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What does it take to provide excellent customer service when prospects or customers call you? It’s a chore that require far more than a happy voice and a pleasant greeting. Anyone representing your company over the phone must be prepared to answer all kinds of questions, and they need to do so as efficiently as possible.

Not every business has this person on its staff – let alone a team of them. And your team’s time and energy are best spent on other tasks. Especially with restricted budgets, working with an answering service is a strategy that many small and medium-sized businesses adopt.

Such a partner can help you deliver the same level of customer service as any large company without ruining your bottom line. In fact, you can leverage an answering service to boost your revenue, increase your customer availability and minimize the stress of running a business.

In our ultimate answering services guide, you’ll learn: 

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Discover how an answering service can help boost your business with our free infographic.

Table of Contents

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1. Answering Services 101: An Introduction

Fundamentally, an answering service takes your prospects’ and customers’ calls on behalf of businesses and provides professional customer service. Answering service companies employ teams of trained customer service agents who act as as representatives of your business. But they are supporting you as much as they are supporting your customers. And in this way, these providers often offer far more support than simple call answering, however (more on additional services later)

An answering service may assess your call flows and processes to determine if there are more successful and efficient ways to approach your customers’ calls and how you communicate information to the rest of your team. A valuable partner will recommend ways in which you can improve your customer service experience and maximize your investment in their answering services

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2. How do Answering Services Work?

When your business is closed, or when it becomes difficult to answer the phone during peak hours, answering services ensure that your prospects’ and customers’ calls are received – every time. When a customer dials your telephone number:

  • The call is automatically rerouted to your answering service provider

  • A trained customer service agent takes the call

  • He or she will transfer the customer to your staff, take messages or answer common questions depending on the nature of the call

How your partner manages each kind of call depends on your business and your unique needs. Through a comprehensive onboarding processes, you and your partner will define your objectives and create the ideal caller experience while uncovering the information you need to succeed. This process includes outlining your ideal call workflow.

A thorough, documented onboarding process outlines:

  • How you and your answering service will communicate

  • When an agent needs to take a message

  • How they deliver messages to your team

A successful onboarding also consists of an investment in understanding your business in order to properly communicate with your callers. It will take the time to learn your business inside and out and train its agents on your company, story and message.

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3. Types of Answering Services

Answering services tend to be lumped into a broader category that also includes virtual assistants and call centers. They all employ trained professionals who answer your calls. Any of these partners can forward or transfer calls and perform simple tasks on your behalf, but there are differences between them. Let’s take a look at the two other services.


Virtual Assistants

Virtual receptionists help you manage much more than answering and transferring your customers’ calls. Despite their name, virtual receptionists are real-live people who can handle many of the same responsibilities of an receptionist who sits in your office. 

Compared to a standard answering service partner, a virtual assistant must know much more about your day-to-day and details. In some cases, they provide industry-specific support. This is especially true in the medical field and other specialized lines of work. Because virtual assistants must be more connected to your business, they will need to interact with your team on a consistent basis.

A great example of the capacity of support a virtual assistant can provide is when a medical practice’s patient calls in the middle of the night. An agent trained in the medical field can assess the nature of the caller’s problem and:

  • Connect them with an on-call physician if urgent (but not a medical emergency), or...

  • Leave a message for the patient’s primary doctor if the problem can be addressed the following day.


Call Centers

If you want even more assistance than an answering service or virtual assistant can offer, you made need to partner with a call center. Think of these partners as an extension of your own business' customer service, sales or help desk teams. Rather than building out these teams with additional employees, you can leverage the scale of a call center to manage your growing demand. You’ll have the flexibility to expand and contract your level of support based on your business needs.

The most important difference between call centers and the other services is the sheer scale a call center can meet.

Not unlike answering services and virtual services, call centers automatically reroute calls to your phone number to their agents. As a representative of your business, they will address your callers’ needs. You may even rely on a call center to sift through unqualified leads, ensuring your sales team only connect with qualified prospects.

More than anything, the most important difference between call centers and the other services is the sheer scale a call center can meet. Most small businesses will not need such large-scale services. But call centers are a great choice if you need to quickly ramp up your customer service team to address floods of calls.

