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.
What Can an Answering Service Do for Your Business?
An answering service offers several features for your company, which includes call screening and recording messages. These services also help companies manage clients during times when call volume is high, such as over the holidays. Having an answering service ensures clients’ calls are received and answered in a timely manner.
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 should you look for in an answering service?
You want an answering service with agents who understand the ins and outs of your business. Make sure it offers an online database where you can check and analyze call history with ease. Also, a service that can cater to non-English speakers makes your customer service accessible to more clients.
You also want to find the pricing structure that works best for your company’s budget. For example, would per-minute or per-call billing be cheaper for your business? See if the company charges for agent work time, which is any time agents spend working on your account when they are not on the phone with customers.
Also consider in your budget whether the company rounds up to increments and, if so, what they are. For example, a call center that charges second by second will only charge for the actual time an agent spends on the phone; one that rounds up to the nearest six-second increment will round a call that lasts 1 minute and 1 second up to 1 minute and 6 seconds on your bill. Six-second increments are the industry standard, but some call centers round up time to the nearest minute, which could significantly inflate your call center costs.
What is a virtual receptionist?
A virtual receptionist manages a business’s appointment schedule, fields client calls, helps customers find who and what they need, and takes down messages and leads. A virtual receptionist is just like an in-house receptionist in that they help connect customers to the appropriate department or employee. Most call centers and answering services offer a virtual receptionist who can carry out these tasks as if they were a member of your staff, making your callers feel they are communicating directly with your business.
What is an auto-attendant phone system?
An auto-attendant phone system is also called a digital receptionist or interactive voice response (IVR) menu. It offers a voice menu system without the need of a live operator. Like an answering machine, an auto attendant helps you navigate callers’ messages. Callers can be transferred to the extension they want by dialing in the digit the IVR provides for it. Auto attendants tend to be more cost-effective than shared agents, automating the customer service process to route the call to the appropriate person at your company.
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.
How much should you expect to pay for an answering service?
Answering services generally charge a per-minute rate that typically ranges from $0.70 to $1.20 per minute. For these rates, answering services provide phone answering and message taking services. They will also use a script or guidelines to better represent your brand to callers. Bear in mind that more than just the per-minute rate can influence the total cost, as some answering services round up time on the phone or charge additional fees. Some also bill for “agent work time.” This is when an agent is servicing your account, but not on a call.
How should an answering service receptionist answer the phone?
When answering on your company’s behalf, an answering service receptionist should act as an extension of your brand. Callers shouldn’t know that you are using an answering service. Receptionists should be professional and speak slowly and clearly throughout the conversation. They should take messages, including contact information and brief notes on what the call is about. An answering service receptionist should not go off script unless they have explicit permission to do so.
Do you charge for agent work time?
Agent work time refers to any work an agent does on an account off the phone. Some call centers do not charge for agent work time (some even have software that documents every call so agents don’t need to). However, others do, and they don’t always indicate that up front. Just like billing increments, understanding whether agent work time is an added fee and how much it costs can significantly increase the total cost of a call center service.
What is your uptime and system redundancy?
Natural disasters or grid failures can affect a call center’s facility. Be sure to know how often downtime affects the call center you are planning to work with. Also, ask whether they have multiple facilities, redundant power systems and generators, and a plan if the call center serving your business goes offline. The best call centers can accommodate clients even if one of their call centers goes offline temporarily.