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9 Questions You Should Ask when Shopping for an Answering Service: The Comprehensive Guide

 

A Comprehensive Guide to Things You Need to  Know and Questions You Should Ask when Shopping for an Answering Service.

Image of telephone answering service agents

When shopping for an answering service, you are by no means restricted to the questions posed in this guide, but these are the primary groups of questions that you should ask every time you research an answering service company. This article was designed to help familiarize you with the most important things to consider, and equip you with some important background information so you are fully prepared when shopping for an answering service. With this guide at your side, you will be able to successfully choose the best answering service to suite your needs.

  1. Do you bill by the minute or by the call?

Most telephone answering services offer usage plans in two ways: By the Minute or By the Unit. There are a few companies out there that offer flat rate plans. Those “pay one price for everything” type of services are few and far between in this industry, but a quick note on flat rate answering services: buyer beware. While paying one flat price for answering services no matter what your call volumes might sound great at first, users typically end up experiencing poor services levels. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for.

Ok, moving on to the two common types of answering services. Minutes and Units based billing structures. A “Minute” is used to define a billable measure of time. Usually, this time covers any time a live telephone answering operator is working on your calls. The number of minutes you are billed for depend on how long an operator is on the phone with your caller. A “Unit” is also a billable measure of time. But a unit is different in that it is a fixed rate which is billed to you no matter how long or short an operator is on the phone with your caller. Minutes cover actual time used on the phone while units cover the number of calls that are processed. So, which is better for customers? Let’s compare.

Minutes Billing

Being billed by the minute is referred to as “time sensitive” billing or “true time” billing. Services that bill by the minute use this strategy to effectively cover their labor costs and maintain their margins should calls require extended duration processing. There are certainly gains to be made by the consumer who chooses per-minute billing.

Three distinct advantages to paying for answering service by the minute:

  • Pay only for what you use – Since you are billed by the minute, you are only billed for time operators are on the line with your callers. If your chosen provider bills only for time spent on the phone with callers, then you are dealing with a “true time” billing organization. That means, if you have a call that lasts 2 minutes, you are billed for just 2 minutes. Let’s say you are signed up for service with a rate of $.90/minute. A 2 minute call only costs you $1.80. Quite reasonable for having just provided an excellent customer service experience and perhaps capturing a new sales lead. The beauty of using time-based billing is that it is accurate, fair and economical. True time billing organizations can cover their labor costs reasonably and profitably. And they should! You do want your answering service to be able to continue to provide excellent customer support while investing in the best technology and people, don’t you?
  • Gain billing efficiency on “short” calls – Because you are paying for operator time, short calls will be billed as they are. This is an advantage over units billing because with units you pay a flat fee no matter how long the call is. If your call is under a minute you only pay a fraction of your per minute rate.
  • Manage call durations and provide better service – When you are billed by the minute you will receive reports that detail your average call durations. This is important because you can work with your answering service provider to determine what kind of call durations are required to provide proper customer service and they can help you build the most cost effective answering service plan.

The biggest concern consumers of minutes billing often have is that they fear the answering service operators will stay on the line for excessive amounts of time in order to jack up the bill and cause hidden cost over-runs. Have you found a service in the USA that has made an effort to purposely train all its operators – as a group – to stay on the phones longer to artificially increase billing? If so, then you are in trouble. But that usually doesn’t happen. In all our years working in this industry, we have only ever heard of things like that happening a time or two. Those were small operations who did not end up succeeding as a business.

Most answering services are too busy with other calls coming in to try to sit around on the phones for extended periods of time. Now you may find an answering service that does not manage call durations well because agents are not trained properly, (or they are lazy), which can cause some calls to run a bit long. But you can figure this out quickly by asking for a call detail report! A call detail report will help you determine the kinds of call durations or call averages your service is producing. For many basic name, number, message answering service programs, call durations of about 1 to 1.5 minutes is normal.