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4. Benefits of Answering Services

Depending on what a provider offers and how you structure your relationship, there are many ways to benefit from answering services. However, there are three key benefits that any business can take advantage of over time – the ability to scale, nurture better leads and save money.


Scale Your business

In the Digital Age, the world is open for business 24 hours a day and seven days a week. But few businesses can afford to keep the lights on for 8,760 a year. Even if you could, why be so inefficient with your hard-earning revenue? When businesses grow, they may struggle to maintain the same level of service as they did when they were small.

Partnering with an answering service ensures that your customer-facing operations stay consistent now matter how quickly you grow. Whether you receive 50 calls per month or 500, you only have one chance to make a great first impression with your prospects. An answering service not only ensures that callers receive a consistently high-quality experience, but it also maintains your communication and operations as you expand your business.

Partnering with an answering service ensures that your customer-facing operations stay consistent now matter how quickly you grow.

Improve Your Lead Nurturing

Speaking of business growth, how do you close sales if you don’t capture leads? Inbound lead capturing and 24/7 support guarantees that no prospect will ever get to a voicemail without first talking to a customer service agent.

Your partner can integrate with your existing CRM solution to make sure you receive leads when, where and how you want to receive them. And if you have a large sales team, agents can route leads to you different team members based on criteria of your choosing – sales territory or the experience of a salesperson, for example. How you design your lead nurturing protocol is up to you. Your answering service will be ready to field every prospect call that your business receives.


Save Your Business Money

How much does one full-time employee cost your business? Perhaps you pay a receptionist $12/hour (which includes overtime) and provide benefits such as vacation pay and health insurance. That person will also likely take sick and personal days, in which case, you’ll need to get someone to cover them. Now add in operational expenses such as human resources, payroll and management. The numbers add up quickly, and can be staggering. The effective cost of that employee could easily be $24/hour.

Especially as your company grows, these costs can limit how quickly you can reach your goals.

Answering services limit the expense of managing calls and other office needs. Typically, the more calls you receive, the lower the variable cost of each call will be. Rather than shrinking your profits as you grow, an answering service or virtual receptionist will help you become more profitable.

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5. Features of Answering Services

Despite its name, answering services can provide much more than receiving your customers’ calls. Some of the features of these services are standard with certain partners, and others are valuable offerings that can supplement your basic services.


Web Portal

We live in the information age, but that doesn’t mean we always have access to it. An answering service’s web portal ensures that you have real-time access to all kinds of data that impact your business. Quickly discover how many calls you’ve received in a day or month. Learn when customers tend to call you most. Determine the nature of your prospects’ calls. It can all be at your fingertips through a dashboard or more comprehensive reporting.

An answering service platform can also empower you to retrieve messages, listen to recorded calls, manage scheduling, send messages to your team, view and update contact information and much more.


Message Delivery

How you communicate with your answering service and retrieve messages can be incredibly flexible to your preferences. Your partner likely offers a number of methods to help you streamline how you and your team access messages, including:

  • Voicemail Service – a unified voicemail box that allows prospects to leave messages directly with individual team members

  • Communications Portal – give your team the ability to receive messages in their preferred method and access detailed information in a web portal 

  • Automated Attendant Service – route calls to individual numbers using a dial-by-name directory 

  • Secure Text Messaging – Messages can be simple exchanges of words or can include attachments or audio clips

     

How you communicate with your answering service and retrieve messages can be incredibly flexible to your preferences.

Appointment Scheduling

Sales teams, service companies and medical, law and financial practices all take advantage of appointment scheduling support. 24/7 appointment scheduling protects against the risk that a prospect or customer doesn’t go with your competitor simply because you couldn’t answer their call outside of your office hours. Answering service agents are ready to answer your calls and book appointments whenever you need them.

In addition, an online appointment scheduling app allows you to quickly view your appointments in real time and ensure that no customer is ever double-booked. Most importantly, answering services can handle appointment confirmations and reminders to minimize no-shows and keep the cash flowing.


Emergency Dispatching

Especially for service companies, emergency dispatch services ensure that you’re not bothered when working in the field, but connected to urgent calls when necessary. If a caller needs emergency service, you can have them connected to designated on-call personnel. Rather than interrupting your work for routine calls, emergency dispatching can escalate important calls and let you get back to the routine messages when your schedule allows. 


