The Difference Between an Answering Service and a Call Center

By Sam Carpenter, CEO and President of Centratel.
Updated November 15, 2013

An Answering Service and Call Center are not the same….

A telephone answering service (or simply, “answering service”) serves specific market segments. These vertical markets include doctors, veterinarians, property management companies, HVAC companies, hi-tech firms, funeral homes, hospice home health services, and other businesses that require coverage in which the caller must speak to a real human being. There are perhaps ten “vertical market” business categories that make up the bulk of an answering service’s clientele. Call centers, on the other hand, deal with a large “horizontal” cross section of relatively large businesses. The typical answering service has 4-20 workstations. The typical call center has upwards of 200. The single commonality is that they both use people to handle incoming calls.

The confusing thing is that, within the answering service industry, the term “call center” is occasionally used interchangeably for what, in some quarters, has been considered the out-dated term “telephone answering service.” However, here at Centratel we believe the traditional term “answering service” not only fits better, it has even regained a bit of a campy feel over the past decade… a bit of a retro-appeal. An answering service account is handled very differently from a call center account.

Answering service accounts:

  • are small but complex;
  • require timely and critical decision-making; and
  • involve additional steps beyond simple information gathering.

An answer service provides a sequential emergency message delivery protocol. The demands on  telephone service representatives (TSRs) are large: there is constant decision-making within a fast moving framework. The TSR must demonstrate one-on-one personal communication expertise including the ability to understand a wide-ranging array of cultural subtleties. A Solid command of the English language, both spoken and written, is essential.

Call center accounts require an information-gathering protocol which is:

  • pre-determined and straight-forward;
  • never urgent; and
  • information delivery is fast, automated, and requires little decision making.

Answering Your Calls: “Is this an emergency?”

The answering service caller must be handled with concern and empathy by a TSR who must have a firm grasp of their responsibilities to the client,  understanding the subtleties of that particular industry. For instance, visualize a panicked mother who calls late at night to reach her doctor to see what to do about her sick infant. Consider a grocery store manager who phones their HVAC company to report a large freezer unit is down, with the potential loss of a huge investment in frozen goods within a matter of hours. Or, imagine the emotional plight of an elderly woman calling a funeral home to say her husband of fifty years has just passed away in their bedroom. So, the TSR must handle a variety of callers with finesse and empathy, be responsible for accurate decision-making under pressure, make critical gray-area decisions and finally, deliver the information quickly and accurately.

“Do you want that in Pink or Blue?”

The call center transaction requires information gathering where the representative (agent) taking the call simply asks prearranged questions of the caller. Handling calls is “scripted.” In other words, the question/answer protocol between the call center agent and the caller is strictly guided so that each information input from the caller leads directly to another scripted question from the agent. Typical call center activity includes taking subscriptions for magazines, recording orders from a catalog, or customer service related “outbound” calls to gather post-purchase information from a consumer.

Typically, the call center agent represents just a few accounts in the course of an 8 or 10 hour shift, processing the same information over and over. The answering service TSR handles calls from a pool of hundreds or even thousands of accounts, each of which offers a unique challenge. At Centratel, we handle approximately 1,000 answering service accounts and any of our TSR’s must be able to process calls from any one of these accounts. Due to our intensely system-driven protocols, Centratel’s accuracy rate is superb, truly the highest quality found in any answering service in the United States: Our most recent Customer Reported Error Rate (January through March, 2017) was one reported error for every 13,988 message transactions processed.

Centratel’s operating methodology is described in my book Work The System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less. You can buy it on the Work the System website, Amazon or in your local book store. If you operate or manage a business, and inquire about service with Centratel, we’ll send you a hard cover copy for free.

Another distinction between the answering service and the call center is the average duration of a call. The average answering service call lasts just over half a minute. For a call center, the average call duration is in the two to three minute range.

In deciding whether your need is for a telephone answering service or a call center, consider the above distinctions and make your choice based on your needs. Employ a true call center if your business requires simple, “chained” dialog, order-taking, or when you require “outbound” customer service calling. However, if your business or profession lies within the more complex scope of an answering service, select an answering service which will inspire confidence, be predictable, treat callers with respect, maintain confidentiality, and enhance your image within the community.

For guidance in interviewing a potential answering service or call center, see “12 Questions to Ask.” And, here are the four measures of a top quality answering service.