- Customer experience and customer access are even more paramount now than the minute before you started reading this article.
- Customers shop 24/7, and not just during your office hours. If your digital door is not open 24/7, you are bound to lose to your competitor that provides customer access 24/7.
- Providing unfettered customer access and the best customer experience while you are servicing existing customers is nearly impossible.
- Increasing customer access and bettering customer experience leads to better customer reviews. This inevitably leads to more business.
- Even small businesses can afford top of the line personalized customer access leveraging answering services.
- Answering services can be fully automated (cheapest), partially automated or delivered entirely via humans (costliest).
Call center vs answering services
Answering services handle a much simpler workflow than call centers do. Answering services are almost always “answering” i.e. handle incoming inquiries. Most of the time, answering services answer the inbound inquiry, note down the customer details and pass on the message to someone in your business that can handle that inquiry. That’s why most calls handled by an answering service last 1-2 minutes.
Some answering services can also take it a step further to be virtual receptionists. These virtual receptionists can handle more complex cases of appointment scheduling / updates/ cancellations, can register customers, create service tickets etc. For many small businesses that alone is sufficient.
Medium to larger businesses, however, require call centers for business growth.
A call center handles incoming and outgoing customer interactions, handle more complex interactions like customer / patient intake, care coordination, handling billing related queries, processing prescriptions related calls etc.
I grew my medical group practice leveraging a call center. I treated them as offsite partners and let them help me with finding, servicing and retaining patients.
Take a medical call center as an example. Before using a callcenter, my practice used to have an answering service that didn’t bring more value than an automated IVR would have provided. My callcenter handled
- Community outreach campaigns to get new patients
- Referring physician outreach to get new patients
- Answered Google My Business, Facebook, Website, phone, text, chat channels to respond to each and every incoming inquiries
- Handled my physician referrals end to end, to grow my referring physician base
- My callcenter handled all my appointment related activities (recall, referral, new appointment, rescheduling, cancellations, reminders, reactivations etc)
- Handled all my patient intake that saved me 20+ mins per patient in office
- Our callcenter handled all my faxes (incoming and outgoing) related to referrals, medical records request, vendors, partners etc.
- Handled all my prescription related calls and faxes
- The callcenter handled all my billing related tasks as well (billing related queries, payer denials, prior authorizations, eligibility etc)
- My surgeries were scheduled, coordinated by our callcenter as well.
The more I invested in our callcenter, the more business we captured. The more business we captured, the more I could / needed to invest in our call center.
What does an answering service do
- An answering service helps you capture and retain more customers – 24/7.
- If done correctly, an answering service will answer every single call that your business gets – even after hours.
- An answering service can answer all the queries of a caller – even after hours. It can call patch / route only specific calls to your team as well.
- Callers can decide to give you their business after interacting with your answering service – even after hours.
- Existing customers can interact with your business 24/7, on their own terms using your answering services. This helps you keep existing customers happy. Therefore, you retain more customers for life.
- If implemented correctly, an answering service will also handle laborious new customer intake processes, reduce all (if not most) daily interruptions.
- More technologically advanced answering services will extend a business’ customer support channels to web, email, text messages, social media, WhatsApp etc.
Who uses answering services
Absolutely. Most forward thinking / competitive business leaders use answering services. Some larger businesses also use call centers (there’s a difference).
I have noticed higher usage of answering services in the “services” industry (e.g. healthcare, consumer services, property management etc).
Do I need an answering service
Here are a few pointers to help you decide. If you agree with a majority of these points, you need an answering service.
- Business + revenue growth comes from increased customer base and low customer churn.
- Customer acquisition occurs from inbound leads or outbound demand generation. Outbound demand generation is more expensive than inbound leads.
- Higher positive Google reviews lead to your business being “found” more than your competitor(s). This leads to more inbound business enquiries / leads.
- Happier customers leave positive business reviews (when reminded to). Unhappy customers leave negative reviews without being prompted to do so.
- Being easier to do business with leads to happier customers. Being easy to reach is a big part of “being easier to do business with”.
- A large part of “being easy to reach” is to allow customers to reach you on their terms (not your own).
