What is a Call Answering Service? A Complete Guide

Written by Nicky Walker - Senior Marketing Developer
17th January 2024 

As we navigate through a new world where instant responses and continuous connectivity have become the norm, the ability to maintain an ‘always-on’ level of communication in business is no longer just an advantage, but a necessity.

This is where outsourcing to a telephone answering service starts to make sense. They aim to offer a seamless solution to ensure that every call is answered and handled in a professional way and that no call goes unanswered.

This comprehensive guide aims to explain what a call answering service is, how they work and how they can help your business. We’ll explore the different types of service that are offered, the benefits each one offers and tips on choosing the right service for your specific business needs.

Some frequently asked questions will also be addressed at the end for quick reference. Whether you are a new entrepreneur or a seasoned business owner that is considering using a telephone answering service, this guide aims to equip you with all the necessary information to make an informed decision.

Defining a Call Answering Service

Understanding what a telephone answering service is or isn’t, is important when deciding if it’s the right fit for your business needs. Let’s do things back-to-front and explain what it’s not.

It’s so much more than a glorified voicemail!

There’s a lot of crossover in the terms used to describe the service from a virtual receptionist to an outsourced switchboard to a telephone answering service. As a result, some new enquiries to our service seem to think that the service is automated with no human interaction. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A live telephone answering service, such as ours, shouldn’t be seen as an out-the-box, one-size-fits-all product. A lot of time, care and effort goes into setting up each client account as no two clients are the same.

An automated service simply doesn’t suit the vast majority of prospective clients we speak to. One of the main reasons a lot of companies contact us is because they absolutely don’t want callers feeling under-appreciated by having to speak or interact with a “machine”. Well trained, professional operators are able to understand your business and interact with callers in a way that no machine ever could.

A team of Virtual Receptionists or a Single Virtual Assistant?

Most call answering services work by having small teams of virtual receptionists that answer calls for a variety of clients, by spreading resources it’s how they are able to keep costs down compared to the employment of one single operator per client.

Some services do, however, just that and they tend to be a lot more expensive but also a lot more involved than the handling of just calls to make them financially viable. These are called virtual assistants and their scope of work is usually very broad and include both inbound and outbound calls, secretarial duties and potentially some bookkeeping.

A Virtual Assistant working from home

Virtual Assistants tend to only have a handful of clients and their charges are understandably a lot more, they also tend to be sole traders but most are part of associations such as the Association of Professional Virtual Assistants.

Regardless of whether you choose to use a small team of virtual receptionists or a virtual PA, the basic concept remains the same. At their core, telephone answering services are an outsourced service model where a team of trained professionals (or individual in the latter case) handles incoming calls on behalf of your business. The service is designed to function as an extension of your company, ensuring that every call is managed with the same care and professionalism as if it were answered within your office.

How Call Answering Services Work

Identifying calls

The majority of call answering services work in the same way to identify which calls are for which of their clients. In order to correctly identify calls, before they are answered, it’s necessary to tag incoming lines with a client reference or greeting or some other ID. This means that the system, or operator, is able to access the company details of how the caller should be greeted and from there, how the call should be handled.

The process of tagging a line is really quite simple, every client is assigned a unique telephone number, any calls that come in on this line, regardless of how they were sent to it, can then be identified by the virtual receptionist service and answered correctly.

Call routing

There are a number of ways to get calls to this unique telephone number but the most common is to divert calls from an existing telephone number. This way, the client does not need to give up their established contact number and it allows them to remain in control of when calls are presented to a call answering operator. It may be that they only want calls to be outsourced during certain times of the day, when their lines are busy and so they use the service as an overflow and only when needed or, as many do, divert all calls to the service, regardless of time or staffing levels.

