Categories
Telephone Answering Service

Streamline Your Answering Service Administration

Streamline Your Answering Service Administration

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

In past issues, we looked at streamlining various aspects of telephone answering services: sales, client onboarding, and customer service, agent hiring and training, billing and collections, and processes and procedures. Now we turn our attention to upper management: the admin function.

Every role in every business carries a bit of fluff, some more than others. This includes upper management, also known as administration. Here are three areas to look at when it comes to streamlining your answering service’s admin function:

1. What Can You Eliminate?

What admin tasks fall short in producing a tangible benefit for your service? These include activities that once held value but no longer do, as well as work that never did contribute to overall business success. Especially scrutinize projects which are done because they’re enjoyable, and duties pursued because they seem essential. Analyze each one.

Ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen if no one did this chore? If the answer is nothing or if there’s a risk of investing in an inconsequential amount of time at some point in the future, then cut that activity.

2. What Can You Streamline?

Of the remaining tasks, consider how to make each one of them more efficient. This includes removing steps that don’t significantly contribute to the outcome, as well as cutting the number of people involved in the project. Each resource removed from the undertaking will serve to make it easier to do and less time-consuming. This frees up energy and staff for other activities of greater importance.

3. What Can You Delegate?

For those items that past the first screen—the ones considered essential to your service’s profitability, viability, or effectiveness— and are appropriately streamlined, consider who should handle them. You may not be the right person for the job. It could be you’re overqualified to manage it, that your time is too valuable to devote to it, or that someone else is better suited to the task.

Look to delegate what you can. This will not only lighten your load, but it will also empower people on your team. Most will jump at a chance to oversee a higher-level responsibility at your answering service. And if someone claims they’re too busy to do your delegated assignment, challenge them to look at what existing tasks they can eliminate or delegate to others.

Act Now

To realize the benefits of streamlining admin functions requires a bit of effort to get there. If you think you’re too busy to do this, you’ve just confirmed how essential this optimization project is.

Start with doing a time study of everything you do for at least a week. Yes, it’s a hassle, but the information is invaluable. And, as a bonus, many people who keep a time log find it automatically makes them more efficient because they don’t want to document their inefficiencies or poor time investments.

Summary

Once you determine how you spend your time, ask how important each task is to your answering service’s overall well-being. Look to cut non-essential work. Then streamline what remains. And last, delegate what you can.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of TAS Trader, covering the telephone answering service industry. Check out his book How to Start a Telephone Answering Service.

Categories
Telephone Answering Service

Moving Toward a New Normal for Telephone Answering Services

We Should Assume We’ll Never Return to Business as Usual

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

As the telephone answering service industry responded to an unexpected, pandemic-induced spike in call traffic coupled with some workers reluctant to come to the office, changes occurred out of necessity. Many services looked to address this two-pronged threat by pursuing a work-at-home model, either as their first test of remote workers or as a fuller embrace of the concept.

This increased focus on remote staff is not likely a temporary solution until things return to normal. Instead, we should view it as a new normal. Even when a reprieve from the coronavirus crisis happens, many predict a second wave to occur—possibly this fall—which could be even more intense. And a few wonder if we’ll see a seasonal reoccurrence each year.

Here are the key things to consider in your plans:

Technical Logistics

The first step in allowing staff to work from home is the technical aspect of getting them connected. This starts with a stable internet connection and adequate computer resources in each home. Consider the glitches and challenges that occurred when doing this. Address them now instead of waiting for the next wave to hit.

Remote Management

Last month I gave tips on managing a distributed workforce. Look at what went well and what could’ve gone better. Work to fix the aspects that didn’t go so well.

HR and Legal Considerations

Aside from the technical and management issues are the human resources considerations and legal aspects of having a staff work from home, even from another state. Update your employee handbook and procedural manuals to reflect this. Review your insurance coverage to make sure it addresses a distributed, home-based workforce. Consult with a labor attorney in your state to make sure you have the needed protection and adequate recourses in the event an off-site employee goes rogue.

