What to Look for in an Answering Service?

Read the Definitive Buying Guide for Answering Service and Call Centers Here

Finding the right answering service can mean the establishment of a long term, profitable and highly practical business relationship. However, there are a lot of different options available on the market. Finding the best fit for a given company relies largely on doing the required research into the options before signing up with a given provider of answering services. The following guide should help you better quantify exactly what it is you need from an answering service, evaluate potential services and weigh the fit between a given service and your company, making it much easier to come to an agreement with a provider when you start actually shopping.

Decide What Services You Need in a Call Center

Something that many newcomers to the world of answering services overlook is the wide variety of additional services that these companies provide beyond simply taking messages. There are several categories of additional services offered by answering services that many clients find greatly improve their communications efficiencies.

  • 1) Appointment and Calendar Syncing:

When you do business with certain call centers, they have advanced features that allow them to schedule appointments for your team members based on the needs of callers and the openings in your team’s calendars. Answering service staff can have access to your team member’s calendars and then schedule appointments based on client’s needs, with the appointments then automatically syncing to your teams’ individual calendars. This requires the use of specialized scheduling software that the answering service will set your company up on. Finding an answering service that offers this can allow you to greatly streamline the process of clients and customers scheduling meetings with your staff.

  • 2) Cloud-Based Answering Service Technologies:

Cloud based services integrated by answering services allow you the ability to utilize local numbers in any area that you do business, regardless of where the answering service provider is headquartered. Cloud-based services can also set up toll-free numbers that all calls to local numbers can be routed to.

Answering services with cloud-based technologies can also affordably set up an auto attendant for your company. If you have a lot of calls coming in that need to be routed to different channels in order to ensure customer requests are met properly, then an auto attendant might be the best option for your incoming callers. They can navigate through the menu based on their needs and then end up at the exact person they need to speak to or leave a message with. Answering-services with cloud-based technologies can build you an auto attendant using their in-house tools, preventing you from having to look for a third-party provider.

  • 3) Languages Other than English

If your answering service only provides service in English, you have immediately limited the potential reach of your client base. In almost any city in the United States, offering Spanish answering services can greatly broaden the base of customers that you can offer support to. For companies with a global base, or who want to ensure that they can offer services to any customer, regardless of linguistic background, look for an answering service that works with an interpreting service as a subcontractor. That way, they can conference in an interpreter with the appropriate skills to assist customers regardless of their language of origin.

  • 4) Web Portal and Message Access

In today’s world of answering services, not having a sophisticated web portal puts an answering service significantly behind their competition. Always ask to see the web portal and a demo of its features before you sign up with a given service. Services that could be included in the web portal that clients can access include:

  • Specific information about the duration and frequency of calls
  • Reports regarding larger call patterns and trends
  • Information about wrong numbers
  • The ability to transfer notes into other software such as medical documentation software
  • Billing and payment options
  • Security and permissions management

Discussing Call Center Billing

When it comes to looking for your new answering service, understanding how they bill, how much they charge, what your contract options are, and similar questions, make up a very important part of the evaluation process. The following points are all important to consider when finding the best possible answering service to work for your business.

  1. What Billing Model is Used

There are three major billing methods that are used in the answering service industry, although two are much more common than the last. These are:

  • Per-minute billing
  • Per-unit billing
  • Flat rate billing

Flat rate services are currently very uncommon in the answering services field, however, there are a select number of providers who may choose to still utilize this model. Often however, it bears doing some extra due diligence if a prospective provider says they offer a flat rate billing service. While it may seem to offer good value for your dollar, such a model is often used to entice customers while providing substandard service. This is not a rule, simply a point of caution to look out for when evaluating answering services.

Per-minute billing is the most common model used in the industry. In this type of agreement, you simply pay for the amount of time that a caller requires to handle a given call. This may or may not include time that is required to document a call after the caller hangs up, depending on the model employed by the given company. The value of this model is that it reflects the actual amount of time worked on a given call, rather than estimating it. Some answering services prefer it, because it assures that they are able to bill for the actual amount of time that their staff are working for a given client.

Per-unit billing instead charges a fixed price for every interaction an operator has with a caller. So, each call, regardless of how long or short it is, will be billed at the same rate. A unit isn’t only used to assess a call received by an agent, but also a message left, a call forwarded or a call-back. This model is useful if your transactions tend to be all of a very consistent length.

Since these two models are the most common, below are the pros and cons of these two methods to help you decide which type of answering service might be the better fit for your business.

