What Is An Answering Service?

Peyton Duplechien • 06 Aug 2019 • 12 min read

Smiling woman sitting at desk on phone.

What is an answering service?
At VoiceNation, we hear this question a lot.
It’s also a question that — without proper explanation — can lead businesses to make decisions and take on more work than they need to. Or worse, misunderstanding the live-answering service industry means organizations may also be managing roles they don’t have the capacity for, wasting time, money, and talent in already competitive business environments.
Consider this your guide to business answering services: what they are, what they do, where they work best, and, most importantly, how to determine if a professional answering service is right for you. Spoiler alert: The answer is probably yes.

So What Is a Professional Answering Service? What Do Answering Services Do?

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Answering services are third-party organizations that perform inbound and outbound business communications for clients. They execute these business communications remotely, outside the walls of the businesses which they serve.
There are dozens of business answering agencies operating today. Many offer competitive services and packages to distinguish themselves from the competition and create a true value-add. Such typical services include the following.

  • Virtual receptionists: Forget the automated prompts or Robo-chatbots cropping up today. Three-quarters of consumers today say they prefer to speak with a real person regarding customer support. Virtual answering services can first and foremost staff receptionists dedicated to your organization, trained to administer the full range of customer interfacing and support activities so desirable to customers.
  • Inbound and outbound call patching: Call patching refers to connecting callers to a specific individual or resource via a liaison. In professional settings, call patching predominantly occurs through receptionists, who greet callers and then “patch” them through to intended call recipients.
  • Simple order processing: Some virtual answering services can train receptionists to work as order specialists, taking product or service orders both online and over the phone.
  • Office scheduling: Answering services can assist in calendar and schedule coordination, including placing outbound calls to make or check appointments, bookings, out-of-office meetings, events, and more.
  • Customer servicing: Last but not least, professional answering services can complement or serve as your live customer support agents. Using proprietary scripts, receptionists answer questions, provide instructions or otherwise remedy problems your clients face, freeing you to focus on immediate business domains.

In addition to their core services, answering agencies may offer other amenities to their clients.

  • Bilingual or multilingual receptionists: Some agencies staff receptionists who are fluent in two or more languages, boosting your service offerings and convenience to different customer demographics.
  • 24/7/365 availability: Around-the-clock service is particularly attractive for organizations looking to expand customer support outside regular business hours.
  • Mobile access: Answering agencies may employ proprietary apps or online customers for their customers to use to check SMS messages, email, and voicemail alerts from their receptionist.
  • Hosted phone number: Some answering services can host your business’ current lines and numbers, meaning you don’t have to go through the hassle of acquiring new ones merely to use their service.

What Do Professional Virtual Receptionists Do?

What do answering services do? Virtual receptionists perform the same inbound and outbound communications as a traditional, in-house receptionist, as well as office administration and support duties. The only difference is where they complete these duties. Virtual receptionists work outside your office or business, typically at an answering service’s call center or sometimes even from home.
Businesses turn to professional virtual receptionists for the following everyday services.

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  • Warmly greet callers: First and foremost, receptionists greet all callers using friendly and professional scripts approved for your organization. Anyone calling your business will instantly feel engaged and prioritized.
  • Facilitate call forwarding: Virtual receptionists serve as your call directory, connecting callers to appropriate individuals at your organization, if available.
  • Connect to voicemail: If a call recipient is out of the office or otherwise unavailable, the receptionist will smoothly redirect the caller to your voicemail.
  • Courier messages: A receptionist can also receive and relay direct messages if a caller prefers. They can then alert the recipient via email or text of that message, with further instructions or calendar updates, if needed.
  • Coordinate calendars: Virtual receptionists can assist in office administration and scheduling activities, such as making or confirming appointments, setting up meetings, booking event spaces, and more.
  • Text and email response: Some professional answering services offer multiple channels to contact and interact with your receptionist, including through phone, email, text, and even proprietary mobile apps.
  • Serve as a general business directory: Virtual receptionists become a key part of your business presentation. Since their position is innately public-facing, they help set the tone for the quality, professionalism, and personality of your business, all while facilitating caller assistance.

