But the costs salary and benefits of hiring a dedicated receptionist are far from trivial.
Voice mail services from the phone company are one solution, especially where they offer rudimentary automated attendant functions "to reach Sales, press 1, to speak to shipping, press 2." These services aren't very flexible, though, and they lack the professionalism that customers expect from dealing with bigger companies.
This is where outsourcer and application service provider (ASP) Angel.com believes it can help small businesses. Angel develops and hosts sophisticated interactive voice response (IVR) applications that even nontechnical people can configure themselves.
The company provides telephone answering solutions ranging from the fairly simple a virtual receptionist that distributes calls to employees, even if they're in different locations to the quite complex. We take a look at two companies to see how Angel came to their aid.
Next Level Realty
Next Level Realty is small real estate brokerage firm in Newton Mass. that needed a simple solution. CEO Larry Tamkin started the business a few years ago out of his home. When the firm grew with the addition of other agents there are a total of 10 today and opened a small office, it no longer made sense for Tamkin to man the phones himself.
Because he spent so much time on the phone, Tamkin kept losing calls to voicemail, resulting in calls going to phone company voice mail. Besides, the agents all worked out of their own homes, not the office. He needed a better solution.
Next Level experimented with various solutions, including Angel.com's standard virtual receptionist product, which uses speech recognition and lets callers speak the name of an employee and then routes calls to the correct extension or in a virtual company like Next Level, to an outside number.
The calls come in to a dedicated Angel-supplied phone number, either directly or forwarded from the business's existing number. Angel's IVR software, resident on host computers at its McLean, Va. facility, processes the calls and routes them according to parameters the customer sets.
The Angel software is Web-based and simple enough, the company claims, even for small business owners or managers with no technical skills. Customers, in effect, design and build their own IVR systems by surfing to the Angel.com Web site and using templates virtual receptionist is an example and simple interactive tools.
Next Level didn't stick with the standard virtual receptionist for long. Tamkin says some customers complained that the speech-recognition system mis-routed calls, although Angel has dozens of satisfied customers using the technology. More importantly, he made a "gut-level" decision that a live agent should always answer customer calls.
"We're dealing with home buyers," he explains. "Often when they call, they're excited they want to see a newly listed property now. If they leave a message and the agent doesn't call back for two days, they may just find another company to show them the property."
So Next Level hired part-time customer service agents to answer all calls in person, or as many as possible, and went back to Angel.com for a different kind of solution.
The Angel software lets customers set up a schedule for routing calls. Each week, Next Level's two part-time customer service agents e-mail Tamkin to tell him when they can be available to answer calls in their homes.
He goes to the Angel.com site and keys in the schedule details on Monday between 1 and 4 p.m., route calls to this number, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, to this number, and so on. If one of the agents calls in sick, he can go back to the Angel site and change the routing schedule in a few minutes.
It works and Angel.com charges Next Level between $100 and $120 a month for the service.
"If we lost one transaction a month because we couldn't get a call, we'd lose more than this is costing us," Tamkin points out. Given the cost of real estate today, one lost transaction avoided each year might pay for the Angel.com service.
Setting up the system was not quite simple enough for Tamkin, who admits to having no technical skills. Angel.com walked him through the process, though. "Their technical support is very good," he says. "I used it a lot at the beginning and they were very patient."
Customers can also hire Angel.com on an hourly basis to design and configure their IVR applications.
Preferred Logistics LLC
This Huntington Beach, Calif.-based staffing company in the transportation industry needed something a little more sophisticated. Preferred Logistics, which has six regional branch offices, regularly advertises in newspapers for drivers and other personnel and places them with trucking companies.
The company itself is very small, with only about 30 full-time employees, but it places about 700 contract employees. These are more like clients or as Preferred Logistics vice president Bart Bement puts it, "they're our product."
The problem was processing the large volume of phone calls that come in response to every ad the company places. In the old days, if a Preferred Logistics employee couldn't answer the phone, the applicant would leave his name and number and other information in a voice mail.
Later, sometimes much later, somebody would transcribe the messages, but often take down information incorrectly in the process.
To solve these problems, the company came up with the idea of an IVR-based pre-screening interview for applicants and then went looking for a way to create it, It found Angel.com.
Now when applicants call in, they reach a custom IVR application hosted by Angel.com. They answer questions by speaking (to give their name and add comments), or by using the phone's touchtone buttons to key in information (phone number, zip code) or select answers to questions (whether they're interested in part-time or full-time employment.)
Preferred Logistics could have had the information gathered by the IVR system automatically e-mailed to an employee as it's collected with voice portions attached as .WAV audio files. Instead, it decided to go a step further.
The company co-owns Databay, an ASP that provides Web-based computing and storage services to transportation industry firms, including Preferred Logistics. Databay applications include accounting, payroll and scheduling.
Preferred Logistics set up its Angel.com IVR application to send the data collected from applicants to a Web page at its Databay portal site. A script attached to the page automatically plugs the data into a spreadsheet.
When a new applicant entry appears on the page, the columns for phone number, region (determined by zip code), full or part-time are filled in with text automatically. The name and comments columns have clickable links to audio files.
An employee can immediately see basic information about the applicant and listen to the name and transcribe it. Databay has also set up the system so that employees can order the applicant list by name, region or any other column in the spreadsheet.
"A big part of our business and a big budget item for us is the advertising," says Bement. "And we're now finding we don't have to put as many ads out because we get data right away, our employees see it right away and they can call the guy right back.
"That's as opposed to waiting for someone to go through the message machine. Our people also don't have to spend time and labor doing that. It's a lot more efficient."
Preferred Logistics pays Angel.com about $700 a month, but at a time of fairly strong growth when it is stepping up its recruitment efforts, the company is actually spending less on advertising than it did when it was making fewer placements.
Bement says he is by no means a technical person, even though he is co-owner and president of Databay. Yet he was able, with help from Angel.com, to design the first IVR pre-screening interview for one of the branch offices and has since created on his own slightly customized versions for all of the other offices.
A more typical small business, lacking the technical resources of a Databay would probably not be able to set up the Web page where the IVR data is displayed, he concedes. His Databay programmers did that for Preferred Logistics.
But any small business, Bement contends, could design and maintain a data-gathering IVR application using Angel.com's Web-based software. And do it without any in-house IT personnel.
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