When a head-splitting toothache awakens you at 2 a.m., you want to talk to someone about instant relief. When the instructions for setting up your new PC don't make sense, you want to talk to someone who understands them. And when a marketing push has calls pouring into your business, you want callers to get information. But when you're attending your daughter's wedding, you don't want to talk to anyone unless it's an emergency.
In all of these cases, an answering service can suit your needs. With answering services, you can contact doctors and dentists 24 hours a day. A call center for an electronics company can give you needed technical support. And you can make sure clients have information when you're not available -- and can reach you when it's really important. With an Internet answering service, you can even receive messages on your smartphone wherever you are.
Plenty of industries rely on answering services:
- Doctors work office hours but still need to be available for emergencies at other times.
- Plumbers, contractors and other field workers need to be aware of job additions and other schedule changes.
- Sales reps don't want to miss sales leads but also don't want to be interrupted during a client meeting.
- Solo entrepreneurs need professional communications staff for their virtual offices.
- Large corporations need call centers to take product orders, explain how to use products or provide more information about them.
- Service organizations, like insurance companies, need staff to handle routine inquiries about premium deadlines and coverage limits.
- Companies that have experienced a serious snowstorm or power outage need an immediate way to handle communications.
But what services are available, who provides them, and what are the potential problems? Keep reading to find out, starting with a look at the different services offered by answering service providers.
Types of Answering Services
The concepts behind answering services are not new. A company or individual hires a specialized service to take and screen calls, provide basic information to the caller and pass on messages -- and possibly also to take orders, schedule appointments and provide product support. But while the phone answering service has been around for decades, its capabilities and equipment keep evolving as business demands change and technology advances.
Answer services usually fit into one of the following categories, although answering-service providers often offer services from several categories:
- Automated answering service
- Live answering service
- Internet answering service
- Call center
Automated answering services allow callers to leave voice messages and to obtain information based on responses to prompts. They might be asked, for example, to Press 1 if they want to know business hours, Press 2 to get directions, Press 3 for the company directory or Press 4 to hear directory listings and leave a message. Automated systems work well with customers who are only looking for general information and cost less than live answering services. However, these systems lack the flexibility or personal touch that live answering services provide.
Live answering services give callers the opportunity to talk to someone who may be able to meet their particular needs better than an automated service. The operator also can decide whether the call is urgent enough to send through immediately. In fact, callers often aren't aware that their call has been redirected to the answering service. For telecommuters and solo entrepreneurs, a live answering service can give their business a more professional appearance.
Wondering where to find an answering service to fit your needs? Check out the next page for some ideas.
Answering Service Providers
Whether you're developing a disaster readiness plan for a large company or simply trying to field work-related messages while you're on vacation or a business trip, there's probably an answering-service provider with the services to meet your needs. You'll find that while some companies provide a wide variety of phone answering services, including Internet answering services, others specialize in a specific type of answer service.
A list of answering services and call centers shows the diversity of services these companies provide:
- Americall -- Provides inbound and outbound call center service, order taking, customer service, class and seminar registration, Remote Receptionist answering services (24/7 support for medical professionals, heating and cooling contractors, government agencies and others) and Web-enabled customer support.
- AnswerConnect.com -- Offers 24/7 national answering service, local answering services, business answering (live message taking, online order taking service dispatching, paging and live call transfers) call center and voice mail services that deliver messages directly to the customer's e-mail box for indefinite storage.
- SuccessfulOffice.com -- Emphasizes virtual office services for home offices, including a dedicated toll-free number; customized call answering; electronic faxing; instant notification of messages by e-mail, pager or fax; dedicated staff members; and sales support, appointment setting and order taking.
- AnswerLive.com -- Provides live answering service, interactive voice mail, flexible message delivery (via phone, e-mail, Web site, fax, pager or BlackBerry), inbound telesales and outbound calling services using bilingual Spanish-English speaking staff and virtually disaster-proof technology.
- VoiceNation -- Offers a toll-free or local business number answered by a live professional who can take messages, enter data into a Web form or forward calls. Services can be combined with voice mail, e-mail and electronic fax.
- 1-800-We-Answer -- Provides live answering plus call center services from order taking to voice mail to customer service. Also offers a health telephone call center, emergency recovery and contingency, and virtual office services.
- Specialty Answering Service -- This is a nationwide network of industry-specific call centers with operators trained to handle each industry's needs. Among the industries are medical, limousines, funeral homes, locksmiths and more.
- MyAnswering -- Provides live phone answering with Web services that include making messages available on a Web site in real time. Among other services are appointment setting, virtual office assistant, secretarial and voice-mail services, and medical answering.
These companies only reflect a small portion of the answering service providers available. The Association of TeleServices International, an international trade organization for teleservices providers, provides an extensive listing through its Connections magazine.
ATSI recommends that you carefully check out an answering service provider before you sign a contract. You can click "Find a Member" on ATSI's Web site to see a list of member companies. Be sure to also check with the Better Business Bureau for unresolved complaints against the company. Choose a company with a track record in the business and relatively low operator turnover. And ask for names of satisfied customers that you can contact to learn about their experience.
Answering services can be a tremendous help, but if you're not careful, you may have problems with them. Find out how you can prevent that on the next page.
Problems with Answering Services
An answering service can be a great tool to make a business run smoothly, but problems with answering services occur. Sometimes it's not selecting the right phone answering service for the job. Or the cost of the answer service may exceed what you'd expected. Let's look at some common answering service problems and how you can avoid them.
Positive, helpful operators help your business. Check also on how long operators stay with the company. While every company experiences turnover, operators are more likely to stay at companies that treat them well -- and happy operators will interact more positively with your customers. Check also that operators receive consistent training so that they all handle your calls in the same way.
A focus on your business, not everyone else's, makes callers think operators are part of your business team. BuyerZone.com recommends that your calls account for 5 to 50 percent of your answering service provider's traffic.
So you've decided you want a vanity number for your business. Here's some guidelines you should follow during your search, and information you should know.
Cost of services can influence your decision to stay with a company or its services. Charges are based on time (50 cents to $1 per minute) or number of calls. Be sure you understand how charges are computed, and which method best meets your needs. Check your phone logs to determine your needs and the usual length of calls. The company should work with you to design a plan that offers you the best value for your needs, ATSI says. Also consider call fluctuations, such as seasonal selling patterns, and factor in how they affect rates and operator availability to handle increased volume.
Knowledge of the industry is essential, particularly in highly specialized fields like medicine. Look for an answering service that can show years of experience with your industry. Also, ask about how operators are trained to be knowledgeable and field questions.
Up-to-date technology means taking advantage of Web tools and offering you flexible ways to receive messages, but it also means having adequate back-up and a disaster preparedness plan to stay live 24x7. You can ask to see a copy of the plan.
A bargain may not be. Weigh prices and services for several companies. The lowest price may not bring you the services you need. But on the other hand, be realistic about what you need. If all you want are messages taken when you leave your office, you may not need live.
For lots more information about answering services and related topics, check out the links on the next page.