The right answering service can make all the difference in the success of your small business. But before you commit to what you think is the best answering service for your needs, you need to look at the service from all sides. We know it’s a daunting task, but we’re here to help. We’ve been in the answering service industry for over 30 years and speak to small businesses every day, helping them determine if SAS is the right solution for their needs. With literally thousands of telephone answering services, any of them can be ‘the one’. And with so many choices, the task of finding ‘the one’ isn’t that simple. The reality of looking for the right answering service can be a challenge. To make it easy, you need to know exactly what you’re looking for and what questions to ask to find what you need. So, to help, we’ve come up with a list of 10 essential factors to consider when searching for an answering service.
#1. Think 24/7
One of the most vital requirements your business may have for the perfect answering service is making sure the service is available 24/7. Because one of the answering service’s main goals is to make sure your business is always open, being able to rely on an answering service on nights, weekends, and holidays is crucial. If you’ll be relying on your answering service to capture leads and dispatch urgent calls, seriously think about a service that is open all day and night. While many answering services do offer 24/7 availability, it may come at a cost.
For example, some services may charge an extra fee to answer your calls after 9pm or on a holiday. Another caveat may be that the answering service only offers live support up until a certain time, and then switches over to an automated system. Answering services that offer 24/7 live support at no additional costs are the services that are truly there to help your business succeed, and is definitely a feature you should be looking for.
#2. Operators Are Representing Your Business
The right business answering service can make or break your company. The professionalism of the operators are one of the most important features you can look for in an answering service. Without great operators, you’ll have a difficult time ensuring all of your customers are being taken care the same way as your own employees would take care of them. For most businesses, one of the key components to a great service is the operators ability to properly represent the company they are answering for. Some businesses require a lively, energetic operator – while others, like funeral homes or medical practices, will require their operators to be calm and composed. Beneath any personality requirements is the operators ability to be nimble, to adapt to the needs of the caller, and be able to evaluate every situation and react accordingly. Because every caller is different, you’ll want to look for agents that can adapt well.
#3. Personalize Your Callers Experience
If you want to maintain continuity between the calls you handle in your own office and the calls the answering service is handling, you’ll need to make sure your answering service is as personal as can be. You won’t want your answering service to use generic call handling templates as that won’t make your clients feel like they’ve called your office. Generic call handling makes your customers feel like a number – personal call handling makes your callers feel like you care. In order for an answering service to feel like a part of your business, you’ll want to make sure their call scripting can be customized to your specific business needs. An answering service that answers and handles each call the same way for every business isn’t really helping anyone. Sure, gathering a name and number is important, but each business has different needs that should be able to be met by the service.
Since all businesses depend on customer loyalty, a personal answering service will let your callers know how important their business is. You love your customers, and a personal experience will show them how much you really do love them. Make sure you take the time to work with your answering service and personalize the experience as much as you can to make sure your business is being reflected.
#4. Know Your Budget
You’ll find telephone answering services ranging from $0 to start on a free trial to just about any price you can imagine. Most services do not have a flat rate structure but instead charge based on line activity. The more traffic you put through the answering service, the more expensive your price. So, if you have a high volume business – you can do the math there. Other answering services have different pricing tiers which offer allotments in use. With this, the cost is more affordable but you need to have a predictable monthly call volume for the cost to make sense. If you know your budget, your call volume, and how you plan on using the answering service, you can dictate the best pricing model for your business. Here are two common answering service billing structures:
- Per minute billing: In a per-minute billing structure, you are billed by the minute. Similar to a cell phone plan, these types of structures usually provide an allotment of minutes to use each month before having to pay for overages. A good answering service will offer several different plans depending on your call volume, and may even change your plan automatically if you happen to go over your usage threshold.
- Per call billing: In a per-call billing structure, you are billed by each call that comes in. Within this billing structure, it doesn’t matter how long your calls are. However, your answering service may charge extra for any messages sent, and calls that need to be dispatched may count as a separate billable call.
Pro tip: If your answering service offers both per-minute and per-call billing structures, it may be helpful to see which structure would be most cost-effective for you. Your service should be able to pull reports that break down your average monthly usage, which will help determine the better billing structure.
#5. Evaluate Features Before You Buy
Before signing up with an answering service, always check to see if they offer a free trial period. This is a great way to get a feel for the service before having to pay, especially if the service requires you to sign a contract. If they do offer a free trial, here are some tips on getting the most out of that trial period:
- Place test calls: Placing test calls will give you an idea of what your customers will experience when they call. It’s also a great opportunity to make sure there are no hiccups with the call handling.
- Make updates: If there are any issues, the free trial period is a good time to iron out kinks and make necessary changes before going live with your customers.
