Telephone Answering: How Does an Answering Service Work?

The Internet makes any business with a website a potentially global business. This is an ideal situation if you sell retail or digital products.

After all, you can deliver digital products immediately. Physical products ship on the next business day if the order comes in after 2 PM. You can handle most problems via email.

For a service provider or companies that sell luxury products, it’s a different situation. Services can go down at any time. Customers that purchase luxury products want a person on the phone.

While you can use a VoIP service to keep international calling rates down, keeping someone in the office 24/7 to man the phone is impractical.

Enter telephone answering services. These services make sure every call gets answered regardless of the hour. So, how do they work?

Services Offered

A bare-bones answering service is only there to answer calls during your off-hours. For the vast majority of calls, the service enters a message into an online application you can access or sends it in a text message. Under certain circumstances, they may forward the call to your smartphone or home.

More sophisticated answering services offer other services, such as booking appointments, answering emails, and even offering some basic customer service for products. Depending on the service, they may also provide some outbound calling.

Pick the right service provider and you get the benefits of outsourcing several office functions without the usual outsourcing pitfalls.

You may also see automated answering services advertised. Automated answering services typically use an interactive voice response system. While this is an option, most people despise these menu-based systems.

One of the biggest benefits of an answering service is that customers reach a real human being. You can get an in-house IVR system if you don’t want a person answering each call.

How It Works

For the essential job of answering calls, the process is a simple one. When you check out for the day, you set your phone for call forwarding. The standard procedure is that you punch in *72 and then the answering service’s number.

All the calls that come into your business get routed over to the answering service. One of the staff members there takes the call and decides whether the call only requires a message or should get forwarded to you.

Other services take more technical work. For example, answering emails requires that the answering service can access those emails. If you use a customer relationship management program for customer emails, you can give the answering service access through the CRM.

Depending on what appointment scheduling software you use, you may end up creating an account in the program for the answering service. Again, a CRM system may include appointment scheduling features.

The answering service may also provide software that streamlines these additional services.

Selecting an Answering Service

Picking an answering service from all the companies that offer it is like picking most services, with one special consideration.

Ask non-competitor business owners for recommendations. Not every business uses an answering service, so it might take a while for recommendations to roll in. Don’t begrudge the wait because other business owners are in the best position to make that recommendation.

You can look for Top 10 lists of service providers from reputable business publications. Just make sure there is no bias at play, such as an advertising relationship. While most publications make an effort at transparency, it’s always good to double-check.

You can visit review sites. B2B service providers don’t show up on those sites as B2C businesses, but you might get lucky.

The one special consideration is the general warmth and friendliness of the staff at the answering service. You don’t want your customers greeting by people counting the minutes until the end of their shifts.

It’s not a perfect test, but you can call the answering service directly. The overall attitude of the receptionist for the company will give you some clues about how they train their staff. If you get an upbeat professional on the phone, your customers probably will as well.


You will go through a setup process once you pick your answering service. You typically start by speaking with an account manager or someone with a similar position.

They’ll confirm which services you need set up at your level of service. They’ll also verify some factual details, such as what hours your business will forward calls to them.

If they use in-house software, they’ll work with your or your IT person to set up the account with the right kinds of access. If not, they’ll take you through a process designed to give them access to your CRM or other relevant systems.

The account manager will also ask you a number of questions about how their staff should handle calls. Some common questions might include:

  • Under what conditions should someone forward a call to you after hours?
  • What, if any, screening policies do you use?
  • Should we represent ourselves as an answering service?
  • What information can we share with callers about their order, account, or service?
  • Do you use service technicians?
  • Can we dispatch those technicians in the event of service failures?

The answering service uses all of the information they gather to develop appropriate training for their staff. The more accurate and detailed the information you provide, the more effective the answering service will prove.

Parting Thoughts on Telephone Answering Services

At their most basic, telephone answering services simply answer forwarded calls. They provide information within the limits you impose, take messages, and occasionally forward urgent calls.

More sophisticated answering services will offer in-house software for other services, such as appointment setting, email answering, or dispatching technicians. Alternatively, they’ll work with your CRM system or current software solutions.

Take your time in selecting an answering service. You want one that employs a warm, professional staff. Bored, disengaged staff won’t represent you or your business well.

During setup, provide detailed information about your policies and procedures. The training the service gives its staff about your company is only as good as the information you provide.

Once you lock in your inbound communication channel with an answering service, you may start worrying about your outbound communication. If you aren’t happy with your bulk email service, check out our list of bulk email service providers.