Platform

If you have a premise-based system, consider moving to the cloud. This will best facilitate remote staff and provide maximum flexibility. In addition, an off-premise solution removes equipment from your building, which brings up the next point.

Facility

As staff moves off-site, you require less space in your building. And if everyone works from home, you no longer need a physical office. If you lease this means you can scale back or cut your rent. If you own the building, you can either sell it or lease unused space to other businesses.

Sales and Marketing

Consider how much of your sales and marketing occurs online versus how much results from in-person meetings. Going forward expect that more local prospects will want to avoid physical interaction with your sales team. Strive to reach the point where all sales and marketing efforts occur from a distance.

Business Support Functions

Though much of the work-at-home focus so far has been on answering service operators, explore how you can extend that concept to non-operational staff. What if everyone had to work from home? Could you pull it off?

Stay Connected

As you send more of your staff home to work, consider what steps you can take to stay connected with each other, and engaged in work. What can you do to counter feelings of isolation? Seek creative ways to maintain morale, effectiveness, and efficiency when physical, in-person interaction doesn’t exist or must be minimized. Consider conference calls, video meetings, and online interaction opportunities—both formal and informal.

Conclusion

Though it’s possible we will soon return to normal, making these preparations unnecessary, it’s an unlikely outcome. Instead, plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Categories
Telephone Answering Service

Tips to Manage a Remote Workforce

With More Reasons to Have Operators Work at Home Comes the Need to Better Oversee Them

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan-remote workforce

Around the world, many jurisdictions have enacted stay-at-home mandates to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Other areas are pursuing a “stay home, stay safe” recommendation. This scenario hits answering services doubly hard. First, as clients respond by revamping their business models, they turn to their answering service for additional help, giving them more work and expecting a wider scope of outcomes. But as answering services strive to take more calls, they may struggle to do so with reduced staffing levels. 

The solution is allowing answering service operators to work from home. For some services, this may be a new consideration, while for others they may now pursue remote staff with more diligence. Few answering services have a 100 percent home-based staff. Yet at this time everyone can see the benefits of working from home.

Here are some tips for successfully managing a distributed workforce, such as when most everyone works from home.

Develop a Remote Perspective

Broadcasting a message to all staff that “there are donuts in the break room” sends a strong message to off-site staff that they don’t matter—or you forgot about them, which you probably did. In all your interactions, put your remote staff first. Figure out ways to effectively communicate with off-site employees. Everything that works for remote staff, will work for local staff too. 

Put All Communications Online

Convert physical bulletin boards to virtual bulletin boards. Move from physical inboxes to electronic inboxes. This may be an email, or it may be something else. 

Put all necessary paperwork online, making it equally and as easily accessible for all staff, regardless of location. The same applies to submit paperwork. Don’t make your remote staff jump through hoops that don’t apply to local staff.

Stay Connected

It’s easy to interact with office-based staff. This can be as simple as a wave or a head nod when you walk through the operations room. But you can’t do this with remote staff. Figure out how to offer the same courtesies to your staff working in their homes. You might want to periodically have a video call with them or set up online group meetings that they can attend. These don’t need to belong or complicated interactions. In fact, simple and shorter are better. Aim for quantity over quality.

Update Your Policies and Procedures

A fourth consideration is to review your written policies and operations procedures. Make sure they apply equally to local and remote staff. Then once you have reworded them to be inclusive, post them online, and provide them to each employee electronically. If they need to sign that they received these updates, digitize that process as well. Eliminate the preference for, and the need for, all printed materials.

Conclusion

Taking these steps will help your remote staff be as successful—and as happy—as your local staff. It will also combat the us-versus-them mentality that often occurs among employees who don’t work at the primary location.

When you do this “stay home, stay safe” becomes “go remote, go to work.”

Categories
Telephone Answering Service

How to Optimize Your TAS Processes

Two Tips to Streamline Your Answering Service’s Procedures

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

optimize your TAS-Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Last year I shared several articles about finetuning the processes in your telephone answering service. The three key areas are streamlining sales, streamlining client onboarding, and streamlining customer service. Beyond that, we looked at fine-tuning billing and collections, agent hiring, and agent training.

