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Three Distinct Disadvantages to Paying for Answering Service “By the Call”

 

There are two ways that answering services choose between to charge you. By the call or by the minute. If you look closely, getting billed by the call has some big disadvantages for you as the customer.

Image of a chalkboard that has three cons of paying for answering service by the call

Per-call answering service billing is referred to as “per unit” 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.

In the 1980s and early 90’s, answering services were used predominantly to handle very simple calls for their customers. Nothing more than gathering a name, number and a brief message was required. These calls were very consistent in terms of call duration (about a minute). And they were highly repeatable in terms of operator processing speed. Because of this, the answering service industry, as a whole, billed flat-rate “per unit” pricing plans almost exclusively.

Before we get into the disadvantages of getting billed by the call or unit, it’s only fair to note some gains to be made by consumers in having per unit billing:

  • 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.

Today, business customer support has become increasingly more complex in an attempt to provide excellent customer support at all hours of the day. Answering service providers are working harder than ever to handle more complex tasks and support issues so that callers can experience a “1-call resolution” no matter what their issue might be. Because of this, the nature of answering support calls has grown dramatically from simple message taking to more complex, multi-step call processing, which includes appointment scheduling, web-form data entry, level 1 help-desk and more. As a result, the industry has outgrown the per-unit billing model. In fact, there are three distinct disadvantages in paying for answering service support on a per call basis.

  1.  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 6 to 10 seconds each. Some 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 average just 30 seconds long when you factor in wrong numbers and hangups? 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!

  2. 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 actually paying for 3.
  3. 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). As a consumer, you need to know how much time operators are spending on the phone with your customers, because you can better manage your support processes when you do.

Even though per minute billing is mostly an industry standard today, there are still unit-based billing programs available. If you find a vendor that will handle your multi-step, complex call processing needs on a per-call basis, you need to seriously consider if you are going to get the level of support you need.

Yes, the price for flat-rate pricing can be enticing. It can seem like an incredible bargain that you are about to receive. But as soon as you sign that agreement and send your calls to a per-call processor, you need to watch your service levels like a hawk.

Don’t allow the lure of a low flat-rate pull you into a morass of service problems including rude operators, high hold times, and auto-answer systems. Be very careful when you shop for answering support.

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About Brian Gabriel

As the Call Center Manager for Sound Telecom, Brian is responsible for overseeing the daily operations and long term success of the company while managing a variety of inbound customer support programs. He also has a hand in taking care of the Solaxis services division. Prior to joining Sound Telecom, Mr. Gabriel held management positions with several prominent Internet Services companies including XpenseWise.com and Greatfood.com. Brian started his career in advertising and sales before moving to Washington State. He joined AEI Music in 1995 and supervised their international customer service department and technical support call centers. Brian received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish languages from San Diego State University. Brian teaches adult education at his church and actively supports Christian ministries.