starter: This plan costs $149 per month and includes 75 minutes. Starter plan features include one phone number, 24/7 live answering, real-time call summaries, online reporting, message taking, lead collection and call transfers. Overage fees are $1.50 per minute.

  • Standard: This option costs $269 per month and includes 200 minutes. The Standard plan includes all the features the Starter plan has, plus three phone numbers, appointment scheduling, order processing and event registrations, to name a few features. Overage fees are $1.25 per minute.

  • Premium: This plan costs $399 per month and includes 350 minutes. It comes with all the features included in the Standard plan, plus five phone numbers. Overage fees are $1.10 per minute.

  • Pro: PATLive charges $629 per month; this plan comes with 600 minutes and includes all the features found in the Premium plan, plus 10 phone numbers, a dedicated account manager, specialized agent training and monthly performance calls. Overage fees are $1.00 per minute.

  • Pro+: The Pro+ plan is $999 per month and includes 1,000 minutes. This plan offers all the features from the Pro subscription plan, plus 15 phone numbers. Overage fees are 95 cents per minute.

You can see PATLive's pricing in detail here. Its per-minute usage rates were among the highest of the answering services we evaluated, ranging from nearly $1 per minute (with its plan that offers the highest number of live answer minutes) to nearly $2 per minute for its plan with the lowest number of minutes. The average cost we ascertained, based on the answering services we evaluated, ranged from approximately 80 cents per minute to $1 per minute. All of PATLive plans are billed month-to-month, and there is no penalty for canceling.

PATLive bills only for the time its agents spend talking on the phone with your customers. It does not charge for post-call work. After the first minute of each call, PATLive bills in 6-second increments. So, for example, a 1-minute and 6-second call would appear on your bill as "1.1 minutes." Billing in 6-second increments is a common practice in the industry; several other services we evaluated bill in this manner, too.

PCMSI: Best for Budget

PCMSI's flexible pricing is suitable for businesses of all sizes and with varying call volumes.
Some of its plans had the lowest per-minute rates of the services we evaluated.
Some of the optional add-ons available for an extra fee come standard with other services.

PCMSI is our pick as the best low-cost answering service because of its low-volume plans and incredibly low per-minute rates. With several tiered plans that range from 60 minutes to 4,000 minutes per month and rates as low as 55 cents per minute, PCMSI is an exceptionally cost-effective solution. PCMSI agents handle all calls through the company's office in Erie, Pennsylvania.

The company offers several types of services for businesses, including:

  • Live answering: PCMSI agents are available 24/7/365 to answer phones on clients' behalf, using a script developed by the client in cooperation with the PCMSI account manager. If you need to make a change to the script agents use, you'll work with your PCMSI account manager to implement those changes.

  • Call transfers: Agents can transfer calls directly to you or to specified staff members, connecting customers directly with you without placing them on hold.

  • Appointment scheduling: PCMSI agents can schedule appointments that can be viewed in real time by those who have access to the master calendar. When new appointments are set, you and your staff are notified via email or text message.

  • Order taking: Agents can take orders from your customers and provide detailed product information and customer service.

  • Lead capture: With each call, agents capture the names and contact information of leads for later use. Agents can also follow up on captured leads.

  • Help desk: PCMSI offers a Level 1 help desk service that offers basic technical support for products and software. If an issue requires technical assistance, PCMSI agents can dispatch calls directly to your company's IT departments.

PCMSI offers four service tiers. Its Business and Enterprise plans offer some of the lowest rates among the answering services we evaluated. The Enterprise plan of 4,000 minutes per month has a rate of just over 55 cents per minute, and the midtier plan is an affordable option for businesses on a budget. Overage fees for each plan are 75 cents per minute, which was on the low end compared to other answering services we evaluated.