In all cases, the goal of optimizing these areas in your TAS is to achieve the same—or better—results more effectively. To realize this goal, however, doesn’t mean working harder. It means working smarter.

To optimize any of these processes, we look at two areas: the number of steps required and the time they take.

Reduce the Number of Steps

As time passes, any process becomes more complicated. The initial steps required in the process remain, while new ones join them. As a result, most of our processes become bloated over time. Even though some of these steps are no longer required to achieve the desired outcome, or have a negligible impact on the result, we and our staff persist in doing them because we always have.

We must scrutinize every process and ask if each step remains relevant. Too often what was once important no longer is. Identify those tasks and cull them. For each step consider the impact if you eliminate it. If it doesn’t warrant its continued existence, cut it out and show your staff why it’s no longer relevant. They may initially resist this change, but once they realize it will make their jobs easier, they’ll quickly embrace the streamlined process.

Shorten the Amount of Time

Removing the number of steps required to complete a task should automatically make it faster. Now look for other delays you can remove from the process. Does one person arbitrarily delay completing a task that’s part of an overall process? Since they must do it anyway, why not do it right away? 

Another opportunity to shorten how long a process takes is to look for areas you can automate. Why wait for a person to do something that a computer can do automatically? Tap technology whenever possible.

Next realize that some things don’t have to proceed in a linear manner, with some tasks or even paths allowing simultaneous execution. For example, when a client signs up for service, one person will need to program the account, while another person will set up billing. It may seem orderly to do one and then the other, but both actions can occur at the same time.

Conclusion

Like any business, an answering service thrives on processes. This ensures that work proceeds in a smooth and organized manner, producing the desired outcome. However, these processes often swell over time, becoming inefficient and unwieldy. 

Look for ways to remove steps and shorten the time it takes to complete them. This will result in achieving better outcomes and realizing the desired results faster.

Categories
Telephone Answering Service

Should You List Major Accounts on Your TAS Website?

Balance the Need to Protect Your Client List with Your Desire to Close Sales

Peter Lyle DeHaan-your client

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

When telephone answering services overhaul their websites or seek to tweak its content, many services wonder if they should post a partial list of some of their major accounts. Some answering services do this, and I have mixed feelings about the practice. 

Pros and Cons

On one hand, listing major accounts gives credibility to your organization and the services you provide. It lets prospects know that larger companies, who they respect, have already investigated your services and picked you. What a great endorsement.

However, posting your major accounts also tells your competitors who your main clients are. This gives other services the opportunity to contact your accounts and try to steal their business from you. In an industry noted for its high client churn rates, is it worth the risk of giving competitors a head start on poaching some of your most valued clients? Of course, the counterargument is that if you provide great service and high value, you’re not in danger of losing them anyway. 

Display Logos

Some services who list major accounts will just display client logos. These images, especially of well-known companies, provide immediate credibility to your prospects, without opening you to too much risk exposure. The larger the company, the more this is true. Visually this affords much greater impact than merely listing the company name. 

A related issue is whether to link the logo or company name to your client’s website. Though your client might appreciate the link for SEO purposes, it accomplishes little else.

Post Testimonials

Another approach is to ask for and post testimonials. Some services will list the organization and the person’s full name and title. This is almost an invitation to your competitors to approach these clients. That’s why I prefer not to do this. Instead don’t share the person’s last name, and maybe not even the company name. Instead, give the industry they’re in. This would produce a testimonial tag such as “Julie B, director of communications at a major hospital network in the northeast United States.”

References Available

A third option is to post nothing online. Instead, note that references are available upon request. This goes a long way to protect your client list from poaching, while still providing an extra push to help close the sale.

Summary

Before you post your major accounts online for the whole world to see, consider the downside to doing so, what you want to accomplish, and if there’s a better way to reach that goal. It’s hard work to land a new answering service account, so make sure you do everything to hold onto them once they sign up.