Routing telephone calls

Another way to route calls to call answering services is via programmable virtual telephone numbers, at Connect we call these “Smart Numbers” as that’s what they are- very smart! Virtual telephone numbers are increasingly popular as it allows for a huge range of options when routing lines. Calls, for example, could be routed to the phone answering service on weekdays only and only between certain hours, then on Saturdays they could go to a mobile and to a voicemail on a Sunday. Callers could also be greeted with an IVR menu (an Interactive Voice Menu) whereby callers press 1 to be routed to accounts, 2 for sales and 3 for somewhere else and so on.

Operator response

This is quite simply how operators answer calls, what information they should collect and what they should do next. With the exception of Virtual Assistants, who should probably know their clients inside out over time as they only manage a few, operators are guided via an online script that has been put together with the client.

The best call answering operators are ones that are able to follow the guidelines but without sounding scripted. The more relevant information that clients can provide about their business to their virtual receptionist, then the better and more professional level of service can be given.

Operator action

Again, as with the operator response, their action is guided by the caller script (or profile as we call it at Connect). So whilst some clients may just want basic details collected from a caller and then sent via email and/or SMS txt, others may require certain calls to be transferred to another person or department (so working more like an outsourced switchboard) and some may require the operators to perform some sort of online diary management aiming to book clients in for appointments.

At the top end of call answering services you’ll find clients that require their virtual receptionists to access CRM systems to do all of the above, process orders and more.

Types of Telephone Answering Services

Just as there are many different business types and sectors in the UK, equally there are many different types of call answering to cater for them. What one business may see as a crucial element of their telephone outsourcing, another may see as superfluous.

Below are the main types that we find in the UK. It should also be noted that there is fairly large cross-over in some terms and so a lot of the time, we find, that when a client is asking about our virtual receptionist services, they are actually interested in our Classic telephone answering service and vice-versa.

  • Message Taking Service: As the name implies, this is a fairly simple service whereby callers are still greeted by a professional sounding receptionist but their remit is to collect data such as name, contact number, email address and a brief message so that they can send the client the information via email and/or txt. This maybe for the client to call the customer back at a more suitable time, make contact via email or simply to relay a message.
  • Overflow Call Handling: Again, this is probably fairly self-explanatory, but many clients contact us asking if it’s possible to use the service for just this. This may involve the same level of service as basic message taking or, depending on where and why there is an overflow of inbound calls, may require the operator to act as an outsourced switchboard as described next.
  • Outsourced Switchboard: Clients at this level of service may outsource to a call handling service as they wish to either replace their current switchboard or give further depth of cover without employing another member of staff. Operators would be provided as part of their script the means to which identify who or which department was required and transfer accordingly or, if unavailable, collect relevant details to allow a call-back.
  • Diary Management Service: Moving toward the more expensive side of the pricing spectrum, operators are able access an online diary in order to create, cancel, amend or confirm appointments. Most often used by medical practicioners, clear instruction, good training and a diary designed for multiple users is required.
  • Virtual Assistant: Probably the premium level of outsourced call handling and with a price-tag to match. A virtual assistant, or “VA”, should be able to do all of the above and more, they are as close to an outsourced receptionist as you can get, capable of doing everything you’d need an employed in-house receptionist to do provided the don’t physically need to be in the office. For this reason, a VA will likely have only a small number of clients in order to allocate sufficient time to service them properly. The down side to this is that if your VA is dealing with a call for one of their other clients when your business lines start ringing well, the likelihood is that they won’t be answered. Provided the assistant hasn’t spread their client base to thin, this shouldn’t happen too often, but having a single assistant with few clients understandably increases their charges significantly.

Each type mentioned has its place in the market and whilst some may not be suitable for all businesses, Virtual Assistants for example may not be suitable for high-volume clients, they all fundamentally exist to ensure that customer service levels are adhered to and that no call goes unanswered.

Exploring the Benefits of a Telephone Answering Service

Outsourcing to a call answering service can bring some surprising benefits to your business, beyond simply stopping the practice of missing calls. Here, we explore some key advantages that such a service can bring to your business:

Improved Customer Service

Make your callers feel special with professionally trained operators that are able to provide a personal touch that automated systems can’t compete with. Each call is handled by a real person who can respond empathetically and effectively to customer queries, ensuring a positive interaction.