These off-site receptionists are the core of a business answering service’s competitive advantage. Hiring a full-time, in-house receptionist costs the average organization over $33,000 a year. A virtual receptionist from a business answering service costs less than a third of that.

What an Answering Service Is Not

You now know what modern answering services can unlock for organizations like yours. But what are their limits or misconceptions — in other words, the hard boundaries on what a business answering service provides?

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1. Automated Voice Recordings

Virtual answering services go far beyond setting up an automated directory. You know, those robot-monotoned prompts telling you to “press one” for services, “two” for pricings, “three” for billings, and “four” for any other concern.
Automated directories are contemporary and to the point. Yet they lack the personalized attention and quality care a real person can administer, and will often lead to customer frustrations when prompts don’t include their reason for calling.

2. Inbound or Outbound Salespeople

Inbound sales specialists predominantly focus on relationship-building with high-value prospects and current customers. Outbound sales specialists generate leads and orders from traditional sales tactics such as cold calls and contact lists.
While a full-service virtual receptionist might facilitate some characteristics of inbound and outbound marketing, such as walking a caller through how to place an order, they are not salespeople. Don’t view or treat them as such.

3. Technical Customer Service

Virtual answering services sit on the front lines of your business phone assistance offerings. More than likely, callers will ask them troubleshooting questions related to your product or services. Then, they can redirect the call to a technical support specialist who can help them with their specific needs.
Some organizations ignore the second step, viewing the receptionist as a technical support agent. While virtual receptionists are more than capable of assisting with everyday customer questions and concerns, you shouldn’t expect them to handle detailed product servicing or treat them as a continual technical helpline.

4. A One-Way Service

The relationship between your organization and your chosen answering service is a two-way street. It involves detailed communications about your expectations and servicing needs, including:

  • Ideal calling hours
  • Your client or customer segments
  • Current employee call capacities
  • Access to schedules
  • Bilingual interfacing needs
  • Additional support services
  • And more

Without ongoing communications, an answering service will not be able to perform the desired level of care and assistance from the onset.

What Are the Benefits of Hiring an Answering Service?

Professional answering services exist to alleviate one of the most time-consuming and often stressful aspects of running a business: phone-based customer service.
In doing so, answering services bring several advantages to your organization while taking some of the burdens of customer engagement off your shoulders.

1. Enhanced Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

CRM strategies help prioritize your interactions with customers. They scaffold how, when, where, and why to reach out to your client demographics, on top of tracking what platforms and marketing materials result in the most engagement traction.
Yet CRM also involves more of the general touchpoints a customer has with your organization — including those over the phone. That’s because anytime an individual interacts with your business, they’ll form an impression. Virtual receptionists are key players in cultivating a positive communications experience that reflects well on the entire brand. Together, these positive impressions and experiences fuel the exact kind of relationship you’re attempting to forge with customers, both current and new. All these elements complement your CRM strategies.

2. Enhanced Regulatory Compliance

Specific industries, such as health carefinance, and law, must navigate substantial regulations and government oversight. Many of those regulations themselves pertain to safe and secure communications. In other words, how can an organization go about communicating with its constituents, especially when those communications contain personally identifiable or sensitive information?
Virtual answering services provide a solution for compliant customer communications. Receptionists receive regular training on compliant customer interactions and procedures both on the phone or online, including those related to HIPAA, disclosure statements, and more.

3. Increased Professionalism

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Having a warm, courteous and informative receptionist answering your calls gives an instant boost to your business’ sense of professionalism. It can also influence what customers think of your size and scale — which is particularly attractive for entrepreneurs, freelancers, or virtual small businesses looking to provide the customer-service amenities of a large-scale, brick-and-mortar operation.