Categories
Telephone Answering Service

How to Handle Pricing on Your Answering Service Website 

Sometimes Posting Too Much Information Can Work Against Us

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan-answering service

Over the years I’ve looked at hundreds of telephone answering service websites. A few are great, many are good, and some need improvement. A common page for many answering service sites covers pricing. There are different ways to handle rate information, each with their advantages and disadvantages.

Post Rates Online

Though I’ve never tracked it, I think most answering service websites post their rates and rate packages. 

This has the advantage of eliminating budget-conscious tire kickers—who won’t hire you anyway—from taking up your time. It has the disadvantage of conditioning answering service clients—especially yours—to shop for price. Remember, if someone selects your service based on price, they’ll leave as soon as a better price comes along. High churn results. Therefore, I’m not in favor of this practice.

Request a Call

Another approach is to encourage people to call you for more information. You could say something like, “Contact us today for a customized package to fit your specific needs.” 

The advantage of this approach is setting the expectation that you will design an answering service solution to meet the unique requirements of the prospect. The disadvantage is that you will invest time pursuing clients who merely want the cheapest service.

Complete a Form

A step up from requesting the prospect to call you is presenting them with a simple form to fill out to receive more information. Since they’re already on your website, this is an easy ask. The fewer questions you require them to fill out, the greater the chance they will complete your form. 

The advantage of using a form is more requests for information then if you ask them to call. The disadvantage is even more cost-conscious prospects to weed through.

Use an Online Quoting Tool

An option I’ve only seen a few times, but which bears consideration, is an online quoting tool. Prospects enter their basic call parameters and call volume into an app on your website. Then the tool automatically provides a custom quote to best meet their expected usage. You can either display their custom quote once they enter their information or you can automatically email it to them. Obtaining their email address allows you to follow up. 

The advantage of using an online quoting tool is that you can still provide rates quickly to prospects, thereby eliminating those who are shopping for the best price. This also keeps you from posting rates online. The disadvantage is the cost of setting up the quoting tool and maintaining it.

Action Step

Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each of these approaches based on what you want to accomplish, your position in the marketplace, and how your prices compare to your competitors.

Categories
Telephone Answering Service

Make Sure Your TAS Website Is Ready for Search Engines

Having Great Content on Your Website Means Nothing If No One Can Find It

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan-SEO Elements

A few months ago we looked at SEO (search engine optimization) for telephone answering service websites. In that short column, we touched on the essential SEO elements: page or post title, description, and keyword or keyword phrase.

These are the three critical SEO elements. Start with those as the most important, but don’t stop there. Here are some key supporting SEO considerations:

Headings

For SEO purposes, a well-written page or post will use subheadings every couple hundred words. This helps people who can. This is important since most visitors will scan your content and not read it word for word. Make your headings bold and add heading tags, such as H2 or H3. (Use an H1 tag only once, and that’s for the title of your page or post.)

Images

Every page or post should have an engaging graphic or photo that relates to the content. Give the image a name that reflects it, such as, professional phone answering. Don’t use image1 or Dx23ga234k. Then add relevant SEO alt text to the image. 

Link Strategy

For SEO purposes, it’s a good practice to link every post to another post. And have an existing post link to the new content. Also, many SEO gurus now recommend one outbound link per post to a high-authority site, that is, one that gets a lot of traffic.

Content-Length

Every page or post should be at least three hundred words long but aim for five hundred. Anything shorter than three hundred doesn’t give search engines enough content to analyze, so they’ll skip that page.

Keyword Density

We mentioned that having a keyword or keyword phrase is a critical SEO element for each page or post. Make sure the content includes your keyword phrase without overusing it. According to Yoast SEO, aim to use your keyword phrase in 0.5 to 3 percent of the text. (In a 500-word post this is 3 to 15 times.)

Web address

A final consideration that’s easy to cover is the words in the web address for that page or post. Make sure they reflect the theme of the content and include the keyword phrase. 

Conclusion

Addressing these SEO elements will help search engines find, appreciate, and promote your site and its content. But remember that the title, description, and keyword phrase are the essential SEO elements. Handle these three items first. Then add the rest.

