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Virtual Receptionist Services – What Are They and How Do They Work?

You may have heard of a Virtual Receptionist as it’s a term that’s grown in relevance over the last few years, but what  is it exactly and how can your company benefit from this type of service?

Image of Sound Telecom agents providing virtual receptionist services

The term ‘virtual receptionist’ has been used as a synonym for live telephone answering service for a number of years. However, there are a few subtle differences between the two. The word ‘virtual’ implies that your receptionist isn’t physically located in your place of business. To your callers, the virtual receptionist has the appearance of being in your office, but they are not. Instead, virtual receptionists work out of a professional call center or from home in some cases. They field incoming phone calls, assist callers, take messages, and more. That is probably why people started using the term ‘virtual receptionist services’ to describe what a telephone answering service does. Besides, the term ‘virtual’ sounds kind of hip, trendy and cutting edge. And indeed, the modern capabilities of virtual receptionist services are advanced and impressive.

However, ‘virtual’ doesn’t only describe the location of the services being rendered. It also describes the different kinds of services being delivered. Once we understand the many different kinds of virtual receptionist services offered, we are better able to understand what it actually is.

What Are Virtual Receptionist Services?

Virtual receptionist services include many of the tasks that a telephone answering service performs. And an answering service generally handles calls for other businesses. So it makes perfect sense to apply the term ‘virtual’ to telephone answering support. Businesses hire answering services to process calls and perform a number of different support tasks for them.

While answering services and virtual receptionist services are both outsourced solutions and generally have similar capabilities, the difference comes down to their level of involvement. Typically, an answering service will provide basic call handling and message taking/delivery. Virtual receptionists do this as well as schedule appointments, transfer calls, and have an overall involvement that goes a little deeper with the business they are working for. Again, answering services have the same abilities and preform the same tasks, so it really is best to think of the two as fairly synonymous.

Both are great options and there are a vast number of reasons why businesses choose this type of support.

•    Never miss an important call – Every time you miss a call, you miss an opportunity. That means an opportunity to make money or to serve your customers. Every time you fail to respond to a customer in a timely manner, you risk losing that customer. Every time you send a caller to voicemail, you potentially create a frustrated prospect.  Having a virtual receptionist will “pay you back” by easily preventing each of these problems.

•    Provide 24/7 support – You can build-out a call center in-house in anticipation of an unknown customer support need, or hire a professional virtual receptionist company to provide immediate response around the clock. Your decision to do one or the other will be based on both financial and management criteria. If you use a remote receptionist service, you can release a product quickly to the market, dodge expensive ramp-up costs, avoid expensive payroll and management costs, and control your monthly budgets.

•    Reduce costs – Some folks think that having a secretary sit up all night and handle inbound emergency phone calls is the best solution. Why? A secretary can only handle at most 1 or 2 lines at a time. Why pay them $32,000 per year or more to handle only one call at a time? You can have virtual receptionist services in place to handle ALL of your calls immediately and pay as little as $45/month (based on your call volume). Virtual receptionist services generally run 20% or less than the cost of hiring a full time person.

•    Improve image – Businesses often work hard to create an incredible and memorable brand image to set them apart. Business owners understand that a quality brand image is ubiquitous and all areas of contact and customer interface are considered important. However, one area of contact is almost always overlooked: phone answering is typically left out of the mix. Businesses must remember that branding encompasses every impression a company makes on its customers. Leaving phone answering out of your branding equation is both unwise and impractical.

This is just a short list of reasons how businesses can benefit from virtual receptionist services.  Here are several more!

Business Process Outsourcing

Providers of virtual receptionist services should also be an adept business process outsourcing partner. One business that processes a variety of call center tasks on behalf of another business is a business process outsourcer or a virtual outsourcer.  Virtual receptionist  services are becoming more and more diverse every day. Businesses demand that their chosen BPO providers handle more complex and involved support tasks. Because of this,  remote receptionist providers have adapted by offering a variety of new support models to keep up with the demand. The line between “virtual” and “on premise” support only becomes more blurred as BPOs continue to take on more and more responsibilities like virtual receptionist services.

•    Call Transfer Services – Many offices have a receptionist on-staff to transfer calls. Virtual receptionists can do the same thing. Businesses simply forward their lines to their virtual receptionist services and calls are immediately transferred to a variety of departments, people and extensions. Call transfers can be completed to landlines and cell phones. Additionally, the call transfer (or “patch”) can be  facilitated by a live agent which is known as a ‘warm’ or ‘announced’ transfer or a done with no announcement at all (cold transfer). This is a much more cost-effective method of handling this type of work, because it is billed either by the call or for the amount of time involved in the transfer. The “pay as you go” formula with virtual receptionist services is usually 20 times less than what a business pays a receptionist to sit in their office.

•    Messaging Services – This is a basic function of all virtual receptionist services. Answer the phone, take a detailed and accurate message and relay it to the correct person. It sounds easy, but professionally trained virtual receptionists must be on top of their game to get this right consistently. Call handling can be customized specifically to the industry served. Some virtual reception services specialize in handling calls for only one type of industry. Others have a more general approach and can customize support for a number of business types.

