Be Thankful for Your Staff

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderWe will celebrate Thanksgiving Day next week in the United States. And our friends to the north celebrated it last month. Aside from having a day off from work—not that anyone in the answering service industry ever gets a day off, especially holidays—Thanksgiving is a time for us to think about things we’re thankful for.

Top on most people’s list is family and friends. Other items might include our business or job. For most of us who work in the answering service industry, this implies we’re thankful for our clients who provide revenue and our staff who serve our clients.

Where would we be without our staff? This fall let’s take time to thank our employees for all the work they do to handle our clients’ communication needs and keep our business open.

Thankful Minds: We start with the realization that without our answering service staff, we would have no business to run and no clients to serve. Without our staff, we’re nothing. Even though we deal with staffing issues and employee problems from time to time, the reality is that our staff is essential to all that we do. Instead of complaining about errors, attendance, and attitudes, we should develop a perspective of thankfulness. Let’s focus on the positive elements of our employees, because they give us much to be positive about.

Thankful Words: Once we have adjusted our outlook to be thankful for our staff, we need to let them know what our mind is thinking. We must take time to thank them for their work. While some managers feel there’s no need to thank employees for merely showing up and doing the job they were hired to do, that’s an old-school perspective. We need to take time to tell our staff we appreciate them. Thank them for coming to work. Thank them for trying to always do their best. Thank them for trying extra hard on a difficult phone call we’d have surely hung up on. Thank them for smiling most all the time. A simple word of thanks can go a long way in helping our employees feel appreciated.

Thankful Actions: Having the right attitude and saying the right words is a great start. But let’s build upon our thankful words with thankful actions. What actions can we do to show our thanks? While there’s no single right answer, there are many possible ideas. For some people a handwritten note or thoughtful card means a lot. For other people a bonus in their paycheck or even an envelope with cash speaks volumes. How about having a party just because? (Of course, we’d never have a party on Thanksgiving. Let’s save it for when the call traffic returns to normal.) Being publicly recognized goes a long way with others. What about a small gift, even a trinket, that reminds them—every time they look at it—of how thankful we are for them and their work?

We can use the celebration of Thanksgiving as a reminder to be thankful for our staff. Yet what we do in this season, we should carry over throughout the whole year. We need to be thankful for our staff and the work they do 365 days a year, 24/7.

When was the last time you thanked your employees?

Peter DeHaan is publisher and editor of TAS Trader and Connections Magazine. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn.

Responding to Industry Consolidation

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderAs the telephone answering service industry continues to consolidate amid a sellers’ market, it leaves many wondering what the future looks like as they contemplate their long-term strategy. There are three general scenarios that apply to most any situation: buy, sell, or stay.

Buy: Some large players, both from outside the industry and from within, continue their buying spree. While most of the good deals have been snatched up, there still exists many attractive targets. The objectives of this strategy vary. For some it’s the cash flow. For others it’s to pursue economy of scale. And for still others it’s the basic driving force that bigger is better. Regardless, these folks continue to make their acquisitions in pursuit of their core objective.

Three essential steps exist for those who by answering services. First is the ability to strike a sound deal. Second is to orchestrate a smooth transition. And third, which some people skip, is optimizing the acquisition for maximum financial results.

Some mid-sized players wonder if they should pursue this strategy. If it meets their objective, yes. However, they might fit better in one of the next two groups.

Sell: Some single location answering services (and perhaps all at one time or another) wonder if they should sell. This is a legitimate question, especially given the sellers’ market and the competition that exists across North America. Selling could make for a smart exit strategy.

For answering services pursuing this scenario, the goal is to do everything possible to make the answering service attractive to a potential buyer. This means maximizing EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization). Items included in this pursuit include maximizing the profitability of each account, eliminating unnecessary spending, and removing owner perks from the equation. Each step made to improve EBITDA will serve to increase the sales price.

Stay: The remaining group of answering services are interested in neither buying nor selling. They want to maintain their operation as a single location answering service. Although there are many strategies to allow this to work successfully, the most promising one is to implement a niche and then pursue it for growth and profitability.

