December 05, 2007, By Ilana DeBare
Q: I have a growing business in tree care and urban forest consulting and am considering outsourcing our call management. I have found that it is important for potential customers to reach a live person even if they are leaving a message. Are there dependable companies that market to small businesses? We take 25 to 40 calls a week from people inquiring about treating their diseased trees.
East Bay arborist
A: At one end of the spectrum there are call centers – those folks who answer the phone when we are ordering stuff from a catalog or complaining about how our computer is on the fritz. But most call centers are geared to large businesses that receive thousands of calls each week, not to small outfits like yours that field a few dozen calls.
At the other end of the spectrum is the old-fashioned answering service – the kind used by many doctors’ offices for night and weekend calls – where someone takes a message and then passes it on to the business owner.
Then in the middle there’s a growing category of souped-up answering services and virtual assistants who provide more than basic message-taking.
Reliable Receptionist in Walnut Creek is one example of a souped-up answering service. It has the ability to connect calls to your cell phone when you’re out in the field, and to schedule appointments for you in a Web-based program that you can view and edit from any computer.
Owner Victor Mataraso encourages clients to come in and meet his staff, and to provide background information so that his receptionists can answer basic questions.
“Our clients can say, ‘Here are the top 10 issues that come up in phone inquiries, and here are the things we’d like you to do,’ ” Mataraso said.
Virtual assistants are independent entrepreneurs who provide a range of administrative or creative services from their own office. It’s like having a Gal or Guy Friday on a contract basis. A virtual assistant might be editing a report for one client and organizing a conference for another, while answering phone calls for your tree-care business.
“They can help you filter calls, can be trained in answering some questions, and can help you market your business by making outgoing calls,” said Nina Feldman, who runs an Oakland firm called Nina Feldman Connections that provides free referrals to office and computer support businesses. “Hiring a full-time phone receptionist can cost $30,000 a year. Virtual assistants can usually give you a stable month-to-month retainer of a few hundred dollars, with no hidden fees.”
How to find a reliable answering service or virtual assistant? The best approach is the same way you’d find any other service – through personal referrals. Ask other business owners to recommend someone. Check references.
Ask how many hours a day these firms offer live receptionists; some shift over to voice mail at night. Ask what services they provide and how they forward your messages. E-mail? Text message? Pager? Fax? Find out how long they’ve been in business, and how much staff turnover they have.
And call up some of the clients of these firms – at a time when the firm is answering their calls – to see whether you like the way they’d be greeting your potential customers.