With a dedicated team to handle incoming calls, wait times are reduced and customers spend less time on hold. Regardless of the time or the volume of calls, not only are they answered quickly but, thanks to training and well established systems, the quality of interaction remains consistent.

During times of high call volume, such as marketing campaigns or seasonal peaks, a telephone answering service can help manage the overflow, ensuring that every call is attended to without increasing in-house staffing.

Lowered Business Costs

It goes without saying that employing a full-time receptionist, or even an in-house team, to manage calls would be costly, especially if they are not working to full capacity. Outsourcing allows businesses to use the resource as and when they need it, imagine interviewing for a position and offering hours that changed every other day depending on marketing or call volumes.

There’s no need to worry about needing extra office space, increased national insurance or pension contributions, sick pay, holiday cover or maternity leave.

You only pay for what you need, the majority of providers offer monthly rolling contracts. So, even if you do find call volumes fluctuating then the ability to quickly scale up, or down, is not hindered by your ability to increase or reduce staffing.

Enhanced Professional Image

Every call is answered quickly and professionally, obviously this reflects better on any businesses reputation compared to calls not being answered.

For smaller businesses, having a dedicated telephone answering service can give them a competitive edge. Whilst a competitor’s call is answered by voicemail, or not at all, your business calls are answered by a polite, friendly and knowledgeable receptionist that presents a more established, trustworthy and professional image in the marketplace.

With virtual receptionists having the ability of transferring calls to you, existing clients feel like they are dealing with a reliable, easily contactable company.

How a Call Answering Service Can Boost Your Business

At Connect, we regularly hear the term “game-changer” when new clients are chatting with their customer service managers. It’s amazing how many times we hear how new clients are genuinely surprised at the level of missed calls and missed opportunities they had been unaware off by leaving calls to go to voicemail or go unanswered.

Direct Impact on Business Productivity

With a phone answering service in place, you and your team are free to get on with what you do best without the constant interruption of phone calls. This allows for greater focus on core business activities, be it sales, service delivery, or strategic planning. Increased focus leads to higher productivity which in turn leads to better business outcomes.

Instead of allocating time, effort and staff to manage calls, you can redirect them towards areas that directly contribute to business growth, such as marketing, product development and/or customer experience enhancements. Our agents know how to handle business calls while making your partners, clients and customers happy.

Accelerated Business Growth

In any business it’s infuriating to know that a potential lead has been lost, even worse if it was one that was an easy sale that simply went elsewhere. Outsourcing to a telephone answering service means that you should be capturing every business opportunity, certainly the ones that were being so easily lost due to calls going unanswered.

Business growth is not all about just new clients, excellent customer service drives customer loyalty. A call answering service ensures that your customers are always greeted with a helpful and professional response, enhancing their overall satisfaction and likelihood to remain loyal to your brand.

Say Goodbye to Sales Calls

A virtual receptionist is able to spot the majority of sales calls and so, with the client’s instruction, is able to politely, yet firmly, ask that the business details are taken off the callers database and end the call.

Choosing the Right Call Answering Service for Your Business

As already mentioned, there are many different types of service and one size doesn’t fit all, so it’s important to look at what each provider offers to make sure it aligns with your business’s needs. Specific industry call answering services can boost your customer satisfaction levels.

