Answering incoming phone calls to field questions, complaints or orders is an essential part of every business. Sometimes, however, managing the phone lines can get in the way of business operations. Whether you're in a busy retail environment or a professional office space, answering services can reduce the burden of answering every phone call.
Answering services range from very simple to complex. All serve as the first point of contact for your customers when they call your phone number. Some answering services simply capture the customer's information and take down a message, while others provide customer support and set appointments on your calendar.
This guide will help you better understand answering services and the functions they can perform for your business. Our individual reviews of leading answering services can also help you decide which company is the best partner for your business. Each of these companies are based in the U.S. and provide nationwide answering services for businesses in multiple industries.
Specialty Answering Service is our best pick overall for answering services because it offers a wide range of plans that are suitable for businesses small and large and has years of experience working as an answering service across many industries.
Specialty Answering Service offers a comprehensive client portal that is available by web browser and mobile application. The company will help clients develop an effective script for agents to use, which can be revised on the fly within the client portal. Features can be added or subtracted from the account via the portal. Specialty Answering Service can run custom reports as well.
PATLive is our best pick for an answering service for small business because it offers a strong slate of services and flexibility to suit the needs of young and growing companies. The company offers a 14-day, full-featured free trial so businesses can take it for a spin before making a decision.
PATLive's client portal gives businesses a transparent window into their account usage, including incoming calls, the duration of each call, the average duration of all calls and the result of each call. You can also customize your script on the fly in PATLive's client portal.
PCMSI is our best pick for low-cost answering services because it offers some of the lowest per-minute rates in our review. It also offers a wide variety of pricing plans across four different tiers, so there's an option for every size of business. PCMSI's lowest rate is about 55 cents per minute, but even midrange plans are priced as low as 65 cents per minute.
In addition to the low per-minute rate, PCMSI bills in one-second increments, meaning clients are charged only for the time they actually use. PCMSI never rounds up the minutes of usage. It charges a one-time $35 setup fee, which is average among the answering services in our review. Clients are required to submit a first- and last-month deposit and are charged thereafter on a month-by-month basis.
BPO American is our best pick for a customizable answering service because it has a unique self-service instant activation option, which gets you up and running the same day you sign up. BPO American offers 24/7/365 live answering based on client-provided scripts and covers all the core functions we looked for, including taking messages, processing orders and capturing leads.
BPO American offers clients a three-day, full-featured free trial to test the service out. Instant activation gets client accounts up and running immediately, so the free trial covers a full 72 hours. The company offers six pricing plans ranging from $29 per month to $369 per month, each of which is priced at competitive per-minute usage rates.
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 over live chat, it's likely that more answering services will begin to offer managed live chat as a feature in 2019. According to Forbes, 41% of consumers prefer to engage with live chat over any other communication channel. In the last five years, the number of consumers who have engaged with live chat has increased by 20%. In 2019, expect to see more answering services expand beyond the phone lines and incorporate managed live chat into their offerings.
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.
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 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.
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....
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...
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...
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,...
I've been through this MANY times, as almost EVERY position I've had involved using the phone to prospect. Two things work for me. The first is remembering the phone is my friend. It is the most important tool in my tool box. It enables me to make money and money allows me to do things I enjoy. The second is remembering that in sales, everything is subject to "the numbers". Without getting the "No's" out of the way, I won't be able to reach the wonderful, exhilarating feeling all the "Yes's"...