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.
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.