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Telephone Answering Service

Scam Alert: Buyer Beware

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

The telephone answering service industry is a wonderful and close-knit community. Tales abound of one service going the extra mile to help another – even direct competitors providing aid in times of crisis. With that as the general tenor of the industry, it is surprising and hurtful when a scam is perpetrated on our members by a fringe player. Such is the case with this fraud alert. The gist is that the same accounts were sold – or partially sold – to several different buyers. Here is what was reported:

It was a small answering service in a remote area. The sellers reached out to TAS owners, offering to sell their client list. The asking price was a reasonable amount, neither too high nor too low. Things appeared to be in order, with proper documentation and attention to detail. Negotiations progressed as expected, with specifics being worked out and stipulations agreed to. As things drew towards a conclusion, a few red flags began to emerge. However, the risk was relatively low, and everything else was proceeding as expected. For the trusting buyers, with time and emotion invested in the purchase, it was easy to overlook these minor warning signs.

Then the sellers asked for money in advance. They were even accommodating in agreeing to receive a percentage in advance and the balance once the transfer was complete. Several TAS owners acquiesced, dispatching the agreed-upon advance payment. As it turned out, the buyer who acted quickest did end up with the accounts, but the others did not fare so well. The first indication of malfeasance surfaced when the new owner begins receiving calls from the other “buyers,” effectively demanding, “Why are you answering my accounts that I just bought?”

As far as the buyer who actually ended up with the accounts, the saga has not been pleasant for him either. Though he has the accounts, he can’t bill most of them for six months, because unbeknownst to him, they had paid for their service six months in advance.

How could this have been avoided? First, great care must be taken if any monies are to be paid in advance. Had each buyer made an on-site visit to hand the money over, he or she would have been able to see that there were no accounts to purchase. Another simple step would be to ask around. The TAS community is small, and no one operates in a vacuum. Surely, someone would have known about the seller’s reputation and business ethics.

Unfortunately, this scam alert doesn’t apply just to buying accounts. Similar swindles have also occurred regarding used equipment sales.

Though the TAS industry is a great one and friendships abound, it behooves everyone to remember, “Buyer beware!”

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

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Telephone Answering Service

Become an “EAS” – an Email Answering Service

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

In my December column in Connections Magazine, I said, “Everything you currently do with phone calls, you need to apply to email. Answer email, screen email, route email, add value to email, prioritize email, and escalate email.” I’d like to delve into that a bit more, specifically as it relates to telephone answering services.

First, consider that, for most of your clients, you answer their main lines. Extending that to email, you can answer their main email addresses, such as those beginning with info@, sales@, and so forth. Because these are not specific individuals’ email addresses, companies usually assign someone to check these generic email accounts. However, doing so tends to take a low priority. Sometimes several days or even weeks go by without these being checked. I am aware of a situation where a company’s main email went almost a year without it being checked.

As a solution, you can offer an “email answering service.” Clients can forward or redirect these generic email addresses to your TAS. Your agents receive the messages and delete the spam, forward the routine email to the appropriate person or department, and reply to basic questions. If something qualifies as an “emergency,” you escalate it as appropriate, just as you would with a phone call. If it is an order, you enter it into their order entry system; if they want literature, you fulfill it, etc. Since everyone with email is overrun with it, and since most everyone has email, the overall possibilities for your client base are vast. Properly executed and marketed, it could be a completely new business line for you – EAS (email answering service)!

Also, specific email addresses, such as a customer service email, could be (and should be) redirected to you when your clients forward their lines in the evening. It seems like common sense, but I imagine that those who actually make provisions for their customer service email after hours are rare.

As far as individual employee email addresses, just like with employees’ direct lines, there is not as much call for your involvement. However, there is still opportunity, such as for a busy CEO. You can screen email, delete the spam, reply to basic questions, forward routine email to an assistant, and prioritize the rest.

As an example, on the TAS Trader website, my posted email is dehaan@tastrader.com, while the one I personally give out is different. Presently, they end up in the same place, but the potential is there for someone to screen all dehaan@tastrader.com emails, deleting the spam, forwarding sales inquiries directly to Valerie, our media rep, and forwarding the rest to me for my personal attention.

While any organization could do these things themselves, they might be better served to hire you to do it, just as they do for their phone lines. This means that your TAS could become an EAS, too!

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

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Telephone Answering Service

See Your Name in TAS Trader

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

The tag line for TAS Trader is “By the TAS Industry…For the TAS Industry.” This means that we want our content to come from people who are part of the telephone answering service industry. Usually, we are able to meet that goal, but not always. To fully reach this objective, we need your help; let us share your TAS news and articles with the industry. Here’s how to make that happen:

The Basics

First, there are two options: news and articles. News items are up to 110 words in length and are ideal to announce mergers and acquisitions, significant business milestones (such as twenty-five, forty, fifty, sixty, and seventy-five years in business), new hires and promotions, expansions, new locations, and so forth. Articles are 300 to 700 words long and are a great way to share your ideas, opinions, successes, or “learning opportunities” you’ve encountered along the way. Sometimes, a news item will become an article. Such is the case with this month’s lead article, LaVergne’s TeleMessaging Celebrates Fifty Years; it was just too interesting for a short news item.

The Key

Write about what you know. The result will be an interesting and informative piece that will resonate with readers. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a writer. We can tweak your work; our goal is to make you look good! Although we prefer organized submissions, with complete sentences and proper punctuation, we can work with whatever you provide. The key is that you need to submit it.