Starter Plans:

  • $67 per month, which includes 60 minutes
  • $99 per month, which comes with 120 minutes
  • $154 per month, which includes 240 minutes
  • $219 per month, which includes 360 minutes

Professional Plans:

  • $285 per month, which includes 480 minutes
  • $355 per month, which includes 600 minutes
  • $425 per month, which includes 720 minutes
  • $515 per month, which comes with 900 minutes

Business Plans:

  • $570 per month, which covers 1,020 minutes
  • $700 per month, which includes 1,260 minutes
  • $825 per month, which includes 1,500 minutes
  • $1,100 per month, which includes 2,000 minutes

Enterprise Plans:

  • $1,375 per month, which includes 2,500 minutes
  • $1,650 per month, which covers 3,000 minutes
  • $1,925 per month, which comes with 3,500 minutes
  • $2,200 per month, which includes 4,000 minutes

Add-ons:

There is an additional fee if you want the following services:

  • Pre-operator announcement: $10 per month

  • Voicemail: $20 per month

  • Patching: 10 cents per minute

  • Appointment setting: $40 per month for a PCMSI online calendar

  • Additional phone lines: $10 per month, per number

  • Secure text message: $6 per month (HIPAA-compliant accounts)

  • Faxing messages: $10 per month

  • Email management: 75 cents per email

PCMSI bills in 1-second increments, which means there is no rounding up in terms of minutes used. If a call lasts for 1 minute and 5 seconds, you are billed for 65 seconds. The industry standard is to bill in 6-second increments. PCMSI stands out in this regard. It also does not charge for post-call work time, meaning that you only pay for the time agents are on the phone with callers.

There is a one-time setup fee of $35, which was low compared to the setup fees charged by other answering services we assessed. You'll need to remit a deposit for the first and last month of service. After that, you are billed each month for your plan and any overage fees incurred. All calls are recorded and stored.

BPO American: Best Customizable

You can immediately begin using this answering service with BPO America's instant activation option.
You are not charged a setup fee.
Features such as live web chat are not included in the monthly subscription.

BPO American is our pick as the best customizable answering service. It offers both answering services and call center services. (The primary difference between both types of services is that answering services are a specialized version of call center services, geared specifically toward small offices, unique businesses and niche industries.) BPO American has six different pricing plans for various call volumes and can develop custom packages for clients with specific needs.

BPO American offers an easy-to-use instant activation service, with an online tool that automatically builds a script based on your responses to a few questions. You can immediately get up and running with the instant activation option, which allows for basic answering services. You can add other common services like appointment setting, live web chat and order taking. All calls are answered by BPO American agents in the company's South Carolina-based call center. It offers a three-day, full-featured free trial following instant activation.

  • Live answering: BPO American offers 24/7/365 live answering by agents who work off scripts generated based on details you provide. Agents can answer basic questions, capture caller information, transfer calls and take messages for your business.

  • Order taking: BPO American agents can help callers navigate e-commerce platforms and create new orders.

  • Transfers: Live transfers can be set up so that agents can directly transfer a call to the relevant party if a caller needs to speak to a member of your organization.

  • Lead capture: BPO American allows you to set five custom questions its agents can ask callers in order to obtain lead information. You can always change these questions (and other details) in the client portal.

  • Appointment setting: You can add appointment setting to your answering services so agents can automatically schedule appointments on a digital calendar and alert you when a new appointment has been set.

  • Email response: BPO American offers email management services and can respond to email inquiries as well as phone calls.

  • Web chat: BPO American can implement a live chat feature on your company website so customers can ask questions and receive a timely response.

BPO American has six service plans, starting at $29 per month and topping out at $369 per month. There is no setup fee, and all plans run month-to-month with no penalty for canceling.

Here's more about the price structure of BPO American's answering service plans:

  • Plan A: This plan costs $29 per month and includes 25 minutes with text message delivery, email delivery, transfers. The overage rate is $1.09 per minute.

  • Plan B: For $89 per month, you get 75 minutes and all the features of Plan A, plus online reporting. The overage rate is 95 cents per minute.

  • Plan C: This package costs $109 per month and comes with 100 minutes. It includes all the features in Plan B; the overage rate is 90 cents per minute.

  • Plan D: For $139 per month, you get 125 minutes and all the features of Plan C. The overage rate for this plan is 85 cents per minute.

  • Plan E: This package costs $229 per month and includes 250 minutes and all the features of Plan D. The overage rate drops down to 80 cents per minute.

  • Plan F: For  $369 per month, you get 425 minutes, plus all the features of Plan E. The overage rate for this plan is 75 cents per minute.

BPO American offers custom packages as well. Contact a sales representative to discuss your options and to get a custom price quote. BPO American offers a three-day, no-credit-card-required free trial with 75 minutes included.