Potential Answering Service Pros:  Per-Minute

  • Control over call durations: In this model, providers are careful to document every second their operators are working on calls. This provides you with a great deal of data regarding the length of calls, allowing you to work with your answering service to pinpoint optimal call lengths, and to work on ways to balance the needs of brevity for billing purposes and high-quality customer service.
  • Accurate Billing: When you do business with a company that uses this model, you are always going to pay a rate that is reflective of the actual amount of work the answering service is dedicating to your company. This provides a level of transparency and fairness that can’t be beat by other models. The best providers of per-minute service use a model sometimes called “true-time” billing, which means that your fees are assessed based on the real time a call takes rather than rounding any figures up. This model also allows the answering service to ensure that they have enough income to provide the best service, technology and options to their clients.
  • Short-Calls: If any significant portion of calls that come into your business are quite short, a per-minute billing model may afford you some savings. When using a per-unit model, you can often end up paying a great deal more for a very short call than you would when using a per-minute model instead. For very simple calls, this model can even offer you some rates that will come in at under a minute.

Potential Answering Service Cons: Per-Minute

  • Extended Call Length: We put this in this section because it is something that is sometimes perceived as a con by businesses considering a per-minute answering service. The truth though, is that this rarely happens. The fear is that a company will try to extend the amount of time that each caller is on the phone in order to pad their billings, but this almost never happens for a very simple reason: as soon as a client found out that a provider was doing this, they would be dropped as a provider and word would get out very quickly. This prospective con is largely unfounded, and shouldn’t prevent you from opting for the per-minute billing model.
  • Poor Call Management: This is a more legitimate fear than artificially inflated call lengths, and is worth thinking about. If a call center is not providing excellent training and supervisory oversight of their operators, their call times may start to inflate due to inefficiencies in call management procedures. This is something that can be managed by carefully seeing how the call center works. Ask to listen to operators handling your calls and ensure that you will be allowed to do this regularly and to provide feedback on call-flow. This can help eliminate any of the inefficiencies that may cause your billings to needlessly inflate.

Potential Call Center Pros: Per-Unit:

  • Consistent Call Billing: The great thing about this model is that every call is going to cost the same amount, preventing any ugly surprises from cropping up along the way. For instance, in a per-minute model, if a complication causes several calls in a given month to be much more expensive than normal, your bill could spike significantly – that is not a concern in per-unit billing.
  • Consistent Monthly Billing: Just as you can predict your call costs accurately with this model, you can also predict your monthly billing with a high degree of accuracy. Barring a significant expansion of your business, chances are your call volumes will be fairly consistent, allowing you to avoid any surprises in your monthly bills.

Potential Cons: Per-Unit:

  • Difficult Call Management: Usually this billing model, call times are not tracked with the high degree of specificity that they are in per-minute billing. This can make it difficult to evaluate how agents are handling your calls. While this might not affect your bottom line, it can affect customer satisfaction.
  • Short Calls: The short calls that are the benefit of the per-minute model are the drawback of the per-unit model. This means that you can end up overpaying for any call that comes in shorter than the amount of time that would be required to meet the per-unit fee under a per-minute model. The problem is that even if someone dialed the wrong number or hangs up upon getting the answering service, you’re still going to be charged for the unit. Here again, it becomes very important to understand how long the average call the service is fielding for you takes. If you have existing data on how long the average call currently coming into your company takes to field, you may be able to evaluate whether a per-unit model makes financial sense for your company.
  • Definition of a “Unit”: This is an important thing to understand about the model, and affects whether or not this billing model is a good fit for your company. Most answering services that use this model assess a unit for every action performed on a given call, including transferring a call or message delivery. This means that a given call might actually be charged several units. So, if you have complex calls often coming into your business that require more handling than simply taking down a message, a per-unit billing model can quickly add up.

Per-minute billing is more common than per-unit models, but plenty of options exist under both models. The right one for your company will largely depend on the fit between the specific model and the types and lengths of calls that your business typically receives.

The Agents at the Answering Service

Ultimately, it is the agents at the answering service who are on the front lines and who are going to be interacting with your clients and customers. This means that the quality of the call-handling and agent training should be of the utmost importance when you are searching for a new answering service.

One of the most important questions to ask an answering service before you sign up for their services is what training they put their agents through before they start taking calls. You should both ask for a description of the training agents are put through, and ask to listen in to some call examples to see how the agents perform when put to the test. Things to watch for include:

  • Do agents speak fluently and confidently?
  • Do they promptly answer and communicate with the caller without leaving dead-air?
  • Do agents over-explain things, taking more time than they need to in order to handle a call?
  • What type of recruitment processes does the answering service employ? This can include the screening and interview process that they employ when hiring operators.
  • What is the general demeanour of the agents? They should be warm and friendly to callers, and work hard to meet caller expectations while making the caller feel as if their concerns are being listened to.
  • They are easy to understand, and understand the concerns being expressed by callers.

The bottom line is that you can only understand the quality of the agents by getting a direct line to them, either by a site visit, sample calls, or being patched into a live session. If a call center can only provide you with answers about call metrics and supervisory schedules when you ask about recruitment and training, you might want to walk the other way.

Metrics and Performance in the Call Centers

An answering service should have a strong set of standards that they use to ensure a high quality of services provided to their clients. By using a standardized set of metrics or evaluation tools to monitor agent performance, they can ensure that their agents are meeting or exceeding client expectations.

