What to Look for When Evaluating A Telephone Answering Service

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All telephone answering service providers are not alike. It goes without saying that consumers should comparison shop before a purchase, and outsourcing answering services is no different. But, in addition to price differences, there are several other points of divergence among vendors. Read on for some key areas to look for when evaluating a telephone answering service:

Month-to-Month Agreements and Per-minute Billing

A yearly contract may not be the most cost-efficient option for your business. Not to mention, that sort of long-term commitment can be downright scary. What will happen should your call volume spike? Will you be stuck paying the same per-minute rate for the duration of the contract?

Conversely, month-to-month agreements mean you’re not bound by a long-term contract. Your vendor can adjust your rate according to usage, and this flexibility results in a more cost-efficient program for you.

Additionally, look for vendors who charge by the minute and prorate your bill based on actual call handling time. For example, some service providers bill in six-second increments (and they don’t round up to the next full minute). Others will charge you for five full minutes for a call that lasts only four minutes and three seconds. Wouldn’t you rather pay only for the time you actually use?

Geography and Redundancy

Although mom-and-pop answering services are often lower priced and great for customers who receive limited call volume, this approach won’t be the right fit for every business. The following are three areas in which smaller outsourcers may be at a disadvantage:

1. Location Coverage
Answering service outsourcers who operate from only one center are at a disadvantage should a disaster occur that disables that location.  It’s a fact of call center life that phone lines can occasionally go down ─ for any number of reasons. For example, an act of god may strike, such as a tornado or blizzard. Or a manmade disaster may take down power lines. Occurrences like these can be catastrophic, particularly for an answering service that doesn’t have backup provisions. However, providers who operate multiple sites can simply reroute calls from the affected center to another one of their sites that’s located out of harm’s way. This redundancy ensures that your calls are never missed.

2. Staffing
This is an obvious one. The more agents that a call center has on the phones, the more calls it can handle at once. On the other hand, understaffing can lead to longer wait/hold times for your callers and lower customer satisfaction ratings for your business.

3. Technology
Call center software and hardware can be very costly purchases. Smaller centers may not have the budget for such large investments. If you expect a large call volume, consider service providers who are also large enough to afford the technology to handle it.

Comprehensive Training

A comprehensive answering service training program will include not only basic phone etiquette but also program-specific instruction customized for your business. This includes training on your products and services, industry-or program-specific keywords and phrases, troubleshooting methods, and your company history and philosophy. You’ll want to inquire as to whether agent training covers these elements.

Also ask your intended service provider about their education methodology: Does it include classroom instruction only? How much of the training includes such hands-on learning opportunities as role-playing or mock calls? After all, you want the agents answering on your behalf to sound like a seamless extension of your business. How else can they do that without learning the particulars of your company?

 Monitoring and Quality Assurance

Agent monitoring, performed by management staff, helps to ensure that your end goals and those of your own customers are successfully met. Ask for an overview of this process. Does the service provider that you’re evaluating use a Quality Assurance checklist to monitor agents? If so, request a copy. A QA checklist will be used to measure and score such metrics as:

  • Did the agent use the greeting and closing phrases for the call?
  • Did the agent verify the spelling of the caller’s name?
  • Did the agent demonstrate appropriate call control?

This checklist should then be reviewed with agents as a teaching tool. Also make sure that the vendor is willing to work with you to customize monitoring processes and materials specifically for your company, including the metrics that are important to your program.

Security

According to cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab, 90 percent of businesses have experienced at least one cyber attack.  So you may want to take a look at how your answering service pledges to protect your data. What are the tenets of its data security policy? They should include something similar to the following:

  • All sites’ systems are behind firewalls.
  • Transmission of customer information is or can be encrypted with SSL for HTTP-based communication or with any encryption algorithm of the customer’s choosing.
  • All data servers are secure.
  • All networks are secure and require username and password to gain access.
  • All servers are in a separate room with access limited to only approved personnel.
  • All sites have a security system to guard against theft.
  • All agent work stations are free of paper, writing materials, and electronic storage devices are not permitted.

The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard is a set of similar but even more comprehensive guidelines for vendors that handle credit card information. All call centers should be PCI compliant and follow these guidelines to reduce or eliminate vulnerabilities that can expose consumers to identity theft.

In sum, by doing your homework, you can help to set up your telephone answering service for success. Ask the right questions and you’ll soon find one that best suits your business and your budget.