Answering Service Costs

Pricing varies. Most services charge by the minute or charge a monthly subscription. Some employ long-term contracts, but this is uncommon. Whichever model you choose – by the minute or monthly subscription – depends on your business's call volume, the features you need and how long you intend to work with a service. 

It's important that the answering service understand your business so that its agents are armed with extensive knowledge about your company so they can assist your customers. Answering services are highly personalized; it requires time for agents to learn your business inside and out. Some answering services charge a setup fee, while others build it into their rates. 

Answering services may charge various other fees and upcharges. When you call for price quotes, ask about additional 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, pore over the company's contract to ensure you're aware of all possible fees.

Buying Guide

Answering Service Features

Answering services advertise many different features, but there are some that are considered "core" features. (Most of the answering services we evaluated provide these "core" features.) As you do your research, you'll likely encounter these terms. Below is a brief definition of these "core" features.

As you do your own research, we recommend that you consider which of the features below are most important to you, which ones are nice to have, and which features aren't necessary before you request proposals from companies.

  • Live answering: When most people think of an answering service, they think of live answering, which is when an agent picks up incoming calls and interacts with customers on a client's behalf. Agents often act as if they are employees of the business they are answering calls for. Basic live answering services consist of greeting the customers, requesting the caller's info, and then forwarding the caller's name and message to you, the answering service client. Other services, though, may answer customers' questions or assist customers with certain tasks.

  • Message taking: Commonly included in even the most basic services, message taking is when agents record the caller's name and info, and forward it to one or more points of contact you've provided for your business.

  • Call transfers: Many answering services can 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.

  • Customer support: Some services can answer your customers' questions and field complaints from callers, acting as an outsourced type of customer support.

  • 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. Some agents can upsell or cross-sell products or services to consumers.

  • Appointment setting: If you need help with setting up and managing appointments, some answering services can do that for you using a shared calendar. When an agent sets an appointment with a caller, you're notified automatically via the calendar, email, text or all three.

  • Email and text notifications: Answering services will notify you of new calls, messages and other updates via email or text message.

  • Live webchat: Through the service, you can 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 changing the call script or adding new features.

Types of Answering Services

Answering services can help your business in a number of ways. For some small businesses, for example, an automated answering service, known as an auto attendant, might be sufficient to direct callers to the right person in your company. For other businesses, a live operator might be needed, because it's imperative that your callers reach a human who can answer their questions then and there. Here's a short explanation about the features offered by answering services:

  • Automated answering service: Automated answering services include features like an interactive voice response tree, which directs callers to the person they are trying to reach. Auto attendants tend to be simple, but they're designed to quickly and efficiently direct callers to the right individual or department.

  • Live answering service: A more advanced service, live operators answer calls and represent your brand. Your customers will not know they are speaking to an answering service – they will think they are speaking with an employee of your company.

  • After-hours answering service: Many companies employ answering services to handle after-hours or overflow calls only. When your business is open or call volumes remain manageable, your callers can reach your company directly. But if you receive an influx of calls, with the touch of a button, you can activate your answering service to capture overflow calls. Answering services can also be at the ready when your business is closed to ensure that callers' questions or concerns are handled with care and professionalism.

  • 24-hour answering service: With this option, the answering service essentially becomes your remote receptionist for every call. A 24-hour answering service can be a great solution to free up internal resources and ensure your callers receive timely, helpful customer service.

Many services offer all of the options described above. If you aren't sure how or even if an answering service will work for you, we suggest that you partner with one under a limited agreement. For example, you could just work with an answering service to answer overflow calls at first. If you are pleased with the initial results and think transitioning to 24-hour live answering could benefit your business, most companies will happily upgrade your plan.

Frequently Asked Questions

When selecting an answering service, it's important to ask the right questions. There are a few industry policies that are somewhat complicated. If you're not aware of these policies, it can significantly inflate the cost of the service, so it's critical to learn the details of a company's policies before making a purchasing decision.

The following questions will help you identify an answering service that's a good match for your business and won't try to gouge you with surprise fees and costs.

How do answering services work?

