If you’re in the market for a live answering service, or any business service for that matter, it’s only natural to want the best. After all, it’s your business’s reputation on the line each time your customers interact with anyone representing your business. So what determines if an answering service can be considered the best? According to the 2015 US Census data, there are 1,247 telephone answering services in the United States to choose from, with each one stating they’re the best – but can they all be? And that doesn’t even take into account the 3,929 call center businesses or 2,746 telemarketing firms!
So, what are the criteria for determining if an answering service is the best? If it’s expensive, is it worth it? If there are no reviews, can you trust it? If the service is all sunshine and lollipops for one small business, will it be the best choice for yours? There are so many questions to ask, but still no one to guide you in the right direction – until now. So, how do you find the crème de la crème, the Cadillac of all call handling, the best of the best of all answering services? Read on to find out.
Yes, a good answering service is more than just good operators. However, without good operators you don’t really have a good answering service, so it’s important that the service excels in keeping it’s most important asset, the operators, happy. If a company doesn’t adequately train their operators, then you can assume they don’t really care about quality. Not only should agents go through on-boarding and ongoing training courses, they should also be well taken care of. This means that they should be paid sufficiently, their issues or concerns should be heard, and they should love their job.
Being an operator is a super tough gig. Imagine taking a call and passing along a simple message (like first name, last name, and email), then on the next call you’re navigating someone’s calendar you’ve never seen before to try and schedule an appointment. Because of unnatural gear shifting like this, the industry as a whole usually has a pretty poor attrition rate, or staff turnover rate. However, if a company takes the time to make sure their operators are happy and heard, then the agents are less likely to leave. When they are less likely to leave, the company isn’t wasting resources training new people, which means less errors. And, the longer an employee works at a company, the better they get at their job. Essentially, happy operators = happy callers, happy callers = happy customers, and happy customers = a booming business.
We recommend asking about the attrition rate with any answering service you consider hiring. Need a jumping off point? The turnover rate, on average, for all businesses in the United States is around 15%. By comparison, the average attrition rate for an answering service / call center industry business is over 30%, almost double the national average, with rates reported up to 50%. When shopping around, you’ll want to make sure you’re contracting with an answering service that is below or around the 30% range.
Pro tip: Agents who are knowledgeable about the industries they answer for are more likely to capture leads as opposed to agents who are unfamiliar with the subject. So, it’s a good idea to place test calls to not only hear how they sound, but to see what they know about the topic. However, keep in mind that operators should not be giving advice in any field (medical, legal, etc.)
The best answering service doesn’t mean it’s going to be the cheapest or the most expensive, but it will have a variety of pricing options available to suit how you plan on using it. Usually, services will bill either by the minute or by the call, with some services offering both pay by the call and pay by the minute pricing models. A service that charges a flat rate or one that only has a few plans is probably not going to be super cost effective, as your usage most likely won’t fall into the plan allotment. No two businesses are alike, and a great answering service will understand that and model their pricing packages accordingly.
You also need to consider that your usage every month will probably differ, so the plan you are on in one month may not be suitable in other months. For example, landscaping companies may have high usage during the spring and summer months, but may have low usage during the fall and winter months. So, as your usage fluctuates, your answering service should fluctuate with you.
In addition, the best answering service is going to want to help you save money, not force you to spend more on minutes or calls you won’t use. Answering services that allow your unused minutes or calls to roll over into the next month, or services that allow you to upgrade (or downgrade) anytime to a plan that will better fit your needs are the services you should be looking for. Some services will make you choose a plan and stick with it via a yearly contract, whereas others will allow you to change plans as your volume changes. Essentially, billing should be transparent, flexible, and easy to understand.
Being the best means being available around the clock. When shopping around for a new service, you’ll want to check their availability. Do they only handle calls during business hours or are they available 24/7? You’ll also want to make sure that if they can handle calls 24/7, you’re not being charged extra. Some services will be available to answer your calls on weekends or holidays, but may charge you an extra fee, whereas others will not charge you.
