Answering Services Review
Why Use an Answering Service?
The top performers in our review are AnswerConnect, the Gold Award winner; Xact Telesolutions, the Silver Award winner; and Specialty Answering Service, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 answering services.
What are Answering Services?
If you have a high volume of incoming telephone calls that you can't quite handle but you don't want to hire more personnel, an answering service could be useful in providing your patrons with customer service, leaving your staff to handle other duties. Answering services provide real people to answer your phone calls, take messages, set appointments, handle sales and more. These services are popular in many industries, and can be especially useful in healthcare and retail, specifically in the small- to mid-market range.
The answering services we've reviewed here are focused on inbound calls. If you're looking for outbound call services as well as inbound, or if you need more of a focus on lead generation services and sales, see our Call Center Services review. To see more information on Answering Services, check out our answering services articles.
How Answering Services Work
Answering services are geared toward helping you provide customer service without overtaxing your existing staff or requiring you hire new personnel. They can answer questions and resolve problems your customers might have, even beyond your regular business hours. All of the services on our lineup answer your phone calls and your customers' questions by following a script full of product and service information you've provided the company. You can put as much or as little information into these scripts as you'd like. Most of these companies have customizable options so that the agents have as much knowledge about your product or service as you'd like them to have.
Answering services vary in how they bill. Most of the services we reviewed bill by the minute, which works especially well if the telephone calls you have coming in tend to be short. NovusCall is the only service that bills per phone call, which is often better if your telephone calls tend to be longer and your customers will require longer periods of customer service. In both billing scenarios, you should make sure that the company you choose to work with does not hold spam calls, hang-ups or misdials against your time or call amount. Most of the products we reviewed don't hold these types of calls against your account.
All of the services on our lineup are based in the United States. They all provide daily reports, toll-free or local numbers (though some may cost extra), call patching and strong customer service.
Something to Consider
When using a phone answering service, it's important to remember that while not hiring extra personnel may be helpful to you not all services will be equally helpful to your customers. It's important to make sure that the service you choose to work with can meet the needs of your customers. For example, if your customers need to make appointments, make sure the service you choose offers that function. Likewise, if you need the service to process orders, be sure to give the company plenty of information so that it can train its agents to answer the calls to your satisfaction. It is also important to make sure that a company's customer service to your customers is top-notch. Otherwise, your customers might find the service they receive lacking, which may affect whether they work with you again.
What We Evaluated, What We Found
When we looked at answering services, we evaluated each service in four different categories: Industry Specific Services, Setup and Billing, Range of Services, and Help and Support. All of the products on our lineup offer order processing and take orders by entering your customers' information into the front end of your existing website. Some products, like Go-Answer, also offer lead generation services.
Setup & Billing
We looked at how quickly it takes your account to be activated. A shorter setup time means you'll be up and running quickly. NovusCall can usually get you up and running the same day. However, note that faster isn't always better. For example, if agents that will be answering calls that require specialized training on your product and business than what just a script will provide, a longer setup time will allow for adequate training.
Most of the answering services we reviewed have competitive setup fees that pay for the software and training the companies use to start your account. VoiceNation's basic plan has no setup fee, however, which could be helpful if you're on a tight budget.
Companies typically hire answering services to deal with 500 calls a month or fewer. While the services we reviewed have several different plans available, an average plan across the board covers about 500 minutes of call time, which equates to about 150 calls. Most of the services we reviewed charge by the minute, whereas NovusCall charges by the call. The cheapest plan for 500 minutes or 150 calls is offered by Professional Communications Messaging Service.
Range of Services
One of the categories we scored the services on was Range of Services, which included whether bilingual options, mainly English and Spanish, are offered and if the answering services are available 24/7. All but one of the services we reviewed are available to answer calls all day, every day, which means they can offer service to your customers even when your business is closed for the night. Most of these companies also offer online account access to you so that you can easily view messages and reports. MAP Communications offers especially useful reports full of analytics and other information.
In addition to what the services offer to your customers, we also looked at what they offer you. Most of the services offer to help you with script development, and most also offer month-to-month options that don't require a long-term contract.
All of the services on our lineup send daily reports to you about the calls they receive, they transfer calls to you as needed, and they send you messages via email, text message and fax. All of these services have domestic locations in the United States, and you can email them or call them with any questions, comments or concerns you might have.
Industry Specific Services
Answering services can be a popular choice for medical offices, and we've noted companies that offer specialized services to medical offices of all sorts. One of the most important features for a medical answering service is HIPAA compliance because it can ensure the safety of your patients' information and can help you avoid lawsuits. Almost all of the services we reviewed follow HIPAA regulations. Stericycle Communications takes it a bit further and has its own HIPAA team that makes sure its processes stay HIPAA compliant. It also trains its employees on HIPAA protocols regularly.
You should also make sure that the service you choose has the capability to schedule appointments for your patients. Most answering services will use your scheduling software. Others, like MAP Communications prefer online systems such as Google Calendar or Yahoo Calendar. Many answering services include appointment setting in the cost of their services, but some others charge extra, so be sure you check for extra fees before you decide on a service that works best for you.
Order processing is also a common feature that answering services provide. All of the services that we reviewed offer this service. Some charge an extra fee for it, while others include this service in even their basic plans. Be aware that not all companies process orders the same way. Most companies enter your customers' information into the front end of your website. Others, like Professional Communications Messaging Service, offer their own software in addition to yours as an alternative to processing orders. This can be helpful if you don't currently have a website or other software set up.
Help & Support
The best answering services offer email, FAQs and live chat support options to help you answer your questions. We also evaluated our own experiences with a company's customer services, including who was most likely to give us a surplus of information with no wait time and without passing us around to several different people. AnswerConnect and Xact Telesolutions provided especially high-quality customer service. Overall, we had a positive experience with each of the companies, though some were more responsive than others.
Our Verdict and Recommendations
It's important to remember that each service on our lineup is a solid service and worth considering. The best answering service for your business will depend a lot on what kinds of offerings and extras you're looking for. If you're looking for a service with solid customer service for you, Xact Telesolutions is a good choice. Stericycle Communications is especially well suited for medical services, and Professional Communications Messaging Service has strong features for order processing.