By Sam Carpenter, founder and president of Centratel.
Updated August 10, 2022
An Answering Service and Call Center are not the same….
A telephone answering service serves specific market segments. These vertical markets include small businesses/professions such as doctors, veterinarians, property management companies, HVAC companies, funeral homes, home healthcare and hospice services, and other businesses that require coverage in which the caller must speak to a real human being. There are perhaps eight “vertical market” business categories that make up the bulk of an answering service’s clientele.
Call centers, on the other hand, deal with large “horizontal” cross sections of relatively large businesses. The typical answering service rarely has more than 40 workstations. The typical call center has upwards of 200. The single commonality is that they both use people to handle calls.
But note: for both in waning these days of Covid19, the classic cubicle-style operation is virtually gone. Answering services and call centers now almost exclusively employ “remote” operators who work from their home offices.
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 intense: 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 and that means answering service calls must be processed within the United States.
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.
This is why many call centers can get away with using overseas representatives….
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 and who understands 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 in the middle of the night to say her husband of fifty years has just passed away. 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 (or making the call) simply asks prearranged questions of the target individual. The processing of calls is “scripted.” In other words, the question/answer protocol between the call center agent and the caller is guided step-by-step 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 customer.
Typically, the call center agent represents just a few accounts in the course of an 8 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 1,400 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, 2023) was 1 customer-reported error for every 9,457 message transactions processed.
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 four to five minute range.
Centratel’s operating methodology is described in my book Work The System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less. First published in 2008, the extensively updated fourth edition was published on February 9, 2021. You can buy it online at Amazon or in your local book store. If you operate or manage a business, and inquire by phone about service with Centratel, we’ll send you a hard cover copy for free.
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, carefully select one which will inspire confidence, be predictable, treat callers with respect, maintain confidentiality, and enhance your image.
For guidance in interviewing a potential answering service or call center, see “10 Questions to Ask.” And, here are the four measures of a top quality answering service.