In 2020, customers judge businesses not just by the services they provide, but by the connections they form. As a society, we’re not just more plugged in. We’re also more tuned in to the way companies treat us when we reach out with a question, concern, or complaint. Increasingly, customers are reaching out to companies outside of the traditional 9 to 5 window. And business communications become even more important when we’re faced with extenuating circumstances that change the way we shop, schedule services, make appointments and more – like has happened this year with COVID-19.
That’s where answering services come into play. At their best, they can help fill in the gaps to ensure clients always have a seamless experience with your business – one that helps them build lasting connections. Here, we’ll help you understand what answering services do, who can benefit from them, what to look for (and avoid) when evaluating answering services, how to get the most from your answering service and more.
What is a phone answering service?
At the most basic level, a phone answering service fields calls for you when you (or your staff) can’t. But a good answering service does much more than that: they can record messages, alert you if a request is urgent, schedule appointments, make follow-up calls and even answer customer or patient questions on your behalf when appropriate.
Some answering services are more like call centers, with a focus on converting interested leads into sales. Others are more specialized in providing customer service, like a virtual receptionist for a medical practice or a law firm or a customer support rep for an online retailer.
Does my business actually need a call answering service?
It depends. Do you have customers, patients, or clients who require assistance after hours, or on weekends and holidays? Are you looking for a way to field calls without having to incur the cost of hiring a full-time receptionist (or team)?
Depending on how much call volume you’re receiving, you may be able to save money by hiring a virtual answering service, rather than staffing a call center yourself or hiring someone to handle calls in your office. Enlisting the help of a call answering service means you’ll get the benefit of having someone there to answer the phone 24/7 – but you won’t be responsible for providing health insurance, paid time off, sick leave, or other benefits for full-time employees.
If you need help converting leads into sales over the phone, or if you’re starting to feel overwhelmed by the amount of time you’re spending answering client calls or scheduling appointments, you may want to consider outsourcing some of your work to a phone answering service company.
What benefits can you get from an answering service in 2020?
A call answering service can’t guarantee that you’ll get more business, but it can help you reach out to interested leads, and preserve or improve the relationships you have with existing clients – two factors that are important to growing your business.
Here are some of the other potential benefits you can expect to enjoy with the help of a good call answering service:
- Remain available to customers 24/7 – nights, weekends, and holidays
- Avoid having to pay a full-time call center staff or full-time receptionist
- Boost sales by having call center employees assist customers over the phone and upsell your products
- Have the ability to spend more time on business operations and big-picture strategy, instead of being tied to the phone
- Improve your customer service quality and make clients more likely to refer others to your business or practice
How to choose the best answering service
A great answering service does more than take your calls. They’ll also become an expert on your business, and meet your customers where they are – whether they need bilingual services, appointment flexibility, help picking out a product, or answers to questions about products they’ve already purchased.
Here are some things you should consider when evaluating answering service companies to find the right one for you:
- Bilingual availability: Do they offer bilingual answering so that you can broaden your customer base and provide quality service to people of different backgrounds? A bilingual answering service may not be necessary for all businesses, but can help you reach a broader base of people and better serve your customers in a global society.
- 24/7 reliability: Do they provide reliable 24/7 answering, if you need someone to field calls on nights and weekends? Make sure you choose an answering service that has you covered when you need it the most. Some answering service companies will claim to be available 365 days a year, but may have limited service on holidays. Do your research before committing.
- HIPAA certification: This is incredibly important if you are operating a medical practice, since you’ll have stricter confidentiality and security requirements than other industries. Cover all your legal and ethical bases up front by making sure the answering service company you choose is already HIPAA certified and understands the sensitivities of dealing with patients, rather than customers.
- Pricing: Is their pricing clear and straightforward, or will you be hit with unexpected fees? You’ll also want to look into whether the answering service companies you’re considering offer long-term contracts or month-to-month subscriptions. Make sure you pay attention to what the price breakdowns are for each. And like any subscription service, you’ll want to ask about their cancellation policy.
- Digital transcriptions: Do they offer transcripts of phone calls so you can monitor the level of service and responsiveness your customers are receiving? Reputable answering service companies will be equipped with the ability to transcribe your phone calls digitally, so that you can always check in to make sure your customers are receiving the quality of service you want.
- Call forwarding and messages: Will they take messages or forward calls if you need them to? Is their staff appropriately trained to determine which calls need to be forwarded? When you’re with another client or busy out in the field, you’re going to want a virtual answering service that’s equipped to take messages from clients and forward them to you if the queries are urgent. For instance, if you’re a real estate agent, you may want to hear immediately if your client calls to say he or she is rethinking their offer terms and wants your guidance. A good virtual receptionist will let you know about calls that they should alert you to immediately, based on the standards you provide to them.
