Monday, June 23, 2008

What Makes a Good Answering Service Great?

Answering services have changed wildly over the past 25 years. They have evolved from tiny mom-and-pop local services to international networks of call centers, employing hundreds of people. It seems we can’t make a phone call these days without being connected to an answering service or call center somewhere.

While some might view a call center thousands of miles away answering the phones for a local business as being impersonal, there are answering services and call centers out there that understand that each call coming in is a person with unique needs and questions. In other words, there are call centers and answering services out there that have made the transition from good to great.

So what differentiates them? What sets apart these call centers from an anonymous room halfway around the world? Aren’t they both performing the same functions? When is a phone call just a phone call? I’d like to touch on a few things I’ve noticed over the years—not from the viewpoint of a call center employee, but from the viewpoint of a call center customer.

First, a great call center begins and ends with a friendly voice. My best experiences with call centers have been with people who seem to genuinely enjoy helping me. And for all you good call centers out there: yes, I can tell! I can hear them smiling as they speak to me…which immediately diffuses any stress or antagonism I might have toward having to call a company for help.

Second, a great call center is knowledgeable. This goes beyond the mere wooden script of the good call center-- I want to know that the voice on the other end knows more than me. How comfortable are they with my specific problem? If they don’t know the answer, do they have an efficient means of finding out the answer? The last thing I want to hear is “I don’t know.” That is the nail in the coffin of a call center.

Third, a great call center is efficient. How quickly can the call center employee drill down to the real problem? Most people are poor at communicating their exact needs, and it is incumbent on the call center to train its employees in how best to sort through the callers’ confusion and get to the heart of the problem. In a way, the great call centers are populated with amateur psychologists—they need to listen to what the caller is really saying, and be able to recognize how to quickly resolve their problem without making them to feel inadequate or dumb.

In the end, perception matters. Callers never see your employees—they only hear what is spoken to them and in that way, each word must be chosen carefully. Efficient, friendly and knowledgeable, the great call center understands that their reputation hangs on every word—literally.