•    Appointment Scheduling – Good virtual receptionist services can quickly handle appointment scheduling requests on a 24/7 basis. This is a very popular service made possible by highly efficient web-based scheduling applications, or an online “shared calendar.” The virtual  secretary simply accesses the customer’s secure schedule online, identifies availability to book appointments, make changes, or cancellations as necessary. Customers love this service because they can have their appointments managed for them around the clock.

•    Appointment Reminder Calls – A virtual receptionist can help improve appointment “show rates” by performing appointment reminder calls. Statistics show that by calling your appointments in advance, you can improve the percentage of those that show up by 25%.

•    Multilingual Translation Services – In the USA today, if your virtual receptionist is not able to provide bilingual English-Spanish support then they will probably not be around to see the next 10 years of business growth in America. Spanish is the second most spoken language in the USA and forward-thinking businesses are offering support in both languages. Good bilingual virtual receptionist services can provide bilingual Spanish support on-the-fly. However, there is a marked increase in requests for Russian, Korean and Chinese language support as well. Most call centers in the USA do not have Russian, Korean and Chinese speaking staff on duty 24/7. So virtual receptionist services can contract with language translation services to provide specialized language support whenever needed. Normally, the native speaker is placed on a brief hold while a translator is brought on the line. A short conference call ensues and the entire message is relayed back to the virtual receptionist in perfect English. This type of specialty service will cost more because of all the extra steps involved, but it is worth it for many companies.

The business landscape in America is changing. More and more businesses are turning to domestic, USA-based support. Virtual receptionist services are diversifying and increasing the amount of tasks they can effectively provide for their customers. BPO receptionists are now doing many of the tasks that businesses spent a great deal of money doing for themselves in-house.

Why hire out for virtual receptionist services?

There are many great reasons for using virtual receptionist services. Cutting costs is one of the major factors in play. Several obvious costs that businesses can save on by choosing virtual receptionist services over an in-house alternative include no monthly salary expense, no paid vacations, no paid breaks, and no missed opportunities. However, once you dig in a little deeper, there are even more costs that companies can avoid just by harnessing virtual receptionist services. Here are seven great reasons to use a service like this:

1. Cut the Cost of Sick Time

This is a very real cost. Most employers allow for at least three paid sick days per year. If your receptionist earns $2,500 per month, then sick pay will cost you about $83 per event. While they are away, you and your staff are burdened with the extra work covering the front desk. Are you starting to see a downward trend here? I hope you do, because you are footing the bill for ALL associated costs. You are now learning yet another great truth of the universe: Great virtual receptionists never get sick. Your staff does.

2. Cut the Cost of Lateness and Absenteeism

Your receptionist is late, again. That is the third time this month. Now, you have to take time out of your day to discipline your receptionist and issue a final warning. You might as well run an ad on Craigslist, because they may not last. So, now you take on the burden of finding a new front desk person and deal with the worry and aggravation that they may not show up at all. How much does this whole process cost you? A big headache, that is for sure. Now, for another great truth in the universe: Great virtual receptionists never show up late for work. But your receptionist might.

3. Cut the Cost of Turnover

Just like you figured, they didn’t last. Now you have to fire them if they haven’t already quit. Be sure you carefully document that dismissal so you can avoid a possible lawsuit from an aggravated former receptionist. Aside from the pending HR headache this creates and along with all the paperwork you have to process, you need to hire and train a new receptionist. Employee turnover is a significant cost. It is also something you will continue to deal with at the front desk until you hire professional virtual receptionist services. You can now take this great truth of the universe to heart: You don’t have to fire a great virtual receptionist.

4. Cut the Cost of Training

Finally, the perfect candidate just walked in the door! You found a great one to handle your phones at the front desk. Sure, you paid a lot more than you wanted to for this hire, but after the last experience you just went through, they seem worth the cost. Now you have to train them. You’ll need at least two weeks to get them on board. Oh, and they need an ergonomic keyboard and a special 36” monitor because their eyes aren’t what they used to be. Now where is all that documentation that you need to get them up-to-speed? Oh, that’s right. You don’t have any because the last receptionist never documented anything (like you asked them to do about 100 times). That training may actually take you a month now that you think about it. And remember, you need to be available at all times to answer the myriad of questions your new employee will have.

5. Cut the Cost of Management

Boy, that new receptionist sure asks a lot of questions, don’t they? That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not like you can keep taking 15 minutes out of your day every hour to explain where you keep the semigloss paper stock. But don’t worry, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Or is there? Once you get through all the questions and all the other questions and the pile of questions you didn’t even anticipate that your new employee will ask, you still have to manage that person. Wouldn’t it be great if you could have just hired someone that already knew how to professionally answer your phones, take an accurate and complete message and relay that message to the right person at the right time? Had you chosen a virtual receptionist service, you could have brought them up-to-speed in about 24-48 hours and pay them only for the calls that they answer. And now, for another great truth of the universe: You don’t have to manage a virtual receptionist. Your call center partner does that for you.