This niche could be a certain segment of the market, a unique way of on boarding or serving clients, or a compelling marketing vision that sells the company image as much as its service. Many answering services are successfully pursuing this course, proving that it can be done. But don’t copy their specific strategy. Instead tweak it to make your own.

When done strategically and intentionally, any of these options can produce a successful outcome. And that’s good for the industry and for its clients.

Peter DeHaan is publisher and editor of TAS Trader and Connections Magazine. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn.

What’s Your Exit Strategy?

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderIf you own a telephone answering service, you spend a lot of time thinking about the future. And if you’re not the owner, you should also consider what’s ahead. More on that later.

Future considerations for owners may include growth, acquisition, or new technology. However, when you think about the future, you should also plan your exit strategy. There are four options to consider when it’s time to scale back or retire.

Sell to Employees or Family: Look to those around you, to your staff and your family, for people who could take over your answering service and buy it from you. And if you sell to a family member, make sure they understand the industry and know how to run the business. Identify these potential people, and then groom them to take over.

Sell to Another Company: Aside from employees and family, you can also look to sell to another answering service or to an investor outside the industry. Going this route may produce the highest selling price, but it might be at the sacrifice of your legacy, staff, or clients. Balance the pros and cons.

Work Until the End: By intention, or sometimes not, business owners continue in their role until the day they die. This eliminates the need for an exit strategy, but it passes the burden on to their heirs. Do them a favor and leave them with a plan.

Shut Down the Business: Some answering services, especially small ones, assume the business has no value, so they close their doors. There’s no reason to do that. Though you may not have a big enough operation to attract high-dollar buyers, your accounts do have value and other services are anxious to buy them.

This discussion focuses on answering service owners, but what if you’re a manager? Then consider these four scenarios, and envision how you can be part of the business owner’s exit strategy. This may involve a direct discussion, or it may require a subtler approach. Either way the potential exists for you to end up as an answering service owner. And then you can form your own exit strategy.

The key is to make a plan, and then work the plan.

Peter DeHaan is publisher and editor of TAS Trader and Connections Magazine. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn.

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Don’t Be in a Hurry

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderLast week I couldn’t log into one of my financial services accounts. I had three options: online help, email, or phone. I opted to call. That’s what you do when you’re in this industry.

I reached their automated attendant and listened to the prompts. After a couple of button pushes I reached a real person, perky and positive sounding. But before I could finish telling her what I needed, she interrupted me. Apparently anticipating what I was going to say, she knew just what to do. “Becky can help you. Let me transfer you.”

I expected to hear ringing. Instead I heard more prompts and after more button-pushing I heard the pleasant voice of the first person again. “I think I’m stuck in a loop.”

She didn’t apologize. “Yeah, it’s best to leave a message in voicemail. You’ll get a call back within 24 hours.”

I didn’t want to wait 24 hours. I wanted help right away. Isn’t that what phone support is for? I left a message and hung up.

I’m still waiting for a call back. Fortunately I figured out the problem myself.

Although the receptionist I talked to was pleasant and confident sounding, she also hurried to pass me on to someone else. Also, both times we talked, she interrupted me to offer her solution. Though the second time I was appropriately transferred to voicemail, I doubt she routed my call correctly the first time.

In the answering service industry, our agents may be tempted to make this same mistake. With callers holding in queue and likely growing less patient by the second, agents may feel pressure to complete their present call quickly and go to the next caller.

I understand this. I suspect it’s common at most answering services, but it shouldn’t be. There are two side effects when agents rush through one call to get the next:

Poor Service: The first outcome is poor customer service. This may result in the caller feeling they weren’t heard, the agent jumping to a wrong conclusion, or the agent handling the call inappropriately. In each scenario, the result is failure.

Lower Revenue: The second outcome of rushing through a call is less time spent talking. If you bill by the minute this means reduced revenue. Now I would never suggest you train agents to stretch calls to boost revenue, but you should train them to take as much time as they need to appropriately respond to the caller while they’re on the line. This will allow the caller to receive great service and end the conversation confident their concern was addressed.