In addition to making sure your calls are covered 24/7, you’ll want to check their customer support availability as well. If your answering service only provides support Monday through Friday, but you have an urgent issue over the weekend, how are you to get help? Will they reply via email or do you need to wait until Monday? Do they offer self help tools for you to make adjustments and remedy the issue on your own? Is there a helpdesk for you to reference in a pinch?
Sure, you want your answering service to answer calls, but is that it? The best answering service is going to do a lot more than just answer your phones, way more:
To put it simply, the best answering services will have great reputations. Checking reviews online can be a helpful insight into how a company operates and treats their customers. Of course not all reviews are 100% accurate, but they’re a good indicator of how a business is performing. For example, if all of the reviews for a company are negative, you can presume that the company itself isn’t doing too hot. On the other hand, if you’re looking at reviews for a company and they’re all 5 stars, you may want to question that as well.
No company is perfect, so if they only have raving reviews, they may be fudging their scores a bit. Some companies could have poor reviews removed, or they could have their own employees leave fake reviews. While this doesn’t happen often, it does happen. The best answering service will have a mix of good reviews, with some less than perfect scores strewn about. After all, you can’t keep everyone happy! If they do have poor reviews, it’s also a great opportunity to see how the company responds to those customers. Do they blow them off or are they willing to work with them to try and address their concerns?
While no answering service can guarantee there will never be hold times, the best answering service will make it a priority to have the lowest holds possible. Lower holds for you mean more agents in the answering service sitting idle. While this isn’t good for profits, it’s great for customer happiness. Queue times can be avoided by monitoring past trends and staffing up accordingly during peak times, hiring more agents, changing distributions (e.g., simple accounts can be directed to a larger operator pool whereas more complicated accounts can be directed to a smaller group of agents) and asking customers to alert the service prior to sending over large call volumes, if possible.
Some level hold times are inevitable, so you’ll want to make sure that your answering service is not trying to mask hold times or deflect questions. Make sure the service is willing to produce a hold report for whatever period you need data on. Where the answering service industry average for hold times is about 72%, you’ll want to make sure the report reflects that hold times are above 80% on average.
Great answering services will also allow you to add some sort of custom automated greeting to your line that lets callers know they’ve reached the correct place and that someone will be with them shortly. If there are holds, having this automated greeting increases the chance that the caller will stay on the line instead of disconnecting.
Customer support is the backbone of every company. They are on the front lines of your business and are the mediators for your customers. The best answering service will put time and effort into making sure that their support team is top notch, otherwise what’s the point? Live answering services are powered by live people, and the living will make the occasional mistake – so a support team needs to be there and armed with recommendations and knowledge to remedy the situation.
Even if you have a great service, if your customers can’t get the support they need in a timely or efficient fashion, they aren’t going to stick around for long. Sometimes, a great customer support team is what keeps a customer around even if the service or product itself is error prone. Some things to look for in a good customer support team are:
Similar to great customer support, the best answering services are going to get you started off on the right foot, or the right voice! An intake specialist, or often a sales representative, is going to take the time and carefully discuss your businesses needs and goals before the account is programmed, and before the receptionists answer their first call on your behalf. The intake specialists’ goal is to make sure that the account is set up how you envisioned. A good intake team will take extra time to work with you to refine your call handling, while a poor intake team will rush through the process. This could result in errors, unhappy customers, and an eventual loss of business. A good intake team will ask you questions like:
Last, but not least, if a company is confident with their product or service, they’re going to let you try it for free. Trial periods could last anywhere from 1 week all the way to a month, but usually fall somewhere in the middle. The best answering service will work with you diligently during this time frame so that they can iron out any kinks you may come across. Of course they’re going to want you to eventually sign up for service, but what they want more than that is for you to be happy. Happy customers leave positive reviews, and recommend your service to others. So, one happy customer could really lead to 10 more.