- Test various features: Like this post suggests, answering services can typically do more than just answer your calls. The trial period is a good time to get acquainted with the various features they offer, and if they’ll work with your business structure. For example, you can test out their appointment scheduling software or see how their on-call dispatching system works.
#6. Consider You’ll Need an Online Interface
Some answering services offer email, text, or fax transmission of messages without the ability to check those messages online. While piecemeal messages may work for some, most businesses prefer having the ability to see their current and past messages online. With a web portal, you’ll have more control over reviewing your messages. While customer portals will differ from answering service to answering service, some common features may include:
- A log of call of your calls/messages
- The ability to listen to call recordings
- Access to your call handling and the ability to make updates in real time
- On-demand access to reports
- The ability to upload and manage your on-call schedule
#7. Emergency Dispatching System
No matter what type of business you run, you’ll most likely have a need for urgent dispatch. Whether you’re dispatching hot leads or urgent medical situations, you’ll want to find an answering service that can work closely with your in-house team and can adhere to your schedule(s) accordingly. Here are some things to look for in an answering service’s dispatching system:
- Are they available 24/7? Usually businesses use their on-call system for urgent issues that happen after-hours. If an answering service’s dispatching system is not available when you need them most, they probably aren’t the service for you.
- Can you make updates on your own or do they have to be submitted? Having to wait to submit changes can be detrimental if you’re in a bind. For example, say your on-call technician has a family emergency and can’t cover the shift. However, it’s already after-hours so your answering service’s customer support team is unavailable for immediate changes. When your answering service gives you access to an online portal or mobile app that allows you to make changes in real time, you can save the hassle of reaching out to customer service, and make the changes all on your own.
- Can you upload your existing schedule? Having the ability to upload your existing schedule right into your answering service’s system is a great time-saver and eliminates the need to do double the work.
- Are they HIPAA compliant? For medical practices, this is a big one. A HIPAA compliant answering service will not leave any patient information on your voicemail or through any messages. You would either be able to call your service back or log into a secure online portal to retrieve the message.
#8. Make Things Easy
Your answering service needs to be easy to use, and easy to make any changes. If you select a provider that makes it difficult to make script changes, make simple updates like changing a text message number or email address, or update your on-call schedule, it will hinder your company’s ability to work smoothly with your answering service provider. The point of an answering service is to help make running your business and handling day to day communication tasks easier – not more difficult. If you’re able to take free trial periods, you’ll need to spend a bit of time testing. Take advantage of any live demos to find out if the service you’re considering is user-friendly enough for your business and employees. Otherwise, you may find that your answering service is more of a pain to use and it’s not helping anything.
#9. Check 3rd Party App Compatibility
One of the issues you may have in finding the right answering service solution is that the system may need to be compatible with any software you’re currently using in your office. Because some software and calendars don’t play well with others (i.e. there is no API and operators may need to log in to post updates), the task can be a bit of a challenge. Depending on how important the integration is, you may need to rethink how important it is for your answering service to use it. If you do find a service that works with the software you’re already using, most integrations will push information gathered by the operators directly through to your software, updating it in real time and simultaneously cutting down on the amount of work you and your staff have to do since you won’t need to log into multiple systems to retrieve your data.
#10. Don’t Forget About Security
In many cases, your answering service will either be housing sensitive information or passing information back and forth between systems you’re already using. For medical practices or eCommerce companies, finding an answering service that is either PCI and/or HIPAA compliant is essential. If a medical or eCommerce company is using an answering service that is not compliant, they could be held accountable for any violations, which may result in thousands of dollars in fines, a loss of business, an even jail time. For these reasons, make sure the answering service you use is secure. Below is a break down of what it means to be both PCI and HIPAA compliant, and how answering services adhere to those rules.
- PCI Compliant: To combat the increase in security data breaches, The Payment Card Industry and the Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) were created. In order to maintain PCI compliance, companies who accept credit card information must complete a yearly self-assessment and pass a quarterly security scan. Some ways that answering services maintain PCI compliance is by requiring employees to work in paperless environments and turning off call recordings when taking payment information.
- HIPAA Compliant: HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was created to help regulate and protect the private health information of patients. In order to maintain HIPAA compliance, answering services cannot send any patient information through text, email or voicemail. All messages and calls should be stored in a secure online portal that customers can log into using a username and password. Answering services who are HIPAA compliant should also sign a BAA with your company to securely disclose private information.
An Answering Service Is An Essential Business Tool
Remember, a telephone answering service serves a much greater purpose than just answering your telephone lines, taking messages, and dispatching important calls. It will make your customer service stronger, your day more productive, and callers won’t fall through the cracks like they do with voicemail.