9 Characteristics of the Best Answering Services

Happy Customers On Phone

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.

#1. Proficient & Happy Operators

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.)

#2. Flexible Pricing

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.

#3. 24/7 Availability

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?

#4. A Variety of Features

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:

  • Outbound Calling: Answering services answer calls. But did you know they can do outbound calling as well? I know what you’re thinking – “Why would I need outbound calling if I’m not a telemarketer?” Well, telemarketers aren’t the only businesses that make outbound phone calls on the regular. For example, medical offices make outbound calls every day to remind patients of upcoming appointments, and property management and/or real estate companies make outbound phone calls to people who have expressed interest in buying, selling, or renting a home. Even HVAC companies make outbound calls to remind people of upcoming seasonal cleanings or expiring service contracts. So, if you have leads to call or customers to remind, then outbound calling may be a beneficial feature to use with your answering service!
  • Appointment Setting: If you’re too busy to schedule appointments yourself, have your answering service do it for you. Many answering services can schedule appointments, but the best answering service will give you different scheduling options. For example, SAS can schedule appointments on your website, on our own scheduling software, or on a web based application like Google Calendar. Other services may even be able to log right into your scheduling software to set appointments, but there are some security risks involved if you decide to go that route.
  • Online Portal/Mobile App: The best answering service will also give you access to some sort of online portal and/or mobile app that has all of your account data (including messages) stored in one place. Transparency rocks, and you should have on-demand access to your own data. The portal should be user friendly and easy to navigate, in addition to having multiple features within. For example, Specialty Answering Service’s portal allows you to download various reports, update call handling, listen to and download calls, rate operators, configure various apps, and update where your messages are sent, plus so much more.
  • Emergency On-Call Dispatching: Many businesses use answering services to help field urgent calls after hours, so the best answering service will offer emergency on-call dispatching at no extra cost. What makes the service even better is if they allow you to update the schedule at a moment’s notice via an online portal or a mobile app. That way, you don’t have to waste time reaching out to the service when you can just update it yourself, especially if you’re in a time crunch.
  • Customizable Call Handling: Being able to customize your call handling is super important. After all, no two businesses are the same, so a service shouldn’t limit you on what you can include. Of course, the service is going to know what works best for their agents, but a great service will work with you to make sure that they’re gathering all the necessary information in a way that will work for both you, the customer, and the agents handling the calls.
  • IVR & Voicemail Options: An easy and efficient way to streamline calls is to add an IVR option to your line (e.g., press 1 for sales, press 2 for support). A bad service won’t want you to route calls to automation since they make their money from the time you spend talking to operators, but a good service will offer this option. This will allow callers to press the corresponding option to get them connected to the appropriate department or go direct to voicemail. With answering services, you can either have those options re-directed to departments within your own office, or you can set up multiple lines with your answering service to help keep calls organized. With respect to voicemail, you are usually able to set up a voicemail service where recordings can be emailed to you. While voicemail isn’t the most effective method of interacting with your customers, it’s always a good option to have if all else fails, and it will cut down on your live operator talk time, which is always a good thing for the budget friendly small business.
  • App/CRM Integration: Apps are cool, and an answering service that offers app integrations is also cool by default. Many companies utilize customer relationship management (CRM) software to help keep track of and organize all of their client data. So, having an answering service that can help increase productivity by pushing caller information through to your CRM is a total bonus. Some services may only offer a few integrations, whereas others may have a whole list of apps that they can integrate with.
  • Order Processing: An answering service that can process orders is a godsend for any eCommerce business. Customers usually go online to place orders themselves, but some people may need a bit more help, which is where an answering service comes into play. The best answering service is going to have agents who are able to go out to various websites and place orders in a timely fashion.
  • PCI Compliance: If your service is processing orders and taking credit cards, you’re going to want to make sure they are PCI compliant. PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliance means that ANY company who is processing or accepting payments has to maintain a secure environment. The agents handling the calls should be in a paperless environment, so they are not able to write down any information. In addition, if your service records calls, they should turn off recordings during the portion of the call where the credit card information is being provided.
  • Bilingual Agents: Just because an answering service doesn’t offer bilingual agents, doesn’t mean they stink. However, offering bilingual support is a huge come up and can set one service apart from others. If your company gets a lot of calls from Spanish speaking callers, you’ll definitely want to invest in a service that offers this feature.
  • Dedicated Agents: A dedicated agent is an agent that is assigned to handle your calls specifically, and is a great feature for companies who need extra attention for their callers. Not every answering service will offer a dedicated agent program, and the pricing structure may vary from service to service. However, it does usually cost less to hire a dedicated agent then it would to hire another employee to work in house, especially since you don’t have to pay for any benefits.
  • HIPAA HITECH Compliance: If you’re a medical practice, then using a service that is HIPAA HITECH compliant is crucial. After all, the receptionists will have access to private health information (PHI). Answering services that are HIPAA compliant will not send any patient information via electronic means (this means no texting or emailing you your messages). However, they can still fax them. The best answering service will store all of your messages in a secure online portal, and just send you an email or a text alerting you of a new message when one comes in. If you can, you should also see if you can enter into a Business Associates Agreement to ensure all of your patient information stays protected.

#5. Good Reputation

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?

#6. Minimal Hold Times

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.

#7. Amazing Customer Support

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:

  1. Friendly, helpful team members.
  2. Team members who are proficient and knowledgeable in what they are doing.
  3. A support team that is easily accessible, meaning there are various channels to contact them on (phone, email, live chat, social media, etc.)
  4. Quick response times.
  5. An eagerness to resolve issues in a timely manner. We like to call this “one phone call resolution.”

#8. Efficient Script Development

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:

  1. What type of calls will we be answering for? (emergencies, appointments, orders, etc.)
  2. How do you want calls handled during business hours as opposed to after hours?
  3. Are calls being transferred or is the service just sending messages via email/text?
  4. If callers ask for you, what would you like us to tell them?
  5. Should we say we are the answering service or would you like us to act like the receptionist?
  6. Should we screen callers depending on if they are a new or existing customer?
  7. What types of automation tools do you use, like CRM software of lead management software?

#9. Free Trial

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.


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Specialty Answering Service is a leading call center company, helping fast-growing businesses close sales and deliver amazing live customer support 24 hours a day. SAS' friendly virtual receptionists and customized call handling create an outstanding virtual office experience. There are thousands of small businesses already using our services. Try SAS for free today.

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