Q? What is the difference between a call center and an answering service?
A. The difference between a call center and an answering service is more defined by the level of service received than by the type of service. First, a call center can function as an answering service with no change to service models without a problem, but an answering service would be hard pressed to provide call center services.
Our name, Professional Answering Service originated when our services were localized due to the physical limitations of phone lines and technology. We now have the capability to service clients nationwide, and we also offer top line call center services. To define an answering service, I am going to cover the things that a call center can do and an answering service cannot. The advanced functions listed below are a starting point:
- Appointment Setting
- Order Taking
- Lead Generation
- Customer Service Inquiries
- Call Overflow (public utilities, public service providers)
- Survey Responses
These are some of the functions that a call center can perform that an answering service cannot. Also, you have to think of scalability. We currently handle over 100,000 calls per month. If a client calls us and says they need to immediately start service, and they are expecting 10,000 calls a month, it is not a problem for us. We have our call center designed with available seats for increases in volume and always schedule with the ability to increase staffing for increases in volume. Our ability to do this is what makes us a call center. We also still have the capability to service the smaller clients, the answering service clients, at no extra charge.
They may have lower volume, but they still have access to the same great service that our higher volume clients do. As a call center, we are backwards compatible to an answering service, but an answering service cannot be forwards compatible to a call center. Another difference can be found in the disaster preparedness plans in place at a call center.
Q? How long does it take to answer my phones?
A. We can proudly say that over 95% of our calls are answered in less than 21 seconds.
That would be about 3 and a half to 4 rings.
Q? Do you charge per call or per minute?
A. We switched over to per minute, originally what we started at was on a per call basis but because of the different software packages available to operators where they can now do different things for clients, it goes beyond just basic message taking.
You can have a client where we are taking just a basic message, and the call would last just under a minute and you can have a client where we’re either scheduling an appointment or doing lead generation or something like that and their call can go two to two and a half minutes.
So we found to keep it fair, the best way to do it would be to charge per minute. When we bill per minute we actually bill in six-second increments without a first-minute minimum. The time starts when the operator picks up and there is no charge for hold time so if you have a 30-second phone call you are only going to lose 30 seconds of your allotted time.
Q? How do you pre-screen calls?
A. A pre-screen is a customized recording that is used by some accounts as both an informative tool, and also to screen out routine calls.
Let’s say you have a medical office open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and they forward the lines to us after hours. From 5 p.m. to 7 a.m., a lot of calls will come through when the caller is just trying to see if the office is still open, or they may be trying to make an appointment because let’s face it, a lot of people can’t make their calls between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
What the pre-screen does is it is an informative recording advising the caller, first off that if they are having an emergency of some sort, to either hang up and dial 911 or go to their nearest emergency room.
But it also advises them that their office is closed, gives the office hours, and advise them that if they are calling about a routine matter, to call back during normal business hours, or if they need to speak to someone immediately, they can press 0 and it will connect them directly to an operator.
So it’s an informative and limited recording that doesn’t give the caller a voice mail tree nightmare. It’s basically one option to call back or 0 to get to an operator.
Per minute charges do not happen for the recording, only when they are connected to an operator. This is another way our company helps reduce costs for our clients.
For some offices, we have seen the pre-screen reduce the call volume by up to 60% in some cases. There are two things to think about when taking pre-screens into account:
- We want to take every call, and we want to provide good customer service, however;
- You also have to be fiscally responsible, and if you can cut out 60% of your cost, and still provide helpful information, you’d rather take the latter, because it is going to keep the cost down.
Q? What ways do I receive my message?
A. There are numerous ways for our clients to receive/retrieve their messages. The basic, yet still efficient means are fax or email. With faxed messages, you can schedule your messages to be faxed to your office at set times throughout the day. The fax method works best for non-emergent messages and also as a hard copy of messages that have been dispatched. I would not recommend fax only for emergency messages.
Email is one of our most cost effective and efficient options for sending messages. We can email the message to our client as the message is taken, and we can send to multiple email accounts. Another way to receive messages is through voicemail. This option works in a few ways. The basic way is your caller receives an option to leave a voicemail message and then you would have to periodically call in to check on those messages.
Our operators can also record a message taken by them into your voicemail system which you would then call in to retrieve. Another way to get these voicemails is through email. We can have our system automatically detect new voicemail messages, and then send them in a WAV file format to your email address. This would prevent you from having to periodically check for new messages, the only thing you would have to do is monitor your email and transcribe any new messages received.
More advanced forms of notification include paging, alpha paging and text message to cell phone. With paging, we can numerically page you to either call your caller directly or call into the answering service and the operator can relay the message to you. With alpha paging, the complete text of the message can be sent to your alpha numeric pager and with text messaging, the same happens. We can send the complete text to your cellular device. These methods can be used to dispatch priority messages. Setting up the protocol for dispatching priority messages should be given careful consideration. You want to balance the effectiveness of the system (making sure the recipient receives the message) with the cost effectiveness of the system. If you have multiple actions required in short time intervals, the operator usage can go up dramatically.
You have to balance that with the need for dispatching speed and the effectiveness of getting the message to your on call person. We like to think of this as a system of checks and balances. We can page your on call person and give them x number of minutes to respond to the page and confirm receipt. If we do not get a call back within that time frame, we can then initiate backup procedures, such as then calling their cell phone and/or home phone. If we cannot reach them in another set period of time, we can then move to trying to contact backup personnel, such as a supervisor or the next person on call.
These systems ensure that the caller’s emergency gets to someone at our client’s company in a reasonable amount of time. Bottom line is that we work with our clients, and try to figure out the most efficient way for them to connect to their callers. That efficiency being two-fold, concerning both communications and cost to our client.
Q? How do you receive our calls and handle our overflow?
A. How do I get my calls to you?
The most common way for our clients to get their calls to us is through call forwarding. What we do is provide you a number to forward your lines to. You would use the call forwarding feature that is provided by your phone company. The basic call forwarding is menu…
Q? Could I actually turn your service off and on then?
A. Yes, you can turn the service off and on at will.
The basic call forwarding is manual call forwarding where you actually have to punch in a series of numbers to turn on and turn off the call forwarding. There is also scheduled call forwarding, where you can call your phone company and say I want to turn on my call forwarding at this specific time and turn it off at this specific time. So if you have an office that is manned regularly Monday through Friday, from 8 to 5, at all times. That might be a good service to have especially if you have concerns about someone forgetting to turn on your call forwarding. There is another call forwarding option as well that is called call busy call forwarding or delayed call forwarding.
I recommend that for smaller offices where there is only one or two people, and they might be in and out, or be on another line, and can’t get to every call. What this call forwarding does, is it will forward your line if your phone rings a certain number of times without being answered it would automatically forward it over to us, or if your phone was busy then it would automatically forward that call over to us.
The other type of call forwarding that is available is remote call forwarding. What that is, it means you do not have to be at the physical phone location to forward your calls. Let’s say someone left the office and they forgot to forward the lines. Well, rather than having to drive back into the office, you can dial a special number and punch in codes to forward your line remotely, to whatever number you choose. This of course should be our number.
So the phone overflow, is that something I have to contact the phone company about?
Yes, because the delayed call forwarding, call busy call forwarding because it is pre-programmed to forward your line if a specific event happens, they would need that number. So you would have to call them and say I want that service and if that specific event happens I want you to forward to the number that we will provide to you. In the case of call overflow, this can be controlled by either manually forwarding the lines. Or you can have your internal it department set up thresholds, that once surpassed, will then route your calls to us. Or you can use the call busy/delayed call forwarding to accomplish this as well.