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What are call answering services?

Typical, the phone only ever seems to ring when you’re in the middle of doing something. And you have to make a split-second decision about whether this is a potential sale, an existing client or just some chancer trying to sell you something. You can’t win.

Sound familiar? This is where call answering services can help.

So, what exactly is a call answering service?

Call answering services are professional call handling support for your business. This, of course, shouldn’t come as any big surprise.

When somebody calls your business, the call will be taken by a receptionist who is, to all intents and purposes, a member of your team. The call details are then taken and shared with you.

These services come with a whole host of features and added services, making them scalable and suitable for businesses of all sizes. 

Why do companies use phone answering services?

Employing a full-time reception is expensive. And getting your current staff to step in when needed and taking them away from the position you employed them for, never really works out. 

Call answering services are there for companies of all sizes and all call volumes. Whether they want to cut overheads or stop the distraction of ringing phones, there is a phone answering option for all. 

Some services even come with features that stretch beyond phones. Live chat, social media, email, some call answering services can take care of it all, making these services more and more the complete solution for a business’ entire inbound client communication.

What is the most basic answering service?

The most basic service in the industry is a message taking service. This is known by different names depending on the provider, but can be recognised by the simple 4-step:

  1. A customer calls your business line
  2. Your virtual receptionist answers with your business name and following your script
  3. They  apologetically explain that you’re unavailable (due to some prearranged reason)
  4. The caller’s details and message are taken and delivered to your inbox instantly

This entry-level service, which we call Virtual Receptionist, is the cheapest call answering option and best-suited for smaller businesses.

The major differences with these services are what details are collected and how the caller’s information is shared.  

Typically, the details your receptionist will collect are standardised, including callers’ name, company (if relevant), phone number and reason for calling. This can vary but the more information you need to be gathered often pushes the price up or means you have to move to the next service level. 

How the call details are shared with you are also something you can choose. Email notification is the most used and most efficient, but SMS messaging is also available.

Are my calls answered by a real person?

Yes. That’s the point of the service. A virtual receptionist will answer the phone just as if you had your own receptionist in the office next door (or in the dining room if you’re working from home). They’ll know your instructions, follow your script and answer with your company name. They are, to the ears of the caller, your receptionist. You just don’t need to pay them a full-time salary and buy them a gift at Christmas. In fact, you can employ a virtual receptionist for as little as £10 a month.

What else can a phone answering service offer?

Call answering services can offer additional features such as order taking, appointment booking, calendar management, inbox management, and even live chat management where needed. They will usually offer call transferring for calls you previously label as important. And they can transfer those calls to any member of your team. The exact offering can differ depending on your requirements so it’s best to discuss any extras that you think you might need before agreeing to anything. 

Do you receive a local business number?

Yes, a business line is provided when you sign up for a call answering service. Business owners often choose a local phone number to attract customers searching for their services locally. Others prefer a regional number of a city or area that adds status or credibility to their brand. It depends on the type of customer you’re targeting. 

What’s the difference between a call centre and a call answering service?

Call centres are usually big operations associated with outbound marketing or sales calls. Returning a call to one of these centres will often be met with an operator who doesn’t know who you are, who rang you and why they tried to get in touch in the first place. This is not a call answering service. 

Phone answering services ‘feel’ a lot more personable. They only take inbound calls, have an intimate knowledge of your business and can recognise your repeat callers. 

A Whistl poll of 1,000 Brits in 2018 showed ‘being put on hold is one of the most exasperating life experiences.’ While customers might put up with this when dealing with big brands, they’re not always so forgiving when trying to reach SMEs. This is where a dedicated virtual receptionist really pays off.

How does it work?

Firstly, you can choose to keep your existing business number or select a new one for free. All calls made to this number are then diverted to your virtual reception.

The tech used will then automatically send the call straight to your personal receptionist. Their headset will whisper your company name while simultaneously displaying all your business info, script and instruction on their laptop.

Your call handler answers using your business name in that same way that an in-house receptionist would. They’ll follow your script, filter out unwanted calls and pass on the caller’s details and message in real-time. They can even transfer the most important calls to any of your team,  take orders, book appointments or provide some product support.

One of the great things about a call answering services is that you don’t need to concern yourself with the techy side of things. Sure, there’s some magic being worked behind the scenes, but that’s not something you need to worry about. Like all tech issues, you can leave that to the IT geeks behind the scenes.

How much do I have to pay?

Prices vary but generally start at around £10 per month with a small fee for each call taken (we’re talking pence not pounds). 

You shouldn’t expect to pay a set-up fee, but, be warned, there are a number of providers out there that try just that. 

Most businesses find these services surprisingly affordable and beneficial, particularly as they free up that most valuable commodity – time.

 Is a phone answering service right for my business?

Ultimately that’s a decision only you can make. If you’re considering signing up for call answering services, spend a bit of time monitoring how many calls you receive on a normal day or week. How do you currently handle them?  What impact do they have on your business? How frustrating are those timewasters? If you find answering calls disrupts workflow or takes you or your staff away from what they do best, call answering service may be the answer.

You might find your existing staff excel at their job but not at call handling. Customer service is, after all, a unique skill. If that’s the case, you might want to think about whether a virtual receptionist will make a better impression. This can add a layer of credibility to your brand. And customer service is one of the most popular aspects focused on online reviews so it can also help to boost brand image as well as sales.

Benefits of using a call answering service

It’s not unusual for businesses to see peaks in demand at certain times of the year or following a successful advertising campaign or just because their product or service is, to some degree, seasonal.

At these times you want to be able to respond appropriately. A phone answering service provides this without taking resources away from the delivery of your services or products. In fact, these services can ensure you never miss a business call again. You can be confident that all calls from existing or potential clients are dealt with promptly and exactly the way you want.

Are these services scalable?

Call answering services come in all shapes and sizes. Some offer a simple pay-as-you-go, while others offer inclusive minutes that offer a cheaper cost-per-call rate that benefit large call volumes.

This means that savings can be made throughout the growth of your business. And regardless if you’re a one-man-band or an international retailer with thousands of staff, there is a package that will suit your needs.

What to look for in a call-handling provider

If you’ve decided that a phone answering service is the right option for you, it’s time to look at the various providers and packages available. 

Make sure you do not choose a company that forces you into a long contract. Many allow you to cancel anytime. A serious provider will have confidence in their service and won’t feel the need to tie you down. 

Take a look at the plans on offer. Look at the monthly charge, cost per call rates, call transfer rates and any other fees that you may encounter. 

Avoid set-up fees and contracts that tie you in for long periods of time. Take up a free trial if they are on offer, and if they’re not, why not take up one of the services that allow you to cancel anytime? After a month or two you’ll see the benefit. 

Of course, it’s important that you don’t overcommit and spend money on services you don’t use. But think about how you intend to grow your business and which plans you might want to upgrade to in the future. 

There’s no harm in asking questions about services which you may want at a later stage. In fact, it’s more efficient to think ahead and choose the right provider for the long term than having to start going through the hassle of changing providers. 

Try to find stats on their call answer rate. This is, after all, the service you will be paying for. Fancy graphs mean nothing if calls are not answered in good time. 

Check reviews too. One of the best indicators of any business is what their existing clients say about them. The headline score out of 5 is important but take some time to read the comments as well. Whether the reviews are positive or negative, you should get a feel for the company and any remarks which are repeated should give you a good idea about the level of service offered. And be realistic too. Bear in mind that the odd negative review among a series of positive comments is not necessarily a true reflection of the company. 

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