You’ll see improved service, along with a decrease in complaints, as well as an increase in billing. And all it takes is a reminderer to your agents to slow down and not rush through their calls.

Peter DeHaan is publisher and editor of TAS Trader and Connections Magazine. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn.

Adjusting to Seasonal Traffic Fluctuations

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS Trader

As we move into a warmer season, many telephone answering services experience increased call traffic during the summer months. But this bump in incoming calls is dwarfed by what many services experience at year’s end with the build up to Christmas.

Although we know these seasonal fluctuations in traffic will happen, it’s still challenging to make the appropriate staffing adjustments at the right time. Even knowing what will occur, many answering services struggle to hire and train enough new staff to be ready to take calls when these traffic increases materialize.

The result is being understaffed, which has two notable side effects. One is that staff is extra busy, and the quality of service suffers, resulting in more complaints and unnecessary cancellations. The other outcome is increased revenue that isn’t fully offset by increased labor costs, which results in increased profits. The effect of ramping up too slowly is both good and bad news: a welcome boost to income coupled with an unfortunate hit to customer service.

The opposite occurs as these seasons of high traffic wind down. If we fail to properly anticipate call traffic downturns, the result is being overstaffed. This serves to boost the quality of service provided to clients, which disproportionately keeps expenses high at a time when revenue decreases. Here the outcome is the opposite of the ramp-up period. This time service improves while revenue and income falter.

While these seasonal fluctuations catch new scheduling managers off guard, despite warnings to prepare, even seasoned professionals often fail to react fast enough. Of course, there’s always the concern of ramping up staff and not needing them as we move into times of anticipated traffic increases, as well as scaling back staff but still needing them when we expect to exit the season of higher call volume.

What’s the solution?

When headed into expected times of high traffic, the best recommendation is to start hiring and training sooner than we think we need to. Conversely, begin scaling back staffing schedules when the anticipated season of higher traffic is expected to end, not when the first signs of a decrease occur. If we wait for tangible evidence that call traffic is trending down, it’s already too late to react in time.

As we say, there’s never a dull moment in the TAS industry. Adjusting to seasonal traffic fluctuations is one reason.

I hope you have a great summer.

Peter DeHaan is publisher and editor of TAS Trader and Connections Magazine. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn.

What Types of Communication Do You Handle?

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderYou are in the telephone answering service (TAS) industry. Notice the word telephone. Surely your TAS focuses on telephone communications, but do you process more than phone calls? Should you do more? What are the ramifications if you do? What are the risks if you don’t? As communication continues to move to embrace other forms besides the telephone, should your answering service move to adapt?

These are questions to ponder. I leave them for you to contemplate, but you should contemplate them. Consider these options:

Email: It was about two decades ago when I began receiving more emails than phone calls. I suspect nowadays most everyone does. Email can easily overwhelm. Many entrepreneurs and busy executives have a virtual assistant or have tasked an employee to screen their emails, delete the span, reply to easy ones, and forward the critical ones.

This sounds like what we do with phone calls. Now let’s apply this skill set to email. Perhaps you already have.

Chat: Many people, especially the younger crowd, love chat services. They’ll send text messages all day long but will avoid making a phone call. If they have a customer service question, they’ll pick chat every time they can. As the population ages, more and more people will gravitate toward chat.

Answering services already have the needed customer service skills to handle chat. Maybe you’ve already taken the plunge.

Social Media: The most recent communication opportunity is in social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. For those on a social media platform, who isn’t overwhelmed with the deluge of communication.

For individuals this isn’t a big problem, but for businesses it is. Answering services can handle this problem, too. Possibly, you already offer this critical service.

If you take on these service opportunities, you theoretically move from a telephone answering service to a communications facilitator. While I don’t think our industry will rechristen itself as the communications facilitator industry, that could be a more apt description than telephone answering service.

Therefore, we will likely remain as telephone answering services even if communications facilitation is a better description of what we do.