- For customers to reach you on their terms includes them being able to reach you whenever, wherever. This requires them being able to reach you via any channel, anytime.
- Providing a seamless omni-channel customer experience trumps providing a fragmented multi-channel customer experience. Providing a multi-channel customer experience is better than a one channel (usually the phone) customer experience.
- To provide a seamless omni-channel customer experience you need a mix of technologies and the right expertise.
- Majority of callers will not leave voicemail because they know (correctly or incorrectly) that no one will return their calls.
Customer support driver
What level of omni-channel customer service do you want to provide?
- Fully automated
- Partly automated and partly service via humans
- Fully serviced via humans only
Next, look at your current organization:
- Do you have the technology to offer an omni-channel customer experience? i.e. Can a business lead find you on the web via a Google search, ask your business a question, get answers instantly, book your service, be able to self service their own account whenever they want to – whether it is on the web, phone, SMS, social media, WhatsApp etc? e.g. can your customer start a conversation on the phone, continue over text messages, then eventually resolve via email?
- Do you have the expertise to lead a team of such customer service representatives 24/7?
- Do you have the training staff to train a team of such customer service representatives?
- Do you have the budget to hire or retain a team of dedicated customer service representatives?
- Do you have the budget to win the talent wars? Does your budget include shadow resources / bench staff to support the inevitable talent churn / call-outs etc?
Based on your responses to the questions posed above, you might benefit from an answering service. I have not come across many businesses that do not require an answering service.
Answering service options
Depending on your budget, you can choose one of the following 3 options.
- Fully automated
- Partly automated
- No automation
Fully automated answering service
Here, you use the latest advancements in Omni channel customer experience technologies. This is the technologically advanced version of what was known as interactive voice response (IVR). As technologies have advanced, this is no longer limited to voice alone.
The technological advancements in conversational artificial intelligence, natural language processing, contact center, video / telecommunications, text processing / insights, voice recognition / processing, image recognition / processing etc can all be applied to customer experience management.
- In the long run this is the cheapest option.
- This is instantaneous and does not incur any wait times nor down times.
- The customer experience is standardized – i.e. your customer doesn’t have a different experience based on which customer service representative they connect with.
- Scaling your operations is limitless as compared to scaling using humans.
- By the nature of machine learning, this is a progressively trained process. Such progressive training is not easily possible to do with humans
- You get the benefits of the latest advancements in technologies, thereby reducing your total cost of ownership and return on investment even further.
- 80+% of your customer service contact sessions are resolved via this. Sometimes, this % is even higher (based on the nature of inbound contacts)
- We’ve all experienced the frustrations of dealing with technology based customer service (i.e. customer service technologies not implemented well)
- It is not possible to resolve 100% of the inbound contacts.
- A human interaction is always more pleasing than an automated interaction.
Human staffed answering service
This is your “run of the mill” answering services where humans handle all calls.
- This is the most expensive option (obviously).
- Unless you have a large team of customer service representatives working 24/7, your customers will experience hold times.
- Scaling such operations is limited.
- Customer experience is not standardized. There are great and worse experiences based on which answering service representative is tending to the customer.
Human augmented answering service
Here, you use the latest advancements in Omni channel customer experience technologies. However, you use these technologies to reduce the workload of your customer service representatives. So, technology is “assistive“ in this case.
The technologies assist in handling the bulk of the work and hand over to your customer service representatives as seamlessly as possible.
You get the best of both worlds in such a scenario but it is also more expensive than a fully automated answering service.
Omni channel, multi channel or single channel answering service
Each option presents a multitude of benefits.
Single channel answering service
A majority of small businesses that want to remain small businesses, offer a single channel of customer access. This could be the phone, chat, email, fax etc. A single channel strategy is simpler to implement.
Whichever channel you offer customer access on – whether it is the website, email, phone, fax, social media, chat etc, you simply build your answering services team around that.
Your customer base comprises of people that are OK with doing business (with you) only using that channel. Your customer base will also be OK with the number of hours you provide such access daily.
Don’t let any vendor tell you that it’s a wrong approach. It’s a lot simpler to implement, train for, excel at, etc.