Categories
Telephone Answering Service

Streamline Billing and Collections

Increase Cash Flow by Shortening the Time Between Billing Cut Off and Payment Receipt

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan-billing cutoff

As we look at ways to be a responsive answering service, one critical, but too-often overlooked, the area is billing and collections. This affects cash flow and is a critical consideration in maintaining the financial viability of your answering service. Each additional day that you wait to receive payment is a day left with you trying to operate without the money that’s due you. 

Let’s look at some ways to streamline billing and collections.

Billing Cutoff Date

How close is your billing cutoff date to when you begin processing invoices? The goal is to make it as short as possible. If you bill monthly, what happens when the end of the month occurs on the weekend? What if it’s a long weekend? Do you wait until Monday or the next business day to begin work on billing? If so, that’s one, two, or even three extra days added to your collection cycle.

If you bill every twenty-eight days, you can strategically pick your billing cutoff date to when you can best work on it. This might be on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

Billing Cutoff Time

When do you download or transfer your billing statistics? Though midnight is a logical cutoff time, does that make sense if you won’t start processing information until 9 a.m.? Though nine hours may not seem like much, it represents nine hours of billing that you can collect this billing cycle as opposed to the next one.

Regardless, the goal is to shorten the time between downloading your stats and sending invoices. Strive to make it the same day.

Sending Invoices

Most businesses today email their invoices. Do you? Mailing them adds an extra two or even three days to your collection cycle. Look for ways to get your invoices to your clients’ payables department as quickly as possible. Is texting invoices an option? Most people open text messages within a few minutes. That’s faster than email and much faster than snail mail.

Receiving Payments

Do you have clients mail you a check? That adds another couple of days to your collection cycle. Can you have them pay by credit card instead? Though credit card payments involve additional fees, it may be worth it to collect on time, especially for chronic late payers. What about ACH (Automated Clearing House) and ETF (electronic funds transfer)? These are low-cost ways to collect faster.

Related to credit card and ACH payment is timing. When do you process those payments? Is it when you generate the invoice, at the due date, or sometime in between? Shortening the number of days will allow you to collect faster and reduce your collection cycle. However, don’t change your processing timing without first clearly communicating the new policy to your clients.

Conclusion

Seek ways to shorten the time between your billing cutoff and receiving payment. This will improve your cash flow and increase the health of your answering service. For further information, explore two related accounting principles: average collection period and accounts receivable turnover.

Categories
Telephone Answering Service

Ideas to Streamline Agent Training

Look to Increase the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Instructing New Employees

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan-agent training

Last month we looked at ways to streamline answering service agent hiring. Now that they’re hired, the next step is to optimize their training. For this initiative, we have two potential goals. One is to train better, and the other is to train faster. Ideally, we want to do both.

To address the speed element, we can look for ways to streamline training from both the company standpoint and the new hire perspective. When we streamline the trainer component, we reduce training costs and decrease trainer hours. When we streamline the trainee component, the new employee becomes productive faster and does so at a lower cost. This reduces the chance of them getting bored or frustrated during training and quitting. It also allows them to generate revenue for your answering service faster.

Here are some techniques to streamline agent training:

One-to-Many Instruction

The more agents you can train at the same time by one instructor, the more efficient that trainer will be. This has the highest potential at larger answering services that hire and train more employees. But smaller answering services that typically train one agent at a time can still look to employ one-to-many training opportunities. Even if one trainer instructs two trainees, it will double the trainer’s output. But what about classroom-style environments with an instructor training four, eight, or even twelve employees at one time?

Though some aspects of training may require one-on-one instruction, look to minimize those instances whenever possible. This allows you to maximize the instructor’s effectiveness with one-to-many training scenarios.

Recorded Lessons

Look for segments of training that are highly repetitive. Record the instructor giving that lesson. Then have future trainees watch the recording. This is a one-time investment that you can use repeatedly for many new employees for months or even years. Just be sure to periodically review the recording to make sure the information hasn’t changed. When the recording becomes out-of-date, make a new one.