Red flags to look out for when evaluating phone answering services
In some way, choosing a call answering service is like choosing a business partner — you need to spend time thinking about your level of compatibility with the company you’re choosing and make sure you ask the right questions before you commit. Here are some red flags you should keep an eye out for when exploring answering service companies.
Their pricing structure is unclear.
While some answering service companies charge by the minute, others offer monthly contracts. Whichever model you should go with depends on your current (or projected) call volume. There’s no one-size-fits all answer here, but the important thing is to make sure that the answering service company you choose is clear about their pricing structure from the beginning.
Some answering service companies will charge “surprise” fees or require you to get locked into a long-term contract. When you’re doing research, make sure you ask about these additional (sometimes hidden) fees. You’ll also want to ask about their holiday, night, and weekend rates to make sure they’re within a price range that is still cost-effective for your business. A good phone answering service will have a clear, upfront pricing structure so that you can make an informed decision.
They won’t let you access call transcripts.
It’s important to make sure any phone answering service you’re considering will allow you easy access to call transcripts so that you can make sure the quality of service your customers are receiving is up to the high standards of your business, along with monitoring any trends that emerge on phone calls.
By being able to review transcripts, you’ll be able to identify common questions or requests, and work with your virtual receptionist or call answering center staff to fill in any gaps in product or industry knowledge that may arise over time.
They won’t work with you to create a script or call guidelines that work for your business.
Most good answering services understand that the key to a successful partnership is working not just for you, but with you. During the intake process, a good answering service will work with you to develop a call script or guide based on your business’ needs. Even if you don’t need a specific script for your calls, a good answering service will know how to ask the right questions to get to the heart of what you want to convey over the phone, and they’ll take the time to learn the guidelines and protocol you lay out.
What type of answering service makes sense for my industry or business?
For some industries, the answer to this question is simpler than it is for others. Medical practices have to comply with strict confidentiality standards, so they will need to choose a virtual answering service that is also HIPAA compliant. Businesses in other industries may not have as stringent requirements, but should still consider what makes the most sense for their companies.
For instance, a small business may be able to get by with an automated answering service or someone who only takes calls on a 9 to 5 basis. On the other hand, a home rental company or HVAC repair business may need to choose a live virtual answering service, with someone who can respond to unique questions 24/7 and forward messages depending on how urgent the request is.
How do I get the most for my money when it comes to call answering services?
Often, the most inexpensive answering service isn’t the one that will get you the most bang for your buck. If an answering service company cuts corners or doesn’t offer services you need like bilingual answering or 24/7 answering, they may end up costing you more in the long run in terms of your customers’ satisfaction and your company’s reputation.
Instead of searching for the lowest price you can find, search for the greatest value you can add to your company. When you’re evaluating the costs and benefits of an answering service, you’ll also want to consider the opportunity cost of missing calls if you didn’t enlist the help of an answering service company in the first place. Is paying extra for an after-hours call service worth the calls (or potential leads) you would have otherwise missed? Would a more expensive, higher quality answering service be able to sell more of your products, keep your customers happier, or gain more business for your company?
There isn’t an exact formula for this kind of analysis, but make sure you consider not just the immediate financial impacts of hiring a phone answering service, but also the long-term impacts to your company’s reputation.
What is the future of answering service companies in 2020?
As we’re becoming increasingly connected through technology, brick-and-mortar office buildings are becoming more of a thing of the past for many businesses. In light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, more people are conducting business over the phone or online to reduce risk of virus exposure. Besides the health concerns of the immediate moment, hiring a full-time receptionist can be costly and sometimes even unnecessary for your company. And with fewer people going to stores to shop, and more people shopping online, the need for customer service representatives to field questions over the phone will continue to rise.
For these reasons (and many others) it’s likely that companies enlisting the help of call answering services will become the norm rather than the exception. Get ahead of the game by making sure you ask the right questions and do the research required to find the best phone answering service out there for your business. Your customers (and your bottom line) will thank you.
- At the most basic level, a phone answering service fields calls for you when you (or your staff) aren’t available
- Some answering services focus on converting interested leads into sales, while others are more focused on specialized service and support
- If you have a high call volume, need to be available to your customers 2/47 and don’t have full-time staff to manage it, a call answering service can be a good option
- An answering service can help you schedule appointments, take messages, and even answer client questions
- When choosing an answering service, consider their available languages, their hours and days of availability, whether they are HIPAA-certified, their pricing model, and whether they offer transcriptions and call forwarding
- Look out for unclear pricing models, an inability to access call transcripts, and a lack of customizable call transcripts or guidelines