Professional answering services are a useful tool to help you answer incoming phone calls. But beyond greeting callers and relaying a message, today's answering services can help you process orders, schedule appointments and take important messages. Some businesses, however, might be concerned about the cost of such a service. Business owners and managers may realize the cost of hiring a service is less than hiring more staff, but how much can you expect to pay, especially if your office or medical practice is on a tight budget? And is the extra expense worth it?

Phone answering services, like all types of businesses, have varying pricing structures. Some services, like AnswerAmerica, charge for each incoming call. Other services charge by the average number of calls you typically receive each month. Most answering service costs are determined by the number of minutes used. These bundles of minutes can range anywhere from 100 minutes of phone time to 1,000 minutes; it all depends on the service and the package you choose.

In our review of answering services, we gathered quotes from each company based on 500 minutes of phone time, or roughly 150 calls per month, as we found that this is about average for many small businesses. Prices ranged from $150 to $554, though the average tended to be in the $400 range.

In addition to paying for minutes, you might also have to pay extras outside of answering questions, taking messages and dispatching calls. For example, some services might add more to the price of your package for processing orders or scheduling appointments. If you don't need these additional services, the cost of your phone answering service will be less. 

Another added cost is the setup fee. The fee varies, again based on what you require the answering service to do. For example, of the 10 services we reviewed, Stericycle Communications charged the most expensive setup fee – $105 – but this was because of the extensive training its employees undergo, which includes memorizing your customized call scripts, before representing your medical practice. AnswerAmerica, on the other hand, has no setup fee because there are no customized scripts or additional training required before your account is activated. The average setup fee we were quoted in our review ranged between $35 and $50, though this may change depending on your needs.

The best answering services allow you to change your service plan if you find that the package you initially chose does not meet your needs. For example, if signed up for 500 monthly minutes of call time but typically only use 100, you can easily switch plans. Another item your answering service shouldn't charge you for are wrong number calls, sales calls or hang-ups. Last, most answering services do not make you sign a contract, so you can cancel at any time if you find that the service isn't working out for you.

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