Regardless of what you end up doing or what you call yourself, the key is to serve your clients well. That, after all, is what we’ve been doing since our inception.

Peter DeHaan is publisher and editor of TAS Trader and Connections Magazine. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn.

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Technology Versus People

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderTechnology is exciting—at least to me. I love technology and its application. We talk a lot about the technology we use to help our telephone answering services function more effectively and provide a greater array of services to clients. It’s hard to imagine processing calls without technology.

Yet without staff the best technology means nothing. Though the technology in our TASs is critical, the staff who use it is even more critical.

When we analyze our operation, it’s not our technology that makes us unique, it’s our staff. Other answering services can match our technology: computer for computer, application for application, and feature for feature. But no one can match our staff.

Yet the emphasis at too many answering services is the technology. These operations carefully investigate the options and pick the best one. They implement the technology, train their staff how to use it, and form marketing campaigns to reach a quick payoff for their investment and then generate a profit.

All the while, the staff at too many answering services gets whatever attention is left over, which, by the way, isn’t much. Too often staff seems expendable. Hire and train and then fire those who don’t work out.

Too many answering services have an embarrassingly high level of employee churn. Hire ten to find five good ones, one of which may actually work out for the long term. And frankly, some operations would view those numbers as good, but they’re not.

Working at an answering service is hard. Not everyone can do it. And some who could, don’t care to. The key is to discover this before hiring them, not after training them.

Just as we would never buy ten TAS applications and hope one would work out for the long term, we shouldn’t accept this when it comes to hiring staff.

Let’s stop accepting high employee churn as normal. Our employees are our strategic advantage. Let’s reimagine our staffing practices to reflect this reality.

Peter DeHaan is publisher and editor of TAS Trader and Connections Magazine. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn.

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Does Your Answering Service Use Social Media?

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderOn our website, TAStrader.com, we have a TAS directory. (If your company isn’t listed and you want to be, please let me know. There is no cost.)

Presently we have 135 answering services listed. Of those 68 of them, just over half, have social media pages, including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

  • Facebook is the most popular at 87 percent of those with a social media presence and 44 percent overall.
  • Twitter follows Facebook as the second most popular at 75 percent of those with a social media presence and 38 percent overall.
  • LinkedIn trails both at 65 percent of those with a social media presence and 33 percent overall.
  • In an interesting subset, 53 percent of those with a social media presence use all three, which is 27 percent overall. That means just over a quarter of answering services use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Based on this, I make the following observations.

Half Not Social: First, half of the answering services do not have a social media presence. Though social media takes time, it is important. At the very least, think of social media as a discovery vehicle that allows people to find you and then directs them to your website, your home base. In this analogy, social media serves as an outpost.

Facebook Most Popular, But is it Best? Next, Facebook is the most popular social media platform for answering services. However, this is likely because it’s the most common social media platform and the best understood. That doesn’t mean it’s the most effective. In fact, most people I talk to are frustrated with Facebook and wonder if it’s worth the effort.

Think Strategically: For driving traffic to your website, I think Twitter is far more effective. And if you work to actually interact with people and engage your audience on social media, LinkedIn—the social media platform for businesses—is where to invest your time.

Take Action: I encourage you to spend some time considering your social media strategy. Do you need to up your game? What changes should you make? How can you use social media to drive traffic to your website?

Peter DeHaan is publisher and editor of TAS Trader and Connections Magazine. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn.

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Three Keywords Describe the Business Benefits of Answering Services

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderAs I consider business trends, specifically as it relates to the telephone answering service, three words come to mind. I think of these terms as keywords we can use to describe what we do and promote our business.

Virtual: An answering service provides a virtual service. It’s been that way from the very beginning, some ninety years ago. We have never done our work on site, but remotely. Our presence is not tangible, but virtual. As the prior century drew to a close, forward-thinking answering services began promoting the concept of the virtual receptionist.

In practice, this was nothing new, but as a concept, it was. Today with many entrepreneurs and small businesses tapping into the parallel concept of a virtual assistant, as a money-saving means to accomplish routine tasks with speed and precision. Answering services need to capitalize on this trend by touting their specialized version of a virtual assistant, also known as a virtual receptionist.