  • 1. Quality Evaluation: Always ask how an answering service evaluates the quality of their calls. Simply recording calls is not enough in this regard. However, if a company records calls, then uses them to provide coaching to agents regarding improving the customer service experience that they provide to their clients, they are taking the right steps to a superior customer service experience.
  • 2. On-Hold: Most answering services use hold when call volumes surpass the available agents, but you want to make sure that your provider uses every tool at their disposal to minimize hold times in any way they can. Ask the following questions to get a clear picture of the hold times at a given answering service:
  • What is the average length of time customers are left on hold when hold is required?  If a vendor can’t provide hold times of less than 30 seconds (on average), you might question whether they are equipped to handle your call volume.
  • What are the total holds per month? A percentage rate of calls placed on hold in a given month will give you a picture of how heavily a firm relies on hold.
  • Do you use hold at all? If a company is what is known as a “1-call” service, then a given operator will try to answer all calls within 3 rings, and then never place the caller on hold unless there is a need to get a third party involved in the call.
  • Does the service utilize a “3-call” model? This model will result in all client calls being answered very quickly. However, this will result in operators handling up to 3 calls at any one time, meaning that 2 of the 3 callers will be on hold at any given time during peak incoming call hours.
  • 3. Ring-Time: Ask about how many rings average between when a caller dials the number and when the call is answered. Any good answering service should be able to provide a very low number here. In many cases, lowering the amount of time it takes to field customer calls is a primary goal of companies who are hunting for an answering service. So ideally, the average rings should be three or lower between a call coming in and being answered.
  • 4. Average Call Length: We’ve discussed this several times already because of the importance of average call length in two key areas: billing and customer service. Usually, a sales rep will break down average call lengths into different types of calls. For instance, a sales call may take longer than a call where someone is asking to schedule an appointment. Tread carefully if a company promises call lengths that average a minute or less. This either indicates an over-promise on the part of a sales rep, or callers that aren’t performing their due diligence with their calls.

Call Center Software Reporting Features

Reports are a key feature of almost any answering service, as they provide a wealth of information that helps you evaluate how the service is aiding your business. If an answering service offers very limited reporting services, or none at all, you might want to ask why they aren’t keeping pace with the competition, most of whom offer very complex and customizable reports.

Ideally, an answering service should allow you to create custom reports that have the specific data that you want in order to evaluate the impact that they are having on your business. The more potential data points they provide, the greater the flexibility you have in crafting your custom reports.
Additional Fees

While standard billing models have already been covered, there are often additional fees that come along with doing business with an answering service. It’s rare to find a company that doesn’t have some fees. Ideally, you want as few as possible, and should look for absolute transparency when it comes to when and how fees are charged.

Fees include:

  • Activation – when establishing new service with an answering service, to cover training and setup
  • Hold time fees – first of all, the best companies don’t put clients on hold. Secondly, if they do, they shouldn’t be charging you for it.
  • Line fees – this is a fee for the number the clients use to dial into the answering service. For a basic service that provides a single toll-free number, there shouldn’t be a fee. However, if you require multiple lines with local numbers, you may pay a small fee for each additional line.


Ultimately, you want an answering service to make it as easy as possible for you to pay for the services they are providing. Ask the following questions to ensure their payment options fit in with your preferred ways of doing business.

  • How is payment made? This might include web portal, credit card, cheque or other methods.
  • What is the billing cycle? Remember that if a company utilizes a 28-day billing cycle, your bill is going to be assessed 1 extra bill per year compared to companies that bill monthly.
  • How long do you have to pay? Usually, there are several days between when the invoice is delivered and when payment is required, but it is important to know this up front in order to make sure it aligns with your preferred way of managing invoices in your firm.

Physical Considerations

This is something that sometimes gets overlooked because of the nature of the work that answering services do, but it is worth considering a few physical factors when hiring an answering service.

  • Ambient noise: a great deal of ambient noise in the operator environment can make it difficult for callers to hear or understand their agent.
  • Physical location: a large function of most answering services it to provide overflow services when you are unable to answer calls in your physical location. Having the company located in a different area than your own business helps ensure that if you have an issue, such as a power outage, that your answering service can pick up the slack.

Final Notes

Two final things are worth thinking about when finding the best possible answering service to work with your company. First, consider the professionalism, follow up, attention to detail and customer service offered by the sales rep that you’re communicating with at a potential answering service. A sales rep’s job is to impress you, and if they’re not willing to work hard to obtain your business, you can be sure that the agents aren’t going to work hard to keep it.

Finally, be slightly careful of the offers that only promise how cheap an answering service could be. Remember that value is much more important than cost. Obviously, no one would run a business without being careful about how they spend their money. However, opting for an answering service just because they have the lowest rates is a good way to miss out on the services that could offer your company the best value for your dollar by providing services that improve your clients’ satisfaction with your organization.

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