Employee Reporting and Absence Management

Planned and unplanned employee absences are inevitable, as are the lost productivity and delayed timelines associated with them. But the greater communication and efficiency you have managing absences, the less they will impact your business.

With employee reporting and absence management services, your team has a single number to call, and agents can immediately report the absence to a shift supervisor. They can even make arrangements for a replacement on your behalf. Finally, you’ll have access to daily reports through a web portal or your communication method of choice.

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6. Supporting Specialty Industries

There are several kinds of businesses that require specific knowledge to support. Not all answering services are equipped to take calls from customers in all industries, but there are plenty of partners that can support such specialty businesses. The on-boarding process is still important to ensure agents know you function and communication with your customers, but having a base of knowledge goes a long way.

Some of the most common specialty industries include:

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7. How Much do Answering Services Cost?

The pricing of answering services is dependent on a number of variables, which can change based on the kind of plan you’re interested in – per-minute or per-call plans.

Per-call pricing is typically less ideal because of the way many answering service providers defines “calls.” Read the fine print in your contract: A provider could charge the same rate for wrong numbers or immediate hangs up as they do for legitimate calls to your business. These caller mistakes may provide zero value to your company, but you’ll pay for them just the same. Some providers even consider text messages and emails as “calls” from a pricing perspective.

Time-based pricing is a much better representation of the time and value your answering service will provide.

Time-based pricing is a much better representation of the time and value your answering service will provide. Now, “time” may cover answering and placing calls, as well as sending messages and managing operational tasks, but you know you’ll be paying for something of value.

Some answering service companies charge strictly for time on calls, but their per-minute rates are likely more costly. In effect, they’re pricing in the additional work they’ll provide beyond when their agents are on the phone.


Common Time-Based Plans

Answering service pricing covers a range of minutes to fit your business needs and expectations. The rates listed below are general industry prices, but every provider is different.

  • Pay-as-you-go – suitable for a company with very low call volume, and typically includes a fixed monthly fee and per-call charge – $30/month, plus $1.25/min.

  • 100-150 minutes – pricing based on a monthly rate between $100 and $250, plus fees for supplemental services and minutes above this threshold

  • 200-250 minutes – pricing based on a monthly rate between $250 and $399, plus fees for supplemental services and minutes above this threshold

  • 500 minutes – pricing based on a monthly rate between $449 and $1,000, plus fees for supplemental services and minutes above this threshold; Typically offers the greatest value for businesses with large call volumes.

  • Custom Plans – If your company receives more than 500 minutes of calls each month, you’ll likely need to customize a plan to maximize your value.

If you fear using up your monthly allotment of minutes and amassing addition fees, there are ways to cut back on calls that may not need to be made or taken.

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8. How to Select an Answering Service Partner

There are many providers of answering services, and it can make the selection process overwhelming. How can you find potential partners, evaluate them and choose the ideal partner for your business? 

Start by outlining what fundamental solutions you must have and which supplement services could be worth the additional cost. Your ideal partner will add great value to your company, and the strick dollars and cents shouldn’t be the only factor in your decision. Beyond answering your prospect and customer calls, they should screen calls to minimize staff interruption, manage emergency situations without overburdening your company.

Any answering service worth partnering with must invest in discovering your goals and needs.

Any answering service worth partnering with must invest in discovering your goals and needs. And that work will help them make valuable recommendations that could streamline your business and help you save money. The more you talk to a potential provider, the more insight you should have into how accommodating they will be to your unique needs. When you do talk to them, ask how they will help you improve your customer experience, processes and maximize your bottom line.

The conversations around a partner’s services aren’t irrelevant, but they won’t tell you how impactful a provider will be on your company and growth. Just as a partner should invest in learning about your business, you too must invest in learning about your potential providers if you want to ensure that you’ll create a partnership that can affect your business for years to come.

The question is: do you want provider or do you want a partner?

How Much Does an Answering Service Cost? 

We aren’t the cheapest provider, but we find every unique way to provide immense value to our customers.


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