Typically, there's an intake or onboarding period, during which the answering works with you to capture crucial information about your business. As part of this process, many services will work with you to create a guideline or script for its agents to use when speaking with your callers. These guidelines and scripts can often be updated through an online web portal. Following the onboarding process, the answering service will then begin handling calls in the way you specified.

Some answering services make real-time reports available through a client portal so you can monitor billing, the number of calls coming in, how quickly they are being answered and how long they typically last. Others offer an end-of-month report only. A good answering service will be transparent into how your calls are being managed by their agents.

Who needs an answering service?

Any business that is overwhelmed by its current call volume, is missing late night calls or is hindered by declining customer satisfaction could benefit from an answering service. Agents are trained in customer service and can deliver exceptional support to your callers. The two main goals of hiring an answering service are, one, to free up your internal staff so they can focus on operations, and, two,  increase customer satisfaction.

What types of businesses do answering services help?

Answering services can work with virtually any type of business, but they are especially common in niche areas. For example, attorneys commonly rely on answering services to help manage client communications with care. In the healthcare industry, medical answering services are frequently used, because they comply with the strict security standards set by laws like HIPAA and the HITECH Act. However, you don't need to be in one of these industries to use an answering service.

Why Should I Outsource My Customer Service to a Call Center Service?

There are a few major reasons why you should consider outsourcing your customer service to a call center or answering service:

  • Call centers and answering services excel at customer service. A good answering service offers agents who are trained in customer service interactions and resolving calls to customer satisfaction. Many small businesses don't have this expertise in house, so outsourcing to an answering service is a great way to add a layer of professionalism to your business where it matters most – where your customers interact with your company.

  • Answering services free up internal resources. When the phones are no longer ringing off the hook, you and your staff can focus your attention on day-to-day operations. Outsourcing your phone lines to an answering service or call center (as well as your email and social media management) goes a long way to giving you back the time you need to get more done for your business.

  • Answering services make tracking easy. Most answering services offer reporting tools and access to call recording archives that give you better insight into who is calling your business most and for what purposes. This data can be useful in devising more targeted marketing campaigns or simplifying aspects of your business that cause customers significant confusion. Those insights might not be available if you simply answer calls in house.

What Is the Difference Between a Phone Answering Service and a Virtual Receptionist Service?

Virtual receptionists and answering services are closely related, and often through the same vendors. The main difference is scale and capabilities. A virtual receptionist answers calls on your company's behalf, takes messages and forwards calls.

Answering services do the same thing, but generally have a higher capacity and offer some more sophisticated functions, such as order management. They can also generally handle after-hours or overflow calls, which a virtual receptionist service might not include.

Ultimately, while these services are similar, there are some differences that might make an answering service more appropriate for a scaling business. However, some companies define the terms "virtual receptionist" and "answering service" differently; always get an explanation in writing of what a company expects its responsibilities to be in terms of each service. Always secure in writing the details of exactly what you are paying for each month when working with an answering service or virtual receptionist.

Questions You Should Ask the Answering Service

Can I see a breakdown of the monthly price?

Answering services commonly charge setup fees, plus fees for additional services. We recommend that you obtain a proposal that includes a complete breakdown of the price, letting you see exactly what goes into the total bill. And, 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 of the answering services we evaluated base their billing on month-to-month subscriptions and can be easily canceled. Some, however, require a contract or monthly minimum. It's important to know upfront if there is a mandatory contract, or if you are required to provide advance notice to the answering service before canceling. Read the proposal closely for the cancellation terms.

What billing increment do you use?

The billing increment should be a major consideration when searching for an answering service. The billing increment determines how much the answering service rounds up per-minute usage, and it can significantly impact your monthly bill.

Some answering services bill second by second; the industry standard is to bill in 6-second increments. This means a call lasting 1 minute and 1 second would be billed as a 1-minute and 6-second phone call, appearing on the bill as "1.1 minutes." Some of the services we evaluated bill in 12-second increments, and the service with the highest billing increment rounded up to the nearest minute.

Be sure you understand the billing increment 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 concerns the 28-day cycle. When a service bills in a 28-day cycle, you have less time to use your minutes. Moreover, it adds a 13th billing period to the year, so, essentially, you pay for an extra month. Taken together with billing increments, 28-day billing cycles can increase your costs.

Can I access on-demand reports?