Units Billing

Units billing is often referred to as “per call” billing. A “unit” in the answering service industry is often defined as “a call received, (even if no message is left), a confirmation call to check if your lines have been forwarded, a page sent out, a call dialed out, or a call transferred (patched) out.” Basically, this means that anytime an operator takes a call or makes a call, you are billed a unit. If you have very consistent call durations, (highly repeatable calls), then you may want to discuss units billing with your service provider. There may be advantages to both of you. There are also some gains to be made by consumers choosing per unit billing.

Two distinct advantages to paying for answering service by the unit:

  • Pay a flat rate for calls – Pay a flat rate no matter what your call durations are. This can be a huge advantage to you if you have long duration calls.
  • Avoid monthly billing variations – Often, with per unit billing, you can anticipate the number of calls your service will handle for you and control your monthly expenses. However, if you plan properly, you can also do this on per minute billing.

Ah, but there is a rub when it comes to per unit billing.

Three distinct disadvantages to paying for answering service by the units:

  • Overbilled for short calls – You pay the same rate for a call no matter the duration. Normally, an answering service will handle multiple short-duration calls during the month. Every time they do this, you effectively overpay for those calls. Remember, you are billed a full unit for every wrong number and every caller hang-up. Those only last 5 to 10 seconds each. Some units-based services tell you they don’t bill for wrong numbers and hang ups. Good luck auditing that bill. Many shoppers logically think in terms of “per call” billing. That’s because it seems “easier” to figure out billing. When you see a price tag of just $.80 cents per call, you can do the quick math and determine that you will pay $80/month for 100 calls. But be cautious when evaluating per-call billing methods. What most buyers neglect to take into account is “average call duration.” Average call duration is the amount of time that a typical phone call requires to process from start to finish. If your call durations are 1 minute each then you are, in fact, paying the 80 cents per call you signed up for. But what happens if your call durations are just 30 seconds long? You still pay 80 cents for the shorter calls. Same thing goes if your call is only 15-seconds long. Now you are paying 80 cents for a 15-second long call. That is equivalent to $3.20/call! On the other hand, if you have call durations that are much longer, (say 4 minutes on average), you end up paying a very low rate in terms of per minute billing. A 4-minute call billed at just 80 cents is equivalent to $.20/minute.
  • Multiple call processing adds up – Many calls often require multiple units to process. You are billed 1 unit for the call that is received, another unit for the call that an operator has to make to transfer (patch) the caller through to you, and possibly even another unit if the operator has to then call a backup person to deliver a message. It is not uncommon to be billed 3 units during the course of a single call transaction. Instead of paying for 1 unit you are paying for
  • Unknown call durations – It can be hard to determine how much time operators are actually spending on the phone with your callers. Figuring out what your average call durations are becomes a challenge because some answering service companies do not track this metric, (they only provide call counts).

Per minute billing is becoming more of an industry standard today. However, there are still plenty unit-based billing programs out there. Now that you understand the difference, you can shop with confidence!

  1. What kinds of services do you offer?

And you thought answering services only took messages. False! Great answering services are call centers. They can do lots of stuff. You should know the services and features that are available to you so they can help you in all kinds of ways.