As an example – take a small doctor’s office. It has 1-2 practitioners, cannot see / treat more than 15-30 patients per day. They might support/allow customer access only over the phone Monday through Friday, 9 AM through 5 PM. That’s it. Their patients simply have to accept the limitation.
This doctor’s office will miss out on patient segments that prefer to communicate over text messages (millennials). The doctors might be OK with that as they don’t have a millennial patient retention strategy.
The doctors might miss out on all customers that contacted them near or after hours. Usually, callers tend not to leave voicemails because they really don’t expect someone to call back from a doctor’s office. This office might be OK with missing out on potential patients as they might be making a decent living by seeing 15-20 patients per day.
At an average of 25 patients a day * avg of $100/patient * 0.3 (30 c per $ collected) = approx $750 earnings. Split between 2 doctors, that’s about $375 / day / doctor. They might be perfectly OK with this.
Multi channel answering service
Small businesses that do not want to remain small businesses, tend to offer a multi-channel customer access. This could include 2 or more channels like the phone, chat, email, fax etc.
A multi-channel strategy is a bit harder to implement. This business would need staff to monitor the various channels they are offering for customer access. However, the customer experience tends to be fragmented as there’s no clear correlation between the various channels of access. The answering service representatives do respond to customer touch points across various channels but it is not easy for them to get a complete view of the customer. This is because the customer’s conversations are fragmented across various channels.
This kind of business can attempt to provide a seamless customer experience across the channels, but it typically requires using various technologies that integrate and work together.
Taking the example of a medical office again, let’s say a new patient visit’s the doctor’s website and requests and appointment. The answering service representative might email the patient back with a confirmation of their appointment. Since the representative doesn’t have all the patient intake information, they might call the patient for the missing insurance information. The patient misses the call and later on, calls the medical office back. This time, the answering service representative picks up the phone and now the patient has to go over all their details, the appointment request all over again. This is because the systems are not interlinked nor is there a 360 view of the patient. This patient experience gets worse when they call about a billing issue or a medication prescription issue. Each time that the call or the email is not resolved in first contact, the patient has to explain themselves all over again.
Multi channel expands your business’ reach to customers by letting them contact you across various channels. However, multi channel is not focused on the customer experience. For that, you need to implement an Omni-channel answering service experience.
Omni-channel answering service
I prefer implementing omni channel answering service solutions. Omni channel focuses on a seamless customer experience, rather than focusing just on increasing the number of contact channels offered to the customer.
Revisit the same medical office as mentioned before. Many if not most patients are already using Phones, Email, SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Website chat in their daily lives. If you have a well implemented Omni channel answering service, here’s a hypothetical patient experience you could wow you patient with.
- The patient is at work and decides she needs to see your doctor. The patient searches for doctors near her preferred location. The patient finds your business listed on Google.
- The patient clicks on your business listing and reads the reviews. The patient now wants to make an appointment and clicks on Google “Book now” button.
- The patient is offered the online booking option that’s integrated with your EMR in real time. Google book now already provides the online booking system the basics about the patient (name, email etc).
- The patient proceeds to book and appointment with your doctor.
- The online booking chatbot asks the patient a few questions about her insurance to figure out what the cost of care would be, for the patient. The patient answers those questions and the chatbot automatically runs an eligibility check, tells the patient that their insurance plan is accepted and the copay would be $25 for the visit.
- The patient gets an immediate confirmation of their appointment on the web. The answering service also gives them an option to get an appointment reminder. The patient shares their cell phone number with your answering service.
- Your answering service sends the patient an SMS with their appointment details.
- Next, the SMS chatbot asks the patient a bit more about their chief complaint / reason for the appointment request. The patient is at work and doesn’t have the time nor the privacy to describe their ailment. They pause their interaction with your business at that time.
- Later that afternoon, your answering service sends a reminder to the patient about the pending intake question.
- The patient doesn’t want to type the entire complaint, so they just record their ailment using a “Speak” button and sends it to you.
- The SMS chatbot receives this recording and uses medical transcription technology to decipher the chief complaint (ICD). The appointment is updated in the EMR with the correct chief complaint.
- 7 days before the appointment, your answering service sends the patient an email reminder.
