When I started in this industry, no one competed nationally because of the expense of long-distance rates. All shopping was done in the Yellow Pages. Over the years many things have changed to allow for national competition. Choosing a Local or National telephone answering service (TAS) is frequently a difficult decision to make. I will explore five key factors to consider when making this decision. They are: quality, market expertise, price, reliability, and software expertise.
- Quality of Service
An examination of quality of service in our industry is a worthy topic for an entire blog; however, I will try to capture the essence in two paragraphs. Years ago experts representing our industry trade associations tried to define the characteristics of a quality call experience. They came up with a list of 31 different aspects of a call that can be measured. They then created “mystery shopper” competitions where independent experts would place a series of calls and grade the agents of participating services. While not all TAS companies participate in these competitions, and some that provide excellent quality do not, it is one way to determine an independent evaluation of quality. Other measures of quality can be discovered by asking the TAS itself for its internal scores on relevant metrics such as: average time to answer, average hold time, % of calls that are placed on hold, abandon rate, internal Quality Assurance score, average message delivery time, and perhaps others that are relevant for your company. The chances are excellent that the majority of companies participating in the industry competitions market on a National level. As the competitions are quite expensive to participate in, it is doubtful that companies that do participate will neglect the opportunity to have a national presence. As you consider the option to choose a national or a local service, ask those who are competing for your business if they have participated in the industry competitions, and if yes, how they have fared. Also, be sure to ask for their internal metric scores on the areas mentioned above.
There are many other issues than simply the 31 elements of a call that determine quality. Factors such as operator engagement, wow, level of training overall & in your specific industry, staffing ratio, quality of supervision, quality assurance & monitoring, and many more. But as I said above, this topic is worthy of a full blog of its own and I will limit my comments to these few words. While most services will claim a high level of quality, asking specifics about a few of the areas mentioned above will help you determine which services genuinely are committed to high quality.
- Expertise in a specific market
If you desire to have a TAS experienced in a specific industry (such as HVAC, oil & gas, medical, funeral home, IT, government agencies, non-profits, dentistry, etc.) it would almost be required for you to choose a National provider rather than a Local provider. The reason is that there are rarely enough clients in an individual industry type in a local market to allow for the multitude of different experiences necessary to develop a real expertise.
Some TAS companies specialize in only one or two specific industries, some have a broad range of experience. I know of multiple services who have sold all of their accounts outside of their chosen niches so that they can focus exclusively on a specific industry. This allows all of their agents to become familiar with industry terminology, call types, customer needs, etc.
That being said, the unfortunate reality is that the best TAS agent will not be as knowledgeable as all but the least experienced employees in your own office. This is because the TAS agent will focus on many different clients and their individual needs, while your employee can focus exclusively on your own business.
Nevertheless, there is frequently a great value in choosing a National TAS specializing in your specific industry so that you have the confidence that all of their agents are familiar with the relevant terms and basic needs of your callers. Again, many TAS agencies will claim an expertise in a specific industry although their true experience is rather limited. Be sure to probe with direct questions about your industry to find a level of experience and knowledge that you are comfortable with.
Pricing frequently differs wildly from one service to the next. I have heard of rates from as low as $0.62 per minute to has high as $4.00 or $5.00 per minute. And even when identical per minute rates are quoted there can be wide divergence in a monthly bill depending on how the TAS counts minutes. Also, a service focused on high quality will usually accumulate more time per call as they repeat information back to the caller during the call to ensure accuracy.
There are many different factors driving the differences in pricing, but my experience is that most relate to geography and desired quality of service. By far the highest cost factor for a TAS company is their staff. Clearly staff cost is driven to a large degree by local factors. I have spoken over the years to TAS owners from all over the country and it is evident that areas with a higher cost of living have higher salaries for their staff and therefore higher overall costs. This usually translates to higher overall pricing.
Another factor besides geography and quality of service is reliability. Redundancy (see below) is expensive. Staffing level is another big factor as some services will have a cost factor of 10% (or greater) more than others due to higher staffing ratios. My suggestion would be to drill down on the pricing factors mentioned above and try to find ways to accurately compare one service to another.
- Reliability (backups, redundancy and weather factors)
All areas of the USA have unique weather events that disrupt lives and business. In our area it is usually hurricanes, although we have had floods and ice storms as well. Snow days, tornados, and many other weather events can cause offices to close and answering services to be overwhelmed with call traffic – even as they (and their employees) deal with the same event local businesses do. There are also power outages, fiber cuts, cyber attacks, flu season and many other issues for a TAS to prepare for. While these catastrophic events rarely happen, when they do it is crucial for companies to be able to depend upon their TAS. I know of businesses that have chosen a TAS outside of their local market just so they won’t be affected by the same weather event as the company business location would be.
It costs tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars up front to ensure reliability and many more thousands of dollars per month. Again, most TAS agencies will claim redundancy of power, switch and telephony, but probing in this area can give you great insight into true commitment to reliability.
- Expertise with specific software
There is one TAS that requires a company requesting service to guarantee a minimum of several thousand minutes a month of call traffic before they will take on a client requiring an interface with their scheduling software. This makes a great deal of sense because it is extremely difficult to have TAS staff become skilled at working in a software system on an “occasional” basis.
With a TAS focusing on a specific industry the chances are good that their staff will learn the software systems that are most popular in that industry. For example, we have surveyed hundreds of HVAC companies and learned that, at least in our region, ESC/Fieldedge and Service Titan are the two most commonly used software systems. We are developing our skill with these two systems and will be able to accommodate services using fewer minutes than we might otherwise require for a different software brand.
While the benefit of having your TAS interface with your office management software is the subject for another blog, I do know that a number of companies have found it cost effective to hire their TAS to manage their appointment scheduling inside their software 24/7/365. Clearly there is potential benefit to having this during hours for some offices, including for overflow purposes, and after hours for others. This is a decision that will be unique to each company, but one I recommend that you carefully consider.
If you have any questions on the above or other factors, please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise not to embark on a sales effort. Rather, I will try to continue the effort started here and educate and advise on the various factors to consider in choosing a Local or a National TAS.