  • Online Access – Find out how much of your account information you can access online, what you can do with it, and how you can manage your account online. Good online “web portals” will offer the ability to access everything you could ever want to know about your calls. You want to be able to see detailed information from each call or big picture data on peak call times/days. Every message should be available. Find out about hang-ups and wrong numbers. Be able to copy notes from calls into your charting info if you’re a medical professional. Make sure you can regulate access your web portal so it everything stays secure while still being able to share the info you want with the people who need it. Your web portal should contain everything you ever wanted to know about your account and let you pay your bill online too!
  • Appointment Scheduling – This is one of the fastest-growing areas of answering support. Having a service that can provide you with 24/7 scheduling support is a big deal. Your customers can call in and schedule, change, or cancel appointments with you around the clock. This requires the use of a quality web-based scheduling tool like AppointmentQuest that is shared by you and your answering service. Your answering support provider should have these kinds of systems in place. If they don’t, you will need to set one up and “share” it to your service. Do not use cheap facsimiles of real web scheduling tools. For example, Google Calendar is a free – calendar. It is not a scheduling tool. You have to know the difference or you, (and your service), will run into all kinds of issues trying to keep your appointments straight.
  • Multilingual Support – So you have customers or clients that don’t speak English and you would like to be able to provide service to them. What do you do? A great answering service offers both English and Spanish as part of its support. That’s called a Bilingual Answering Service. However, other languages are a bit harder to come by. Not many call centers in the United States are fully staffed 24/7 with agents that speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Russian, Farsi and Czech. In fact, there aren’t any! That is where language interpretation services come in. Your answering service should have a contract in place with a high-quality language services provider. When your non-English speaking caller dials your service they will be placed on a brief hold while the operator conferences in a native language specialist. The operator explains to the interpreter what kind of information they need from the caller and then they bridge a three-way conference call. The call is interpreted for the answering serviced agent and your message is delivered in English. A basic telephone answering service call requiring interpretation can take about 4 to 5 minutes to complete.
  • Cloud-based Voice, Fax and Auto-Attendant Services – Every now and then you find a turn-key answering service provider that does it all! If your vendor of choice can get you cloud-based communication systems on tap, then you are on to something! Local number and toll-free versions of cloud-based voicemail, fax and auto-attendant services can be extremely useful in a number of cases. Let’s say you are located in Casper, Wyoming. Your answering service vendor is located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. So your answering service gives you a toll-free call forwarding number to send your calls to. Usually, that is just fine. But what if you need a local Casper, Wyoming number? You can sign up for a remote call forwarding number with the local provider in Casper (expect to pay at least $35/month for that, plus a contract, plus high per-minute rates) or you can have your answering service provider order a cloud-based remote expansion number for you, which just happens to have a local Casper exchange. This is much more affordable and flexible.

Auto-attendants are also highly useful tools that can help businesses with extremely high call volume or multiple types of calls to organize and route calls where they need to go before they go to the answering service. Auto-attendants can save time and money. A great answering service will be able to build a custom auto-attendant for any purpose you need.

  1. How do you train your agents?

The issue of quality will eventually come up in your conversations with service providers, as it should. So you want to hit them with a zinger? Go ahead, do it! Ask them to briefly explain their agent training processes. Do you hear stuttering followed by dead air? Or do you have the Magna Charta explained to you? You should hear neither. What you should hear is that your answering service vendor has great concern about hiring the right kinds of employees before training ever begins. See? It was a trick question! Well, not really. But it is true. Great service providers know that training begins with proper recruitment. Rigorous interviewing, testing and hiring processes must be in place to ensure the best candidates. Once great candidates are found, they must have the right personality profile for the job. And what is that profile? Great answering service agents are welcoming by nature. They enjoy serving others. They like to solve problems. They care about people and they are sensitive to the feelings of others. And of course, they sound great on the phone. You only need a couple of minutes to assess if the answering service you are talking to is even in the ballpark on this one. If they start off with, “Oh, we really work hard with those agents. We sit side-by-side with them to make sure that they really understand your account… blah, blah, blah” you should already be preparing to hang up the phone.

  1. What are your call center’s performance standards?

So many standards, so little time. How can one service be expected to live up to all of them? They don’t! What they need to do is focus on the service metrics that matter to you. Further, they better have a very solid grasp of what metrics are important to you, (and to most other customers), and how they stack up against the industry. Dig in deep here and find out if your friendly sales rep knows his service as well as he thinks he does.

What are your hold times?
You will get one of two responses to this question. The first response will sound like this, “We never put callers on hold.” Or the other response you will get is, “We rarely ever put callers on hold.” Before you understand the answer to this question, you have to know what kinds answering service you are dealing with – a 1-call environment or a 3-call environment. We will get into that soon, but if you are talking to an answering service that puts calls on hold, here are some things you should know about holds…

  • Total Holds for the Month – This is the total number of calls that will likely be placed on hold during the course of a month. Let’s say your vendor has a 25% total hold rate. That means 25 out of 100 calls have a chance of being placed on hold in a month’s time.
  • Average Hold Time – This is the average amount of time that a call is kept on hold by an operator. This is the hold time you and your customers likely care the most about because it is the hold time that you are actually experiencing during a call. Obviously no hold time is best, but if you are shopping a service that has holds, you want a vendor that can prove to you that average hold times are less than 30 seconds. However, be aware that there will be a few two and three minute holds on occasion, but hopefully those will be your exception rather than the rule.

