Why Use an Answering Service?
The top performers in our review are AnswerConnect, the Gold Award winner; AnswerAmerica, the Silver Award winner; and XACT Telesolutions, 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 the top 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, freeing 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 health care and retail, specifically in the small- to mid-market range.
The answering services we've reviewed here handle inbound calls. If you're looking for outbound call services as well as inbound, or if you want to focus on lead generation services and sales, see our Call Center Services review. For more information on Answering Services, check out these articles.
How Answering Services Work
Answering services can help you provide customer service without overtaxing your existing staff or requiring you to hire new personnel. Their professionals can answer questions and resolve customer complaints, even after regular business hours.
All of the services on our lineup answer incoming phone calls and customer questions by following a script you provide to the service. 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 agents have as much knowledge about your product or service as you want them to have.
How Answering Services Bill
Answering services vary in how they bill services. Most of the services we reviewed bill by the minute, which works especially well if your incoming calls tend to be short. NovusCall is the only service on our list that bills per phone call, which is beneficial if your incoming calls tend to be longer.
Regardless of the billing structure, you should make sure that the answering service you choose does not count spam calls, hang-ups or misdials toward your allotted monthly time or call volume. Most of the services on our list don't charge for these types of calls.
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 beforehand that the answering service will 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 an answering service to process orders, be sure to give the company plenty of information so it can train its agents to answer calls to your and your customers' satisfaction. It is also important to make sure that a company's customer service 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: Setup and Billing, Service Options, Industry-Specific Services, and Help and Support. All 10 of the services we evaluated offer order processing and accept orders by entering your customers' information into the front end of your existing website. Some products, like 1-888-GO-ANSWER, also offer lead-generation services.
Setup & Billing
We evaluated how long it takes your account to be activated. A shorter setup time means you'll be up and running quickly. NovusCall can usually activate your account the same day. However, note that faster isn't always better. For example, if agents that will be answering calls require specialized training on your product or services beyond what 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 go toward software and training. VoiceNation's basic plan has no setup fee, however, which could be helpful if you're on a tight budget. AnswerAmerica also does not charge a setup fee.
The majority of answering services bill based on a set number of minutes each month; that is, an estimated number of minutes the service's employees will spend answering calls and engaging with your customers.
While the services we reviewed have several different plans available, an average plan across the board is 500 monthly minutes of call time, which equates to about 150 calls. Most of the services we reviewed charge by the minute; NovusCall charges by the call. The cheapest plan for 500 minutes or 150 calls is offered by AnswerAmerica.
We also considered the service options provided by each company. In our evaluation, we included whether bilingual options, mainly English and Spanish, are offered and if the answering service is available 24/7. All but one of the services we reviewed answer calls all day, every day, which means they can offer service to your customers even when your business is closed. Most of these companies also offer online account access so you can easily view messages and reports. MAP Communications offers especially useful reports full of analytics and other information.
Besides what the services offer to your customers, we also looked at what they offer you, the business owner. Most offer to help you with script development, and most offer month-to-month options that don't require a long-term contract.
All of the services on our list 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 and fax. All of these services have domestic locations in the United States, and you can email them or call with any questions, comments or concerns you have.
Answering services can be a popular choice for medical offices, and we've highlighted the 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 and security of patient information and may help you avoid lawsuits. Almost all of the services we reviewed follow HIPAA regulations. Stericycle Communications takes it further and has its own HIPAA team to ensure its processes are HIPAA compliant. It also trains its employees on HIPAA protocols regularly.
Also for medical practices, the service you choose should have the capability of scheduling patient appointments. 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 charge extra, so check for extra fees before deciding on a service.
Order processing is another common feature answering services provide. All 10 companies we reviewed provide this. Some charge extra for it, while others include this service in 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 with a shopping cart or other established software to help with order processing.
Help & Support
The best answering services offer email, FAQs and live chat to answer your questions. We also evaluated our own experiences with each service, including who was most likely to give us a surplus of information without significant delays and without transferring us to different people. AnswerConnect and NovusCall 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 & Recommendations
Each service on our top 10 list is worth considering. The best answering service for your business, however, depends on the features and extras you're looking for. If you want a service with solid customer service, 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.