Self-Study Opportunities

Not every part of agent training requires an instructor. New employees can conduct some aspects of training by themselves. This may include reading training materials or engaging in hands-on interactive instruction. Though you might need to develop some of these tools yourself, you may be able to get others from your vendor or user group. Whenever possible, adapt what’s already provided instead of making your own.

Fast Productivity

Does your answering service have a high-volume account or a group of accounts that are easy to serve? It might be worthwhile to structure training so that your new hires can handle just this one high-volume account or a group of easy accounts quickly. This will let them gain experience early in the training process. And it will allow them to be productive much faster. 

After they’ve taken these specific types of calls for a while, they can return to training and prepare to handle your other accounts. Not only does this benefit your TAS by having these new hires handle billable transactions quickly, but it also benefits the employee by giving them a break in their training and letting them take calls—which is what you hired them to do.

Summary

Streamline agent training to save money, improve results, and produce productive employees faster.

Categories
Telephone Answering Service

Optimize Agent Hiring

Streamline Your Hiring Process to Realize Fast Results

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan-phone interview

Have you ever offered a promising job candidate a position only for them to decline because they already accepted a job with another company? I have. I took too long. Even though they claim to have preferred to work for me, they grabbed the first job offer that came their way.

People today—including job seekers—have little patience. We live in a world that wants instant gratification, and we have little tolerance for waiting. Unless you want to continue to lose qualified candidates, you need to optimize your hiring process. Look for ways to make it more efficient so you can hire the best applicants before someone else does.

Don’t continue to follow yesterday’s hiring practices, because they’re no longer appropriate for today’s workplace. What is the average time between a job seeker first expressing interest and you hiring them? I hope your answer isn’t more than a week. Even a couple of days is too long. Can you get down to twenty-four hours? How about a same-day decision? Just how fast can you act?

Here is an idea to consider. Note that this isn’t a proven plan to follow but merely a possibility to spark your creativity:

Online Self-Assessment

Once you’ve captured a prospective employee’s attention, provide them with an online self-assessment tool that will allow them to determine if an answering service environment is a good fit for them. Present a series of questions that reflect work at your answering service. The more questions they answer “yes” to, the better fit they are. Score their answers. Then tell them: “People who score between X and Y tend to like working for our company, whereas people with lower scores may struggle to succeed in this position. Do you want to apply?” [Note: unless you take time to validate the outcome, don’t record their score or ask them their results. To avoid a legal quagmire, let them use this tool privately to determine if they want to move forward.]

This assessment occurs online and automatically without any involvement on your part.

Phone Screening Call

If they want to proceed after taking the online self-assessment, move them immediately to a prescreening evaluation over the phone. This is a standardized set of questions to rule out candidates who don’t fit your criteria, such as people wanting full-time work when you’re hiring part-timers or candidates seeking a business-hours position when your openings are for evening and weekends.

You should script the call flow so that any of your operators can conduct the phone screen call. Anyone who passes should move on to a phone interview.

Same Day Phone Interview

For candidates who pass the phone screen, give them the option of an immediate phone interview, or let them schedule one. Yes, an immediate phone interview. Connect them with your hiring manager or HR department. Again, this should be a structured process that will provide an instant pass/fail outcome.

Though you may prefer an in-person interview, remember that all their work at your answering service will take place over the phone, so a phone interview should be more indicative of their capabilities than an in-person meeting.

Make an Immediate Offer

For candidates who pass the phone interview, make an offer at that point. Don’t delay. Desiring to compare a group of candidates who pass the phone interview will not only take more time, but it also increases the risk of your best candidate receiving a job offer from someone else before you make yours.

Once you’ve made the offer, don’t push them for an immediate yes/no answer. Though some people will accept right away, others will want to think about it. If that’s the case, schedule a follow-up phone call.

This idealized hiring process could take less than an hour. Though it will require effort to fine-tune each step and compress it into a sixty-minute procedure, you can do it.

Now your next task is to optimize your onboarding and training process to make it just as efficient.