How many calls do your operators handle at once?
Phrased another way, you can ask, “Are you a 1 line or a 3 line shop?” So what is the difference?

  • 1-call answering service – These answering services are the ones that can say they never put a call on hold. Generally the call will be answered within the first 3 rings. Once the operator is on the line with that caller, they will not place them on hold. The only instance when a hold will be placed is if the operator needs to patch or transfer the call to someone in your business. And it’s totally up to you if you want your service to handle calls that way. 1-call environments provide the best customer service because your caller has the full attention of the agent as soon as they answer until the call is complete. The only thing you have to be careful of is that your 1-call environment answering service has proper staffing levels. If they don’t calls can end up ringing for longer until an operator becomes free to handle that call. So ask about staffing levels when you’re covering this topic with your account rep.
  • 3-call answering services – These answering services tout “speed of answer” as a key benefit to their offerings. But this is also the kind of environment where holds are common. Operators are required to balance 3-calls simultaneously during busy periods. The advantage to the consumer of this service is that a vast majority of inbound calls will be answered by a live person very quickly (less than 3 or 4 rings). However, if your caller is talking to one of their operators and another call comes in, the operator must ask the 1st caller to hold while they greet the 2nd caller, ask them to hold, and then go back to the 2nd caller. Heaven forbid a 3rd caller dials in! Between asking callers to please hold and apologizing for holds, your billable minutes can really start to stack up. Beware of 3-call environments and their hold times.

How quickly do you answer calls?
Callers do not want to listen to the phone ring and ring and ring. That’s part of the reason you’re hiring an answering service in the first place! You should expect your answering service to answer a majority of calls within the first few rings.

What are your average call durations?
There are different call durations for different kinds of calls. The reason that most shoppers ask this question is that they are inherently suspicious of answering services whilst shopping for them. They are convinced that operators are trained to sit on the phones for excessive periods of time in order to rack up your service bills. So they ask the call duration question. Most basic answering service calls, (name, number and a message), will take about a minute and a half to process. Appointment scheduling calls can take about 3 to 5 minutes to complete. However, most answering service calls should be under 2 minutes overall. If your sales guy tells you that call durations are all under a minute, then you have a problem. There is no way can an operator can do a thorough job that quickly. If calls are averaging over 5 minutes, then it sounds like you’ve got an inbound call center program on your hands which would include much more in-depth calls like order taking or help desk troubleshooting type of calls.

How do you monitor for call quality?
Most services will quickly reply, “We record our calls.” Great, so they record calls. But what do they do with the recordings? Superior services have many layers in their quality programs. Great agents are properly recruited, tested, hired, on-boarded, trained, re-trained, progressively trained, monitored, scored, evaluated, tested and trained again. It is a never-ending process that should be a constant pursuit of enhancing skills and services. It is a process that should be cherished as a hallmark of a top-notch service organization. Your sales person should have a deep knowledge of all facets of the training and monitoring programs within their organization. If they don’t, then it really isn’t that important to them because they are just trying to sell you a deal, not build a relationship.

  1. What reports do you offer?

Most services have about every report you could ever want to have. But, surprisingly, there are still shops that have very limited reporting, if any at all. These shops often create disgruntled customers who cannot understand what they are being billed for because there is no data available to make any sense out of their billings. You should, quite frankly, be able to ask for any kind of call data that you think you will need. Great services not only have this data, but they show you how you can build your own custom reports in just a couple minutes that you can pull whenever you want within your easy-to-use web portal. Here are some things you might want to have included in your reports…

  • Total calls
  • Total call processing time
  • Average speed of answer
  • Average call durations
  • Total number of calls placed on holds, total hold time, avg. hold time (if applicable)
  • Date, time and caller ID for each call
  • Total messages
  • Actual messages
  • Running total of minutes used during current billing cycle in real time
  1. What kinds of fees do you charge?

