As discussed previously, a phone answering service can be a cheap and effective way to ensure every call to your small business is professionally answered at all times. But before you search and sign up for a provider in the same breath, you need to know what to look for. Here’s what you need to assess:
1. What Are Your Set Monthly Charge?
This is pretty straight forward. Almost every phone answering service will have a fixed monthly charge, regardless of usage. This monthly charge will vary quite considerably. Make a note of this set charge so you can weigh up its value against the other rating factors.
2. What Are Your Call Answering Rates?
This is your variable usage cost. Almost every phone answering provider will charge you a fee per phone call they answer. Again, this amount will vary considerably depending on the overall terms of the contract. Sometimes this set fee is as low as 20c per call. Sometimes it’s as high as $2. Sometimes providers charge out their labour by the second. Make sure you do your sums to estimate how many calls you are likely to receive and then how much this is likely to cost each month. Be aware that as your small business grows, you will receive more and more calls (and more spam calls) which will increase your monthly bill. Thankfully, providers often have multiple call plans that you are able to switch between. These plans will cater to low and high call numbers.
3. What Are Your Action Rates? (such as a booking / message)
Chances are you’re going to want your call service to help you out with more than just answering the phone. A customer is either going to want you to make a booking or pass on a message. Your virtual receptionist service will often charge an additional fee for each of these actions. Again this can range from 20c to $2. Put these charges in context with all the other fees charged. Estimate your total calls, then likely total actions. This will help you gauge what your true cost per call is likely to be.
4. What Hours & Days Can Your Phone Service Operate?
Some phone services operate 5 days a week, 9-5pm. Others operate 7 days a week 24 hours a day. I recommend selecting a 24/7 operator as this will separate you from your competition. You’d be amazed that some people do actually pick up the phone and call to inquire at 2am in the morning. Seriously, I’ve seen the call logs.
5. How Well Can Your Phone Service Inform Callers?
It’s important to understand that the person answering the phone on your behalf becomes the spokesperson of your business. In your caller’s eyes, they are your business and everything they say is what your business stands for. A good phone answering service will have a set of FAQ on hand, along with product and service information. This is only natural as people are likely calling up to find out some basic information before wanting to speak to someone. Do not make the mistake of employing a phone service that will merely answer the phone and then say ‘umm…. not sure… I’ll get someone to call you back’. This screams alarm bells to the prospective customer.
6. Can The Phone Service Synchronize With Your Business Communication Tools?
The real power of a virtual receptionist comes in being able to synchronize with your business communication tools such as appointment calendars or messaging protocols. Ask your phone service to name the programs they can integrate with remotely. If they can enter data directly into Google Apps for instance, this will save you time.
7. Can You Have a Trial Period?
How do you ensure that the phone answering service you choose is the best fit for your business before committing to a contract? You need a trial period. These ‘Try before you by’ periods will give you an indication of the service standards. Try calling them a few times at different times. Listen to how the service answers more general questions. If you are happy with their levels of service then give them a tick. If not, you haven’t committed to a lengthy contract. Just set realistic expectations. Your phone service can never be a 100% in and out replacement of your business. Instead, view them as a close second.
8. What is the Length of Your Contract?
Some phone services will insist on an annual service contract. Other ones allow you to go on a month by month contract. If you’re new to the relationship I suggest choosing the shortest option possible, before committing to an extended term if things all go smoothly. In general, the longer the contract, the cheaper the fixed and variable costs will be.
9. Can You Provide Monthly Call Reports?
As you won’t be answering the phone, it’s easy to start to ‘lose touch’ with the number of calls and the nature of the inquiries your receiving. A good phone answering service will be able to provide monthly call statistics such as:
- The number of calls you received
- The times each call have come in
- The types of calls received (inquiry only, booking, information etc)
Track this information on a monthly basis to see whether you would actually be better off modifying your service. You may end up noticing that your business needs an on site receptionist in the mornings, but can then revert to a phone answering service from 2pm onwards.
10. How Do I Contact my Phone Answering Service Provider?
Do you have an account contact at the phone answering service, and if so, can you easily contact them via phone and email? If something goes wrong with the service you will need to be able to rectify the problem as soon as possible.
In closing, I recommend you enter the above areas into a spreadsheet or document and assess the phone answering service options against one another. Then go for it.
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