- 3 days before the appointment, your answering service sends the patient a voice call reminder with an option to reschedule or cancel if needed. The patient decides to reschedule and presses “1” to be connected with your answering service.
- The answering service recognizes the number, asks a verification question to the patient and lets them through. The patient hears the various available appointment dates/times on the phone and decides that none of those dates work for them. The answering service also gives them an option to talk to a customer service representative.
- The patient chooses the “customer service representative” option and is transferred to the IVR.
- The IVR tells the patient that the wait time is more than 5 mins for a voice call and that the patient can cut the line if they choose a live chat option. The patient opts for live chat and the IVR sends the patient an SMS with the link to chat to an agent.
- The patient is connected to an available agent, describes their urgency, and the agent gives them an appointment date/time that accommodates the patient’s urgency.
- While chatting with the patient, the answering service representative finds out that the patient’s insurance requires a referral for this appointment. The agent reminds the patient about the referral requirement, asks them for their referring physician or the primary care provider’s contact information.
- The patient provides the information and the representative sends calls the other physician’s office while chatting with the patient. The other office picks up and now the answering service representative has the other office staff on the phone and the patient on the live chat.
- The other physician office’s front desk checks the EMR and sees that the patient does have an existing referral. The front desk faxes the answering service agent the referral. The fax arrives and is automatically parsed to extract all relevant information (CCDA) of the patient that includes medical, medication, social histories, reason for referral etc.
- The answering service agent accepts all the data suggestions that the fax transcription technology provides about the patient and pushes the data to the EMR. The patient is given all this information update and the interaction ends.
- On the day of the appointment the patient gets a text message and confirms that they are coming for the appointment. Later on the patient figures out that they are running late for their appointment. They call the text message number since the patient has not saved your medical office contact on their phone.
- The answering service recognizes this number and identifies the patient, then realizes that patient has an upcoming appointment in the next few hours, transfers the call to a live agent. The agent answers the call, takes the “running late” message from the patient and updates the EMR.
As you can tell, the patient experienced multiple channels that your doctor’s office offers. The patient never had to repeat their information nor the reason for their contact at any point, to any answering service representative at all. The interaction was seamless, with all the historical patient interaction data being passed on to the answering service.
This is harder to implement but reaps tremendous rewards – the least of them being terrific patient experience, and therefore, higher patient satisfaction.
Measuring return on your investment
Before you invest in an answering service, decide on the ROI that would make sense to your business. How would you measure success?
Increased customer satisfaction
If that’s your success criteria, then you should know what your current customer satisfaction (CSAT) is.
How are you going to measure customer satisfaction? Send text messages to every current customer?
Are you going to measure customer satisfaction from every person that’s contacted your business? Are you going to use post call surveys to do so?
Are you going to be measuring this as a NET PROMOTER SCORE (NPS)?
What improvement are you looking for? 5%? 10%? 50%?
Be reasonable with your expectations.
If you are considering increased leads as your measure of answering service success, do you have a system to measure the lead velocity now?
For example, do you have a “last 12 months” view of incoming leads each month/week?
Do you measure the channels where those leads came from?
Do you have a way to attribute the source of those leads (e.g. newspaper, google ads, google searches etc)?
It’s not hard to find out this data (if you have some sort of CRM or spreadsheets). Figure out this information, consider that as the baseline, then set the ROI you are looking for.
Again, be reasonable with your expectations.
Increased staff productivity
Many businesses depend on answering services to increase the productivity of in office staff. Answering services help alleviate the burden of having to deal with incoming inquiries – while they are welcomed by all businesses, these incoming enquirers do tend to disrupt the office flow.
Your business might know instinctively that they need to reduce the disruptions. But, do you know how to measure the success of reduction in those disruptions?
Do you have a way to measure the % of time your existing staff spends on tending to incoming calls/inquiries? If they were freed up from those duties, what would they do with that extra, free time?
Before you get started with an answering service solution, make sure you can quantify the impact of the solution.
Unless you do this, you will end up considering an answering service as a cost center, not a profit center.
How much does an answering service cost?
The cost of an answering service depends on various factors. Expect to pay anywhere between $0.61 to $1.36 per call subject to the service plan you subscribe to (data from this website).