Avoid Hyperbole

The more spectacular the language in your writing, the less believable it becomes. Words such as “leveraged,” “solutions,” “unique,” “revolutionary,” “leading,” “cutting-edge,” and “world-class” are overused – avoid them. Exaggerated copy, unsubstantiated claims, and self-promotion push readers away instead of drawing them in. When hyperbole obscures the message, communication doesn’t take place.

Use the Third Person

Writing objectively in the third person gives your piece increased integrity and greater trustworthiness; it is more credible. First-person content is never acceptable in news items – it comes across as self-serving, bragging, or unnecessarily introspective. Writing in the third person generally works best for articles too. The exceptions are firsthand commentaries, how-to pieces, and experiential accounts, which are best written in the first person.

Proof Your Work

Spell-check and proofread your writing. It is nearly impossible to catch your own mistakes; you know what you intended to write, so that is how you read it. Ask someone else to prove it. We will go over it too, which leads to…

Expect to Be Edited

Even the most experienced writers have their work edited. This can be for many reasons. A common one is a length, another is style, and a third is content suitability. Sometimes a piece is given a different slant to increase interest.

Timing

If you desire your news to be in a specific issue, get it in on time; sooner is always better. The lead-time for TAS Trader is longer than you might imagine, so follow the due dates and read our submission guidelines.

Submit It

Once it’s ready, just email a Word file of your news or article. Then look for it in an upcoming issue!

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

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Telephone Answering Service

Seasonal Traffic Opportunities

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

As a publisher, December is a slower time of the year for me. It’s not that I have less work to do, but I have fewer interruptions in the form of ancillary email messages and phone calls. Conversely, for most answering services, the winter holidays present the opposite scenario, with the days leading up to Christmas being busier – and for some services, significantly busier. The amount of increase in December call volume varies by region and client mix. While some answering services see little change in call volume during the winter months, most see an increase.

In cases where the increase is moderate, it is handled using existing staff, with operators working more hours and additional shifts or former operators being pulled in from other departments. The goal is to not increase the employee count if possible and to avoid having to let people go when the holiday rush is over.

For answering services with a greater influx of calls – such as those that also do some order taking – existing staff is often inadequate to cover the projected traffic. In these instances, temporary staff is needed. Although hiring temporary holiday staff – be it directly or indirectly through a staffing agency – is daunting and draining, there is an upside. These short-term workers give the answering service an opportunity to evaluate their skill and effectiveness, picking out the best for possible permanent status come January. This may be the ultimate agent-screening tool, one that produces the best possible evaluation.

Regardless of which category your answering services fits into – whether you see a slight increase, a moderate bump, or a big jump – one thing can be expected: January should be a slower month, requiring fewer hours on the schedule. Moreover, this year things are compounded by worries over the economy and wonderings of how much longer the recession will last.

With this as the backdrop, I offer the following considerations for January:

  • Staff morale will become an even bigger issue. In December, the goal was to keep staff motivated amid an increase in calls, complaints, and fatigue, whereas in January, the need is to keep morale up in the face of reduced hours, fewer shifts, and possible terminations for temporary staff or even layoffs for permanent staff. Even though things have slowed down, morale is still an issue that can’t be overlooked.
  • Slower times are a great opportunity to renew quality initiatives and provide additional training. Side-by-side coaching and silent monitoring can once again be given the attention and priority they deserve.
  • When hours need to be cut, the weaker staff should bear the brunt of it. Some operators may not have what it takes to provide the quality service that you seek, while others might have given up trying and are merely coasting. Terminating the obviously weaker agents sends a powerful message to stronger agents that their good work is noticed and appreciated.

A slower January is not a time for either fear or relaxing but a time of opportunity; don’t miss it.

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

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Telephone Answering Service

Movie Review: The Bells Are Ringing

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Although I frequently write movie reviews, this is the first to appear in a trade publication. However, given that the setting for this Broadway musical-turned-movie is a telephone answering service, the justification can be easily made.

In The Bells Are Ringing, Judy Holliday reprises her Tony Award-winning role as Ella Peterson, a telephone answering service operator, in Vincente Minnelli’s musical comedy. Ella can’t keep from eavesdropping on her client’s calls, compulsively going overboard to help them out. She does this by sharing tidbits of information she hears from other clients. Initially everybody benefits, so her involvement doesn’t cause too much of a problem, but when she goes incognito to meet and help her problem-plagued clients, things begin to go awry.

One of them, playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin), becomes enamored when he actually meets Elle (who adopts a concocted alias), and she falls in love with him. Unfortunately, Jeffery doesn’t realize who she is, since when she calls him from the answering service, she adopts the voice of an old woman so she can mother him. He buys into the rouse completely by affectionately calling her “Mom.”

Holliday and Martin have great on-screen chemistry, the musical score is superb, and the dancing enjoyable. The production is so delightful that the fact it is a musical (which I generally don’t care for) doesn’t get in the way or detract in the least.

Jean Stapleton (aka “Edith Bunker”) plays the role of Sue, the owner of the answering service, which is cleverly called “Susansaphone.” The answering service has a diverse group of clients, one of which is actually a bookie whose messages are coded to sound like record orders. Of course, the police, who also suspect Susansaphone of being a front for another age-old profession, isn’t far behind this enterprising crook.

The movie begins and ends with creative and compelling commercials for Susansaphone. Sadly, this was the final film appearance of the talented Judy Holliday before her premature death.

Although released in 1960, the movie still has great appeal to anyone working in the telephone answering service industry – even more so if they used or remember the quintessential cord board.

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