Key Factors to Consider:

  • Hours of Cover: When do most of your calls come in? Do you require 24/7 cover, just during normal business hours or a bit of both? Be wary that longer coverage, especially out-of-hours is likely to significantly increase cost.
  • Experience and Reputation: Look for a provider with a strong track record and positive reviews. Also, do they have experience in your specific industry, are the operators likely to understand your unique challenges and customer expectations?
  • Technology and Infrastructure: Ensure the service provider uses up-to-date technology that can integrate seamlessly with your current systems. If you require some sort of CRM integration, be sure to address this early on as many larger providers won’t be as flexible as smaller ones when it comes to needing something a little more bespoke.
  • Cost Structure: Is their pricing model understandable, is it easily accessible and easily comparable to others? Many providers will charge by the number of calls, some by cumulative length of call and others by messages sent. Many Virtual assistants, and a few specialist phone answering services, will charge by the time allocated to operators, regardless of whether they were actively answering calls or not. Are there any hidden add-ons for SMS text messages, call transfers or level of service?
  • Quality of Service: Are calls answered in a timely manner? Are procedures and relevant training being carried out correctly? If a service is confident in its ability to handle calls correctly, then they are likely to offer some sort of free trial. If the telephone answering service provider requires some sort of payment up front, or payment card details, then question why and look at the small print.
  • Scalability: The service should be able to scale with your business. Whether you’re expecting growth, have seasonal fluctuations, or anticipate any changes in call volume, the service should be able to accommodate these changes.

Looking for a Professional Phone Answering Service?

As we’ve covered in this guide, outsourcing your business calls can bring improved customer service, increase your availability for other business matters, reduce cost and help project a more professional image. Perfect for small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and solo entrepreneurs who might not have the resources for a full-time receptionist or a dedicated call centre.

Key Takeaways:

  • Better Customer Service: A call answering service ensures that every call is handled promptly by a professional, well trained operator that knows and cares about your business.
  • Increase Productivity: Spend less time being distracted by calls and more time focusing on building your business.
  • Reduce Costs: Save on salaries, hiring expense, training, holiday pay, sick pay and maternity leave. Pay for the service you need, when you need it.
  • Enhanced Professional Image: Grow your brand and reputation with a virtual receptionist ensuring no more missed calls or long wait times and show your existing and prospective clients you care about their calls.

Take the next step with a free trial:

Sometimes the best way to see how something works is to try it out for yourself and what better way to try something out that to try it for free?

If your business is looking for a friendly, professional and UK based telephone answering service to outsource your calls to, then Connect offer a free, no obligation trial of up to 30 days. Contact us on 0330 3333 777, request a call-back or set-up a trial online by clicking here.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are telephone answering services?

Call answering services are a way of outsourcing your inbound calls and are designed to ensure that every call to your business is answered and handled efficiently.

Unlike simple voicemail or other automated systems, these services involve trained operators who are able to provide a more professional and personal touch to call handling. Most work by assigning a unique telephone number to your business, this allows them to correctly route and identify incoming calls so that they are answered in your company’s name or however else you have instructed.

They aim to enhance customer service, reduce business costs, and improve your company’s professional image by ensuring no call goes unanswered.

Whether it’s a small team of virtual receptionists or a dedicated virtual assistant, telephone answering services are tailored to fit the unique needs of your business, acting as an extension of your in-house team.

How do I set up a call answering service?

Find a provider that offers a service matching your business needs, these are likely to be hours of cover, experience in your sector, cost and scalability.

They will require instructions on how to handle your calls from how to greet callers, what details to collect and what actions to take. This is usually collected via an online form, email or a phonecall.

You will be provided with either a telephone number for you to divert calls from your existing number to or for you to market directly. Some services offer a free trial for you to see if it works for your business before committing.

Why do companies outsource their call handling?

For lots of different reasons but the main ones are that of practicality, ease and cost.

It’s far easier, and cheaper, to outsource to a telephone answering service than to advertise, hire and train a full-time receptionist. Asking others in the business, who already have their own tasks to perform, to also answer the phones can be unrealistic.

It’s not just small businesses that use phone answering services; companies from all sectors and all sizes find it more economical, flexible and scalable to outsource some or all of their call answering.

Is a Virtual Receptionist a real human person?

Yes, they are real people, well certainly at Connect they are!

Our virtual receptionists are as real as they come – flesh, blood, and exceptional customer service skills included.

At Connect, we guarantee you’re not talking to robots or sophisticated AI, just professional, friendly humans ready to assist your callers.

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