4. Greater Productivity

With receptionists handling inbound and outbound call functions, you’re free to focus on the goals and activities that matter most. Not only that, but you will empower your employees to dive deeper into their roles as well. Everyone becomes unburdened from the time-consuming stress of fielding unexpected calls, hunting down relevant help, facilitating connections or liaisoning between individuals — some of which may not be in their area of expertise. Your virtual reception does all this, and more, for you.

5. Sharpened Responses and Rates

Emergencies don’t wait to strike within business hours. Certain professions must have outlets and resources available when instances occur, ready to assist clients or customers promptly and cost-effectively.
With the help of your professional answering service, you can rest assured you have someone “on” at all hours responding to customer situations. Consider the range of industries where 24/7 incident response management is not only beneficial — it’s vital:

  • Doctors are available at any hour, any day, to answer health questions and recommend action
  • Dentists responding to sudden toothaches, chips, lost teeth, or similar oral health care accidents
  • HVAC specialists ready to dispatch when heating or air conditioning units break down, often during extreme summer or winter temperatures
  • Electricians and plumbers a moment’s notice away from responding to severe service and infrastructure emergencies
  • IT support translating technical jargon and lending a knowledgeable hand across new technology installation, upkeep, and maintenance scenarios that occur outside business hours

6. Dedicated Customer Service

Consumers today have come to expect personalized offerings from brands. When it comes to customer service, that expectation is no different. The average consumer wants your company to treat them well, offer warm but instructional assistance and resolve their issues promptly, without feeling like just another person rushed through the customer-service queue.

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Businesses that use a professional answering service rest assured they have dedicated customer service like this operating around the clock. It allows organizations to expand their phone support hours to accommodate customers in other time zones or schedules, plus maintain support if you’re on vacation, out of the office, or otherwise in a do-not-disturb mode.

7. Reduced Overhead

Partnering with a business answering service delivers significant cost savings to your bottom lines.
Depending on your industry, the salary for a full-time receptionist ranges anywhere from $29,000 to $36,000 a year. This sum doesn’t include employee benefits, vacation policies, paid sick leave, holiday and performance bonuses, or other high-value job incentives in today’s marketplace.
Virtual answering services cost a fraction of those values. What’s more, answering services offer tiered service packages with a variety of customizable add-ons. You pick the provisions right for you, then leave out the rest, saving your business significant money.

8. A Better-Run Office

Together, virtual receptionists and professional answering services elevate the operations of your workplace. They are time-savers and productivity-boosters, while simultaneously enhancing your customer-service offerings and appeal.
As a result of using a virtual answering service, offices become more organized, more accessible, and more intentional, able to now work as the best version of themselves.

How Can I Trust an Answering Service to Take Our Calls?

We get it. Even with the clear cost savings, competitive customer-service advantage, and office-wide performance boost, it can still be challenging to hand over operations to someone out of the office.
Luckily, the live-answering industry uses measures to ensure receptionists execute inbound and outbound services objectively up to your standards.

1. Vetting and Onboarding

Business answering services conduct thorough training programs for their receptionists and answering specialists.
After all, it’s in their best interests to do so. Maintaining the most efficient and highly skilled agents in the field ensures their customer satisfaction ratings and positive brand reputation.
Look for professional answering services with clear employee training and engagement programs in place. Companies that maintain an institutionalized onboarding schedule are also a plus, both in terms of new client onboarding and for new internal employees. Mutual training programs ensure both these parties are not only meeting client expectations, but that the employees of answering services understand and exceed them. Meanwhile, those receptionists, in turn, feel equipped and supported.

2. Custom Answering Scripts

Many receptionists use custom answering scripts to meet the exact tone and messaging nuances of your brand.
Scriptwriting is a collaborative process. You have detailed input in the phrases across the complete range of your virtual receptionists’ daily activities, from how they greet callers to how they walk through taking orders down to fundamental customer-service support answers.
You can also review and edit these scripts anytime. As your products and services evolve, so, too, can your presentation of them. Receptionists use the messages and wordings you outline, yet still communicate with callers in a friendly, warm, and personable tone. The result is the best of both worlds: natural-sounding customer service delivered in a way you can trust to best represent your brand.

