20 Questions to Ask when Selecting an Answering Service

Today’s Message Center, Answering Service or Call Center is a far cry from the old “One Ringy-dingy” answering service. Sophisticated computerized systems have replaced cord-boards, well-educated, professional telereceptionists have emerged, and information delivery has become the focus of the industry. Speed and accuracy are in demand.

A good message center is essential for small businesses today. How do you find a good one? How do you evaluate the one you have? What questions should you ask?

In a search for a message center to represent your company,

1. Ask, “What industry organizations do you take part in?”

Those companies that take part in ATSI (The Association of TeleServices International) or an equipment User Group, or a Regional Organization (see lists below) are all more likely to concentrate on giving excellent service. They are investing in their education and excellence.

2. Ask, “Is your company 24/7 site certified to have demonstrated to the satisfaction of the Certification Committee of ATSI a high level of proficiency in recovery techniques, good business practices, documentation of procedures, and levels of redundancy necessary for 24 / 7 preparedness?”

Even non-members of ATSI can become certified. Making this commitment means that a service has done everything possible to maintain their reliability for their customers. They have invested in equipment, back-ups, and use best practices in the industry. Certified companies have the least chance of being out of service for any reason.

3. Ask, “Does your company take part in the Award of Excellence through ATSI, CAM-X or both?”

Participation in these mystery shopper programs allows for agents to be evaluated on over 400 points of service by an independent panel of judges over a six month period. Companies must achieve an overall score of 80% or higher, putting a service that earns these awards among the top call centers worldwide.

4. Ask, “How do you staff for bad weather and other unexpected periods of high volume?”

Companies that have agents available to work remotely or have other back-up available will be able to give more reliable service.

5. Ask what training will new agents receive prior to answering any calls.

A minimum of 40 hours of training is standard before a new agent answers a call and should consist of both classroom and independent studies, with an additional 10-15 hours of mentoring during initial call answering. More difficult accounts should be specifically trained. All agents and supervisors that are qualified should have higher certifications that promote the professional standards of today’s call center agents such as the ATSI certification program.

6. Ask, “What special training will you give your agents to enable them to answer MY calls intelligently?”

Individualized training for the intricacies of your business should be standard for all new customers and testing of all staff should be required before your account begins service.

7. Ask, “Are there limitations on the amount of information your staff will have about the way we want our calls handled?”

Limited space means crowded screens, information kept in books, and a poor understanding of your needs. Ask for fairly unlimited space for your account information.

8. Ask, “What is your average time to answer?” (Or, “What is your average hold time after answering?”) (Or, “What is the number of rings or the length of the hold time?”)

It is unrealistic to think all calls will be answered by the first or second ring; this is after all a shared service, but the majority should be answered by the second or third ring, and nearly all should be answered before the forth ring. If calls are answered by automation, ask how long the average hold time is prior to being greeted by an agent.

9. Ask, “How often (and for how long) do you put callers on hold after the initial answer?”

Asking callers to hold is frustrating for them and inefficient for the agent. It also causes mistakes and incomplete messages. Look for a service that asks callers to hold less than 10% of the time.

10. Ask, “Can I combine automation with operator services for economy and reliability?”

Labor is expensive for everyone today. Using an automated announcement to give office hours, or even a commercial for your company is a good way to keep labor costs low. Another alternative is to give the caller the choice of leaving a message in voice mail or speaking with a telereceptionist. Be sure the service you use will work with you to find the most economical service for your needs. NEVER USE VOICE MAIL THAT DOES NOT GIVE THE CALLER THE OPTION TO REACH A HUMAN FOR HELP IN AN EMERGENCY.

11. Ask, “How many customers do you have in my industry?”

Experience will assure you that your service understands your needs. A firm understanding of possible emergencies and their consequences can save money, property, and even lives.

This is an instance in which you do NOT want to be unique, unless your business is truly one-of-a-kind.

12. Ask, “What are my options for message delivery?”

Services today deliver messages instantly to cell phones, pagers, fax, e-mail or to a PC or PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). They can be delivered by voice or text or wav files. The best delivery system for you may be a combination of two or more methods. Whether you are in the office or in the field, the knowledge you need is only moments away.

13. Ask, “How many of your agents have been with you more than five years? More than two years? Less than six months?”

Generally speaking, the more experience an agent has had, the better the service they provide. In addition, a high turnover rate shows something may not be right within the service.

14. Ask, “Do you have the capability to work on the internet on my behalf?”

Even if you don’t need this capability, knowing it can be provided usually indicates the service has up-to-date equipment.

15. Ask, “Do you carry Errors and Omissions Insurance? If so, how much?”

E&O Insurance protects both the service and the customer against mistakes.

16. Ask, “May I have a free trial period?”

Many services will give a week for a potential customer to experience their quality. Be aware, however, that it isn’t always possible to give a trial week to a customer with a large or complicated account set-up.

17. Ask for an opportunity to make test calls after the account is set up and prior to transfer your calls.

The phone should be answered promptly, and the name of your company should be clearly enunciated and unrushed. The agent should sound warm and interested in taking your call.

18. Ask for a complete explanation of your billing options.

Services bill by the minute or by the call. Both are perfectly legitimate ways to bill. Beware of a service that quotes a comparatively low amount. This industry “sells” labor.

19. Ask who your contact person should be if a problem does occur during your get acquainted period.

A designated contact person for concerns, changes to your account and on-call will mean you can communicate clearly and quickly and you will have a partner that will be looking out for your company’s best interest.

20. Once you have selected a service, there is one more important question to ask, “What should I do to help you give me good service?”