Many answering services offer client portals where you can 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 and interact with your customers. 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 and the types of reports they provide could make your buying decision more clear cut.

Answering Service Trends to Watch in 2020

Domestic answering services and call centers continue to update their consumer-facing technology to offer more advanced service to their clients. This trend is likely to continue as the domestic answering service market becomes more competitive.

For example, some answering services have started implementing managed live chat services. Given consumers' preference for engaging with customer service representatives via live chat, it's likely that more answering services will offer this service in 2020. According to J.D. Power, customers far prefer chatting online with a customer service representative than speaking to one on the phone. Chat, in fact, was the highest-scoring channel by a wide margin compared to speaking on the phone with a customer service rep, automated phone self-service and web self-service. One interesting finding from the J.D. Power study was that satisfaction with chat was highest among baby boomers, followed by Gen X and millennials.

Further, 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, which can increase the quality of service they deliver to your customers. The impact that this personalized attention can 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 interaction to balance efficiency while providing quality, personalized service.

Community Expert Insight

As part of our research, we reached out to readers for their input about which answering services they use.

Ollie Smith, the CEO of Card Accounts, uses RingCentral. "I like the fact that you can add specific features such as additional users, the fact that it integrates well with over 100 external apps, and its affordable price of just $20 per month," Smith told business.com.  

Bruce Moss, of the Law Offices of Bruce A. Moss, is a family law solo practitioner who has used Answer Connect for more than three years. He said he has received positive comments from his clients about how nice his receptionist is.

"They answer 24/7/365," Moss said. "They patch all calls to me directly. If I am unavailable, I receive a text message and an email with the message. I have rarely had any problems with them."

Our Methodology

For this year's update, we began our research by compiling 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.

Next, we analyzed each company's website, comparing prices and features. From there, we narrowed our list down to a dozen finalists. We then contacted each service to learn more details about the onboarding process, the services offered and pricing, and to obtain a proposal from the company.

With the proposal in hand, we examined the policies of each company and looked to see whether there were any hidden fees or charges. We also contacted each of our dozen finalists to evaluate the quality of its customer service.

In determining our recommendations, we strived to pick companies that offer the best balance of affordability, useful features and first-rate customer service.

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 supporting automation of the simplest tasks.

However, it remains important to have an actual person who quickly responds to customer inquiries. While automation is a great avenue for finding new efficiencies and reducing costs, failing to provide your customers with a human touchstone when they need it 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.

April 2020: In March, the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, forced many businesses to close their doors or shift to a remote work model. Staying in touch with customers, employees and vendors during such an unusual time can be a challenge, but fortunately, many call centers and answering services offer disaster recovery and continuity services. These services can keep your business's communications up and running during times of natural disaster, including the spread of illness as people remain in quarantine worldwide. Read our guide to how call centers and answering services can keep your communications online during a disaster.

Many answering services have seen significantly increased demand as businesses transition to a fully remote work environment amidst the pandemic. For answering services, this means finding at-home employees who are prepared to make or receive customer service calls. According to a story in The New York Times, many answering services and call centers are hiring people with disabilities to fill their vacant positions. The at-home agent will likely become a more prominent part of answering services' business models in the future. The impact that trend will have on the industry at large and its clients remains to be seen.

Adam Uzialko: Writer
Adam Uzialko,
business.com Writer
Adam C. Uzialko, a New Jersey native, graduated from Rutgers University in 2014 with a degree in political science and journalism and media studies. He reviews healthcare information technology, call centers, document management software and employee monitoring software. In addition to his full-time position at Business News Daily and business.com, Adam freelances for several outlets. An indispensable ally of the feline race, Adam is owned by four lovely cats.

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Robert Minskoff
Robert Minskoff
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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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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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Can anyone recommend a shared calendar service or app (Android accessible) that provides real-time notification alerts?
8 Responses
Matthew Weller
Matthew Weller
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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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Laura Rose
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Other Services Considered

Featured Sponsor
XACT
With 22 locations across the U.S., XACT is a flexible answering service and call center with a variety of pricing plans and services suitable for businesses of all sizes. It offers both shared and dedicated agents. Available services include live operator answering, message taking, order taking and appointment setting. XACT also provides call center services, including those for customer service, help desks, appointment reminders, hotlines, email management and web chat.
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