Everyone has fees. Just don’t pay too many of them. Fees are necessary and can be justified. But let’s take a look at the kinds of fees normally associated with answering services.

  • Activation Fees – This fee is standard and is billed by answering services to cover basic setup, implementation and provisioning costs. Scripting and basic agent training costs are also covered by most activation fees. Expect to pay between $40 and $100 for most activation fees. However, some super basic accounts can only have an activation fee of $20 while more complex accounts require additional time and a higher fee. Ask for quotes in advance.
  • Line Fees and DID Fees – Some answering services bill you a monthly fee for the call forwarding number (or Direct Inward Dial number) that they issue to you. However, most services include this fee in the cost of their service. You should not expect to pay for a call forwarding number, even if it is a toll free line. However, if you require multiple call forwarding lines in order to separate the way incoming calls are answered and handled, you can expect to pay a small fee for each additional number. Usually these fees are between $5 and $10 per month.
  • Hold Time Fees – If you use an answering service that doesn’t put calls on hold then you don’t have to worry about this. The ones that do put calls on hold should not bill you for hold time. But occasionally some do. If they do, don’t buy in. Hold time is not something that you should be financially responsible for (or have to put up with at all for that matter). You should not be penalized because your answering service experienced a call rush and had to put your caller on hold. Don’t pay for hold time.
  • Wrap Time – Wrap time is more of a traditional “call center” type of fee. Wrap time is the work that is done after a call is completed. Usually an operator is doing data entry and putting information into a system. Call centers normally bill for wrap time. But answering services rarely have any wrap time due to the way in which they process calls. You should not expect to pay for wrap time.
  1. What methods of payment do you accept?

If you can pay, they should be able to accept your preferred method. If you use check, credit card, wire transfer, money orders, or cash to pay your bill, ask to make sure they accept. Ask if paying through the web portal is an option. That’s generally the easiest way to take care of paying your bill.

  1. What are your payment terms?

Normally, you can expect payment terms to range between 10 and 30 days from the date of invoice. Larger answering service customers may ask to negotiate longer terms because it can take their bureaucracies a bit longer to process invoices.

  1. What is your billing cycle?

There are some services that will place you on a 28-day billing cycle. Seems innocent enough until you do the math. If you are on a 28-day cycle, you will actually pay 13 invoices over the course of a year, rather than just 12. You just got hit with an extra monthly payment! Insist that your vendor place you on a 30-day cycle. There is no good reason for doing a 28-day cycle other than taking you for extra money.

Final considerations


Location

Upon first thought, many people would like to hire an answering service that is in their own backyard. There is just something about going the local route and partnering with an answering service that’s down the street. However, logically, it doesn’t always make the best sense. Think about this: what if a natural disaster strikes in your area (flood, snow, hurricane, tornado, wildfire, etc.) and cripples the businesses in your neighborhood, including yours. If your answering service is right there with you then there isn’t much they can do to help you out, because they’re going through the same thing. But what if your answering service is in a secure location that wasn’t impacted by the disaster? Now they’re able to help keep your business on its feet and running while you focus on recovery. Smart answering services build their call centers in areas that aren’t prone to bad weather and have reliable power sources. They also invest in backup systems and redundancy to ensure they are always available to help your business no matter what.

How much noise are your callers going to hear?

When your callers reach the answering service you select are they going to hear a lot of background noise from other agents handling other calls? With some services it’s obvious the operator is in a call center because you can hear all the things happening collectively in the background. That is not the case with answering services who have taken the time to think through their call center layout and invest in good equipment. You want callers to hear the person they are talking to and that’s it. Feel free to ask your sales rep for some call recordings so you can hear for yourself.

What do their collateral materials look like?

When you are done shopping, you should begin to receive some collateral materials. Contracts, agreements, brochures, business cards, email, faxes and mail. So what does it all look like? Is it well-thought out, cohesive presentation material? Does it have a strong brand image? Is it a consistent brand image? Or are you looking at a bunch of Microsoft clip art pasted on recycled materials that has misaligned margins and a few typos thrown in just for fun? Collateral material speaks volumes about the company you are dealing with. Clearly, you don’t want overkill – hundreds of documents, lengthy contracts. But you should receive a reasonable amount of collateral and it should be well organized and easy-to-understand. Make a determination if you are reading “fluff” or if you are getting valuable information. Pay particularly close attention to the agreement. Read the terms and conditions carefully. Ask questions about anything you don’t understand.