3. Performance Management

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Last but not least, virtual answering services perform routine call audits to ensure the quality and consistency of your receptionist’s conduct. Audits take place randomly, but ethically, with both your customers and the receptionists themselves aware the call may get recorded for quality assurance and performance management purposes.
You can review caller recordings. These give you instant reassurance as to the nature of your receptionist’s interactions, as well as lend insights into the most common reasons your customers call. Is it to place new orders? Dispute billings? Complain about a product, service, or employee? Both your receptionist’s recording conversations and personal insights can identify top customer needs like these.
What’s more, the majority of business answering services operate internal performance management reviews. Reviews are based on a set of objective performance scorecards. Receptionists get rated annually or semi-annually according to the scorecard’s metrics, many of which are part of their initial employee training and onboarding. Combined with call recordings, this creates a dynamic performance management duo, lending peace of mind your calls are in the right hands.

What Industries Use an Answering Service?

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A wide variety of industries use professional answering services and virtual receptionists, each experiencing different service benefits.

  • Consulting: Consultancy firms may specialize in dozens upon dozens of topics, varied in their areas of expertise. However, their need for a consistent client touchpoint does not. Small to medium-sized agencies, in particular, benefit from using a virtual receptionist to boost the professional presentation of their office.
  • Event planning: Event planners wear many hats, often juggling numerous clients’ timelines, desires and event deliverables simultaneously. Virtual receptionists help keep their calendars in check. Their live-answering services also assure event planners can remain focused on executing the day’s highest priorities without getting interrupted by frequent phone calls.
  • Finance: Virtual receptionists for banks, insurance agencies and financial institutions are often the first person a customer will interact with. That interaction sets the tone for the remainder of the customer’s experience.
  • Health care: Few institutions rely on answering services quite like health care. Virtual receptionists can book and confirm appointments, arrange vendor meetings, forward patients to relevant parties and escalate medical emergency notices to get the immediate attention they deserve — all in a HIPAA-compliant fashion.
  • HVAC: When heating and cooling emergencies strike, virtual receptionists can orchestrate the immediate response. Professional answering services for HVAC act as a personal call center for your residential and commercial customers no matter when an incident occurs.
  • Law: From solo practitioners to national firms, legal firms rely on virtual answering services to support clients during some of the most trying experiences of their lives. Receptionists field incoming calls and messages, provide call forwarding services, manage administrative schedules, and more, so you can focus on the client or case in front of you.
  • Nonprofits: Nonprofit organizations often face some of the tightest budgets and overstretched employees. Virtual answering services alleviate one of the most critical roles for their nonprofit at a fraction of the cost of even some part-time receptionists.
  • Property management: Virtual receptionists are indispensable for property managers with burgeoning portfolios. They seamlessly coordinate property showings, liaise resident questions and provide instructions on application or lease paperwork. Virtual answering services can also respond to maintenance requests and send out emergency dispatches, all so you don’t have to.
  • Real estate: Real estate agents spend a significant amount of their time in the field, reviewing and showing properties, communicating with buyers and sellers, and coordinating the near-endless stream of files and communications between financing institutions, inspectors, and more. Professional answering services for real estate take the sole responsibility of planning and organizing these activities off your already busy shoulders.
  • SMBs: Professional answering services are a perfect fit for small and medium-sized businesses. They assist in lead nurturing, expand your customer-service hours and amenities and improve your professional reputation, among many other benefits of live answering for SMBs.

Try Virtual Answering Services for Yourself

VoiceNation is one of today’s leading live answering and virtual receptionist agencies in the industry.
But don’t take our word for it: Try it out for yourself! We offer a no-cost, no-obligation free trial to see if hosted business answering is right for you. Explore here for more.

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