Some answering services are just “take the call, pass on the message”. I personally do not see much value in those services.
However, if you prefer an answering service to do some work – e.g order taking or appointment setting, expect to pay more. It still ends up being cheaper to hire an outside answering services agency vs building the entire capability in house.
What to look for in an answering service
- Empathy – Do not look to hire folks that are just “take the message and pass it on”. An answering machine can do that. Look for an answering service team that responds efficiently and accurately to inbound enquiries. They should focus on explaining possible solutions, and ensuring that your clients feel supported and valued. Only teams with empathy can do that.
- Long term commitment – If you are using humans as any part of your answering service, make sure that you sign a long term contract. No vendor wants to invest in learning their client’s business if the client is not willing to partner with them.
- Industry focused – Providing answering services support for a lawyer’s office is very different from doing so for a medical office. Choose a team that has experience in your industry. Or, be willing to train them.
- Training focused – An answering service team represents your company brand by answering questions, handling complaints, and troubleshooting problems with your products and services. The answering service you choose should give heavy emphasis on training.
- Customer satisfaction focused, not volume focused – Your business gets good reviews when your answering service team listens to your clients to understand the reason for their call, address all questions or complaints, and provide an accurate and efficient response. This is not possible when you are measuring them on “how many inbound inquiries did you answer today”
- Metrics driven – Look for answering services teams that strive to meet or exceed customer satisfaction metrics. More importantly, they should be using metrics to train themselves on doing better.
- Supporting of digital channels – Your customers reach out to you via various digital channels. They don’t just pick up the phone. Look for answering services teams that help you respond to inbound customer and partner digital inquiries, using methods and verbiage defined by your team
- Upsell and cross-sell – Look for answering services teams that identify up-sell opportunities where appropriate and attempt to cross-sell in cases a specific request cannot be met. That’s real business support.
- Transparency – Look for answering services teams that escalate difficult and complex situations to their team leasers and your own team leaders as soon as they arise. If you punish them for making mistakes, they will start hiding their mistakes. Be a team – you don’t want any information, nor mistakes hidden.
- Daily feedback – There’s an immense amount of business information your customers can provide you. Most businesses miss out on this valuable information. Try to find answering services companies that are always in “listening to the customer” mode. Your answering service should be providing your business leaders with important observations that they gather from our customer interactions. This helps you to improve your processes, products and/or service offerings.
- Confidentiality / industry standards – It goes without saying that your answering service needs to maintain confidentiality of all company trade secrets and proprietary information. Don’t start without a mutual NDA.
How answering services work
- Your business gets a unique phone number from the answering service. Thereafter, you can forward as many or all calls from your business phone number(s) to this phone number. Forward calls to this number 24/7, on-demand, overflow, after-hours, weekends or holidays. That depends on your choice and agreement.
- The answering services IT team will typically add chat support to your business website. Thereafter, your answering services team will start answering customer chats 24/7. No more missed opportunities.
- Your business is given a unique text messaging number. If you ever part ways with your answering services team, you can port this number and keep it for life. You can market this text messaging number to anyone. Your answering services team will start answering customer text messages using their own technology.
- Start to train your answering services team on your custom business needs, answering scripts, business processes etc.
- If your business has some answering scripts, make sure you share the same with your answering services team. These scripts could be used to gather information for callers, upsell current customers, handle support queries etc. You can also add / change / modify scripts at any time.
- Most answering services teams use a CRM for their work. Every call, text message, WhatsApp, fax etc is logged in their CRM. You have access to this at all times. However, if your business has its own CRM tool, the answering services IT team sets up the integration with your in-house system or CRM.
- If you prefer that your answering service team alert you whenever needed, they can call you, email or text the correct staff member on your team and pass necessary information as well.
- Establish how to handle urgent calls. Most answering services teams triage urgent calls for you. As you work together, you teach your team on your escalation process.
- If you want to monitor communication quality, understand how to use your answering service’s CRM. Most respectable answering services teams use their own CRM. Their CRM records all calls, all text messages and everything in between. You have access to the same information that we do. You’ll have access to call transcripts as well