Evaluate your sales rep

Was your rep friendly? Knowledgeable? Courteous? Professional? Did they ask you for your complete contact information or did they hurriedly get your name and email and whip a contract over to you? Ask yourself this question, “Did you like your sales rep?” You have to be able to build a relationship with your answering service company. That relationship starts with your sales rep. If they seemed shallow or even dishonest, you need to steer clear.

Evaluate the follow up

Did your rep stay in touch with you or just give you the obligatory voicemail that said, “Just following up on that contract I sent over to you and wondered if you had a chance to look at it yet.” Or are you being hounded every hour on the hour by an overly-aggressive sales rep? You’ll get a good feeling for the company you are about to deal with by the way the sales rep treats the follow-up process. Once you have signed on with an answering service, your sales rep should get you familiar with the other people on the team that you might expect to interact with. Does your new answering service check in with you after you’ve been using the new service for a week? A month? Or have you been left to fend for yourself?

One more note on sales reps

A good salesperson is going to follow up with you a number of times. That may be because you chose their company to be your answering service and they are helping you set your account up. Or it could be because you haven’t made your choice yet and they are checking in to see if there is anything they can do to help you make your selection. There is a good chance you may have talked to salespeople from several different answering service providers as you shop around. That’s great. However, if you choose not to go with a particular service provider and their sales rep continues to attempt to follow up with you, don’t ignore them. Simply answer their call or respond to their email and let them know that you’ve chosen to go a different route. They won’t be offended. They’ll be happy you were honest so they can allocate their time with other prospects effectively. And you’ll be happy that they aren’t continually trying to contact you when it’s just not going to work out between your organizations. This will save everybody time and effort.  So let your sales rep know whether you’d like to get things set up, if they should check back in with you at a later time, or if it’s not going to happen. They’ll be pleased to hear from you either way.

What about “Cheap” Answering Services?

When you choose a professional live answering service, you must know exactly what you are signing up for. Ask yourself this question: Are you basing your decision strictly on price or are you looking for a high-quality support service? Most would answer, “A little of both.” Everyone wants to save money. Everyone wants a good value. But can you get both with a live answering service?

Yes. But many are fooled by the disingenuous offers of the cheap answering service  vendors. Low-priced telephone answering services pride themselves on… low price. What you commonly find with these services is that service and performance both suffer. These services may offer a low fee but they do not have the internal resources to provide complete, comprehensive and consistent service. Most people would agree that it isn’t worth putting your business reputation at risk just to save a few bucks. Besides, the real way to save money with an answering service is to work with one that is going to help you build a cost effective plan.

Answering Service Ownership

Not many people think about this when they are shopping for an answering service, but it’s definitely worth mentioning. Answering services that have just one or two owner or are even publicly traded don’t usually have employees with much skin in the game. Good luck getting each individual agent to care about your calls. However, answering services owned by the employees themselves take pride in handling each call professionally. Every time a caller reaches that answering service they are speaking with an owner of the company who is invested in what they do and actually cares about the call.

There you have it! Use this answering service shopping guide to navigate the process of finding the right customer support provider, and you will have a successful experience that hopefully ends with the selection of the perfect answering service to help your business.

Please let us know if there is anything we can assist you with as you search for the right answering service to help your business flourish. We are always just a dial away: 800-577-1550

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About Andrew Tillery

Born and raised in Oregon, Andrew has now put down roots in Seattle, because he refuses to call anywhere but the Pacific Northwest home. After graduating from Portland State University with a double major in Marketing and Advertising, he spent some time learning Spanish and experiencing all that South America has to offer. It was while he was south of the equator that he uncovered an interest in writing that he strives to develop whenever the opportunity is presented. When Andrew isn't taking care of business at the office, he is throwing fuel on his fiery passions for sports and the outdoors.