6. Cut the Cost of Facilities

Ok, so they need an ergonomic keyboard. And a very expensive 36” flat-screen monitor. But they also need:

•    An office
•    A desk
•    A chair
•    A computer
•    The Internet
•    A phone
•    And lots more to do the job you are paying them to do

Facilities have a real cost. The more employees you require, the more facilities you will need. Once you pay for and build-out that facility, you have to maintain it. You have to upgrade it. You have to protect it. You have to insure it. You have to make facilities a daily part of your business management processes. It is a lot to consider when you add up the cost of every piece of equipment that makes your front desk phone operation work correctly. A virtual receptionist service already has all of that facility built out. A call center BPO has state-of-the art equipment and properly trained employees. You can leverage the power of outsourcing and apply it to your business today.

7. Cut the Cost of Poor Response

After all this, you decide to keep the receptionist. This strategy is employed all the time and usually, it ends up something like this: You, the business owner, get so frustrated that you finally decide to stop ripping out your hair and contact a provider of virtual receptionist services. You’ve pulled out so much hair that you are now doing a comb-over and your wife doesn’t like that look. Poor response was the final straw. You spent so much time, energy and effort on that receptionist and THEY STILL MISS IMPORTANT CALLS! But how can that be? Well, they can only answer one call at a time. Maybe they can handle 2 or 3 if they are really good. But eventually, you will send more calls to them than they can handle at one time. Or the call will come in when they are unavailable (on a bathroom break, out to lunch, after hours). So after everything you have done to prevent this, you are still missing calls and providing poor service. Great virtual receptionist services have enough staff and resources available at all hours of the day or night to ensure that this never happens to you.

Are virtual receptionist services and executive suite services the same thing?

For some reason, virtual reception and executive suite services are often confused by people looking for an answering service. I blame it on Google because Google frequently mixes up results for “virtual answer” and “suite rentals that offer answering service.” Now that we are on the topic of virtual receptionist services, let’s take a moment to also understand what an Executive Suite service is. At this point, Google doesn’t make a very good distinction between what a Virtual Receptionist and Executive Suite service is in a majority of their searches. So many people don’t really know the difference either.

An Executive Suite service is a physical location or collection of office rooms that offer rental suites. You can go into an Executive Suite office, rent a room and have full use of the conference facilities, fax and copy machines and maybe even the coffee maker in the break room. Sometimes, Executive Suite services also have a real person in the building that answers phones for the tenants or renters within the office configuration. This service is offered for a monthly fee and offers the consumer a virtual secretary who is available usually during posted business hours. In a way, the receptionist at an Executive Suite rental is like an in-house telephone answering service. So it is not unheard to have consumers looking for a telephone answering service to wind up calling an Executive Suite rental service and vice versa.

Auto attendant services are NOT live virtual reception services

Now why even mention auto attendant services? Because the term ‘virtual receptionist’ is often confused with ‘auto attendant.’ An auto attendant is a kind of virtual receptionist, but it is not a live person answering the phone. It is an automated computer system that answers your calls for you and provides callers with routing options. For example, a recording will say, “Thank you for calling Intrinity Systems. To reach our sales department, press 1. For Customer Support, please press 2……” We’ve all had the pleasure (and often displeasure) of reaching an auto attendant system. Well-designed virtual attendants can be extremely helpful to businesses. The benefits of a hosted auto attendant (or virtual PBX) are many, but here are a few of the best:

•    There is no complex hardware to maintain
•    You don’t have to be a tech guru to maintain it
•    Systems can be constructed to your specifications online
•    Get all the latest feature updates, usually free, and in real-time
•  Access the system and make changes to it from anywhere using any internet connection
•    Connect multiple offices or locations instantly
•    Compatible with any land, cell or VoIP device
•    Create customized hunt groups and time-of-day routing

Businesses use auto attendants to quickly route calls to the correct support group where a live operator can then take over the call and resolve the customer support issue. There is typically a small monthly service fee associated with having a hosted auto attendant. But the monthly fees are much, much less than what you would spend if you have to invest in a large, complicated, premise-based PBX system. A virtual attendant is certainly the way to go between the two, but callers typically like speaking to real people rather than machines.

Virtual Receptionist Services – Are they right for you?

Companies turn to outsourcing to cut back on the expense of in-house receptionists, administrative and customer service staff. They also seek ways to improve efficiency, improve image and be poised to grow by outsourcing many of their customer support tasks. Choosing the correct virtual receptionist services provider means that you can immediately benefit from:

•    Professional screening and hiring programs
•    Structured customer support training
•    Sophisticated telecommunications systems
•    Advanced call relay and message delivery platforms
•    And a whole lot more…

A virtual receptionist can be trained to handle key customer service tasks and perform them on a 24/7 basis. Virtual receptionists can professionally greet and screen callers, gather important call detail information, schedule appointments, relay messages promptly, and even transfer calls to specific staff members. Employing a virtual receptionist is a time-tested, true way of quickly establishing meaningful support in your organization. This support will help you refocus on your daily responsibilities and allow you to grow your business at a pace that is comfortable to you. BPO outsourcing is a proven method used by businesses for years to improve performance. So the answer to the question, is ‘yes.’ Virtual receptionist services certainly can be the right choice for you.

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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.