What is an Answering Service? (And Does Your Business Need One?)

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At its most simple, an answering service is a business that will answer the phone for another business. It’s really as simple as that. But what that doesn’t cover is the multitude of variations and services that exist within that deceptively simple definition. 

In today’s age of technology, it’s easy to think that a voicemail and email can do the job of a competent administrative assistant. But, when’s the last time you accidentally sent an important client to voicemail because you were busy with something else and then forgot to call them back?

The reality is that missed calls are missed opportunities. First impressions really are everything. Voicemail just doesn’t cut it anymore if you want to stand out from the crowd.

“72% of callers who reach an automated answering will hang up [and potentially call a competitor] without leaving a message.” – Consumer Reports

Types of Answering Services for Businesses

There are seven main types of answering services that a small business may consider depending on your needs: IVR Systems, Automated Answering Services, Internet Answering Services, Call Centers, Contact Centers, Virtual Receptionists, and Virtual Office Services. Each type of answering service has specific services they are able to offer, and very different price points, depending on what you may need.

1) IVR Systems – Interactive Voice Response Systems 

IVR Systems are the ‘dumb’ systems that are really just glofirified phone trees. While they are fine for a caller’s self service, they don’t provide much benefit to customers with more complex questions and do nothing at all for presenting your business in a good light (or to capture leads). Have you ever gotten stuck in the ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Please repeat’ loop? Then you’ve met a typical IVR system.

When is an IVR System a  good option for your business? If you need 24/7 support or have a very high volume of calls that need very basic assistance, then an IVR might be a good option. Consider the case of a bank where most callers have simple questions such as account balance requests. If you go with an IVR system, remember, this shouldn’t replace a human-based team, just help to triage callers to take the load off the human team.

2) Automated Answering Services

Usually, an automated answering service is the same as an IVR system. Typically, they are non-human-based and a fairly ‘dumb’ system. AAS’ rely on prompts and key entries. You’ve undoubtedly experienced one of these yourself whenever calling a doctor’s office or financial business.

3) Internet Answering Service 

Internet Answering Services are a solution more commonly employed by e-commerce businesses. They typically offer email or chat help and other online-based support. Internet answering services also don’t typically provide live agent support. Oftentimes they will be automated like the previous option and will use a pre-written set of prompts to attempt to help customers. Also called ‘bots’.

4) Call Center

A call center deals exclusively with call handling. They are a more traditional answering service that handles all phone-related needs for their clients. They are less personal than a virtual receptionist, but still a real person which puts them above the automated systems above. Often a call center is a very large operation that specializes in a particular function like customer support or sales. They are also able to handle very high call volumes of complex calls due to how they are set up. 

There are three main types of call centers:

  • Inbound – Inbound call centers only accept incoming calls. They’re reactionary, and usually only handle customer service or sales inquiries.
  • Outbound – Outbound call centers only place outbound calls. They’re usually sales and marketing related.
  • Blended – A blended call center does both inbound and outbound work. Mostly inbound, but can place outbound if needed to set appointments, etc. They also may use channels such as SMS or email.

While call centers sound like a good solution depending on your business, there are definitely downsides. Agents in a call center typically work from a pre-written script and aren’t able to help your customers if a question deviates from what they are provided, which causes a worse customer experience then if you didn’t have anyone answering the phone at all. 

The traditional call center is also often very large scale and very costly (on the order of $100,000’s of dollars to implement in software and hardware). They are a good choice for fortune 500 companies with thousands of customers across all timezones, or organizations that need a massive fleet of sales teams. 

5) Contact Center

Sometimes called an omni-channel call center, especially on the software side, a Contact Center deals with interactions across multiple platforms at once (Calls, SMS, Live chat, Email, Social media commenting, etc). They are typically more costly than other options and require larger teams to handle all channels for their clients. This is another option that e-commerce stores will often use, but typically are overkill for most professional businesses.

6) Virtual Receptionists

Virtual receptionists are real humans who manage your phones just like a member of your own team sitting in an office next to you. They can be thought of as a fancy answering service. A good one will be specialized to your industry and be able to help your callers with a MUCH higher level of service than any other type of professional phone answering service. 

To a caller, it will sound like your virtual receptionist is in your own office. They will be able to schedule appointments, transfer calls, take messages, collect caller information, answer questions about your business, capture leads, and do some light outbound calling to confirm information, such as confirming documents for closing paperwork or checking that a form was filed with your local courthouse. 

A good virtual receptionist company will have less than 15 clients per agent so they will be able to know your specific business and repeat callers intimately. They are best for any size of an organization. Learn more about virtual receptionists by clicking here.

The downside? Onboarding as a new client can sometimes take more time than a typical phone answering service because they will need to learn more about your business than an average small business answering service will. Even with this extra level of detail, however, the process of onboarding typically takes less than 30 minutes. A good virtual receptionist company will systematize this process and make the onboarding as smooth and as easy as possible for you. It’s an investment that will pay off for years to come.

7) Virtual Office Service

A virtual office service isn’t really a phone answering service, per se. Similar to a virtual receptionist, a virtual office service will be able to handle your inbound calls, but also may offer services like temporary meeting space, mail collection, or a physical mailing address. They do not offer any kind of outbound calling, appointment scheduling, or lead capture.

How are Professional Phone Answering Services Different Than a VA? 

Virtual Assistants are best oriented to fixed-end tasks, which might include answering calls here and there but isn’t the best fit for companies who don’t always have lots of tasks that need to be done. Meanwhile, a good phone answering service will be able to handle all your phone-related needs on an ongoing basis – just like having a full-time receptionist in your office. 

Most companies choose to use either a virtual receptionist, a virtual assistant, or hire someone in-house to handle their phone answering needs.

Does Your Business Need an Answering Service?

Obviously, every business is different – and every business has different needs. Whether your business needs an answering service, and what kind of answering service, will depend on your industry, business size, and the types of inbound and outbound communication you do with customers.

However, a virtual receptionist can be a great way to handle customer interaction at any business size, and there are many other benefits to having a virtual receptionist (including your time, money, brand, and peace of mind). If you’re ready to learn more about bringing a virtual receptionist onboard to help your business grow, we’re ready to help.

See how powerful it can be to have your own virtual receptionist handling your phones.

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