An answering service is virtual.

Scalable: Often technology carries the label of scalable. This means its scope can easily increase or decrease to meet changing user needs. Though answering services often have scalable technology, they remain labor intensive. Labor is not scalable.

However, from the perspective of our clients, we offer a scalable service. If we normally take one call at a time and two come in at once, we “scale up” to handle the extra work. Then we “scale down.” They can’t do that in their office.

What happens if they close early, their receptionist is sick or on vacation, or they want everyone at a staff meeting? We automatically scale up to take their extra calls. Conversely, if they decide to extend their hours and stay open until seven instead of closing at five, we scale accordingly to meet their new expectations.

An answering service is scalable.

Outsource: Though outsourcing, especially as it relates to phone calls, was once severely tarnished by offshore outsourcing done poorly, the reality remains that outsourcing shines as a key concept for businesses. Outsourcing work provides flexibility and controls costs.

Businesses wishing to run a lean, effective operation know that outsourcing is a preferred way to do this. Another significant reason to outsource is that many businesses are reluctant to hire staff. They sight overhead costs—especially healthcare expenses—and the legal hurdles to un-hire staff when no longer needed. As a smart alternative, they outsource whatever they can, whenever they can.

An answering service is an outsource provider.

Next time you talk with a business owner about your service drop these hot keywords. Say that you are virtual, scalable, and an outsource provider. That should get you some attention and hopefully some new business.

Peter DeHaan is publisher and editor of TAS Trader and Connections Magazine.

Tips for Running a Successful Answering Service

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderFor all my adult life writing was something I did, but it meant nothing more. Then about eight years ago I began to take writing more seriously, wondering if it might be my next career. (It is, but it’s a part-time career. No worries, I will continue to publish TAS Trader and Connections Magazine.)

My first step as a writer was to attend a writing conference to learn more about the industry. Now my goal is to attend two conferences a year. Then I begin to study the craft of writing: reading blogs, listening to podcasts, subscribing to magazines, and buying books. Next I joined a couple of critique groups, where we mutually help each other improve. And, since I’ve actually been writing for several decades and been a publisher for fifteen years, I started blogging about writing to give back to the writing community; I also speak at writing conferences. As I moved forward I began working as a commercial freelance writer.

A couple years ago I decided to branch into fiction. Though I could have learned by the school of hard knocks, I decided to jumpstart my efforts by hiring people to guide and instruct me: coaches, developmental editors, and teachers. And I outsource things too: book cover design, copy editing, and proofreading. It would be foolish to try to do these myself.

What’s this have to do with running an answering service? Plenty.

Attend Conferences: I’m shocked that I continue to talk to TAS owners and managers who have never been to an industry event. They claim they can’t afford it. I say they can’t afford not to. Conferences provide a great way to network and learn. I think everyone should attend at least one conference a year—and not just owners but key employees, too.

Give Back: I receive the most when I help others, when I freely share what I know. Peter’s Law of Reciprocity states, “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t… so politely and tactfully learn what it is. Conversely, everyone you meet doesn’t know everything you do…so be willing to graciously share whatever you can when you are asked.” When you give, you receive.

Hire Outside Help: It makes no sense to spend a lot of time trying to figure out something by trial and error when you can pay someone to teach you. When I bought Connections Magazine from Steve Michaels in 2001, I hired a $200-an-hour magazine publishing consultant to point me in the right direction. Best decision ever.

Tap Outsourcers: You can outsource every aspect of running a telephone answering service, including operations. While I know of no one who has outsourced everything, many successful TASs have outsourced specific aspects of their business, such as sales, marketing, billing, collections, technical, and even management. If someone else can do it better or for less, it’s foolish to keep it in house.

Whether it’s writing a book or running an answering service, be intentional about improving and invest in learning. It’s the only way to go.

Peter DeHaan is publisher and editor of TAS Trader and Connections Magazine.

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