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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Lessons From Cars, Computers, and Software

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderSince I work at home, I don’t do much driving. I sometimes wonder if I really need a car. Couple this with my preference to invest in a product and use it as long as I can. As a result my higher-end car was nineteen years old and pushing a quarter million miles. In November I replaced it. Though it’s time wasn’t up, I wanted a change. I don’t think anyone would fault me for that.

I take the same approach with technology. I buy the best I can afford and use it as long as I can. My main computer is four years old, my backup computer is six years old, and my laptop (which I seldom use) is ten. It’s replacement should arrive this week.

For the first time I didn’t buy a computer with Microsoft Office pre-installed. Instead I will make the switch to Office 365, a subscription software service. Philosophically I object to subscription services because in the past they haven’t made financial sense given the way I approach technology. (Subscription services are a brilliant move for vendors as it provides them with consistent cash flow, which allows them to support their product, invest in upgrades, and create new modules.) In the past, subscription services would have cost me more than making an outright purchase and using it well past its expected life span.

Switching to Office 365 will allow me to have the newest software on all my computers (not just the new laptop) and will keep me on the latest software version. And since Microsoft is calling Windows 10 “the last version of Windows,” I can expect my software to outlast my hardware. Instead of paying several hundred dollars for Office 2016 Professional on my laptop (or over a thousand dollars to update all three computers), I will instead pay a low monthly fee to enjoy the latest and greatest. How cool is that?

While I don’t run an answering service anymore and therefore haven’t done a cost analysis, I understand the same dynamics applies to operating an answering service using subscription-based services (whatever label you place on it: hosted, cloud-based, SaaS, PaaS, and so forth). It’s good for answering services, it’s good for vendors, and clients benefit as well.

If you’ve already moved to a subscription approach to your answering service platform, congratulations. If you’ve not made the switch, now might be a good time to revisit it.

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

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On Earth Peace and Good Will Toward Men

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderThis month I’m not going to write about the telephone answering service industry or customer service or any of the things I typically address in TAS Trader. Instead I have a seasonal thought—sort of.

In considering our society as a whole, the past several months have been rough: divisive news, polarized rhetoric on social media, and a general loss of civility. The shouting is deafening. Everyone I talk to is sick of it and looking for us to move beyond the constant turmoil and return to some degree of mutual respect and decorum. I so agree.

Maybe this holiday season can mark a shift toward a fresh start. Let’s start by taking a line from the Christmas story: “On earth peace and good will toward men.” I like that. We need more peace (less fighting) and increased goodwill (less conflict). And then our world—or at least our space in it—will be a much better place.

While we can’t compel other people to promote peace on earth and goodwill to all, we can each do our part to bring it about. Little by little, day by day, we can each do one thing for peace and goodwill. Perhaps others will notice and do their part too.

A little less fighting and a little less conflict will make our world a better place. And there is no better time to start than this time of year.

So I wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and on earth peace and good will toward men.

May it be so.

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

How Well Do You Pay Your Answering Service Operators?

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderLong ago, perhaps in graduate school, I read a management guru who advocated that a company’s highest paid employee should ethically make no more than seven times the lowest paid employee. Of course I can’t find that source now, but I remember it well.

For a telephone answering service, the two people at opposite ends of the wage scale are the owner/president/CEO and an entry-level operator. With the federal minimum wage in the United States currently at $7.25 per hour – and yes, there are sadly some answering services that still pay minimum wage – that projects to a top annual salary of around $105,000 a year. Of course it doesn’t need to be that high, but if can be.

How close does your answering service come to meeting this paradigm of no more than a seven-fold wage differential? Maybe it’s time to re-examine pay rates: decrease yours, increase theirs, or do both.

While I’ve met TAS owners who barely scraped by, some effectively making less than minimum wage for their endless hours of work, I think those players have all left the industry, either due to the sale of their business or its closure. Left are the viable players, the serious businesspeople who run great organizations and enjoy success. Many of them work diligently to maximize their paycheck, while at the same time remaining convinced they must pay their front-line staff as little as possible. “It’s the economics of the industry” they say.

I don’t agree.

What happens when the minimum wage goes up? Some states and cities already have, and answering services in those areas have adjusted to a higher starting wage. With talk of $12 to $15 dollars an hour, the low-paying answering services will be forced to make changes, too, or go out of business.

Get ahead of what is bound to come. Start increasing what you pay your answering service operators. But here’s a hint: Don’t pay more for the same caliber of employee. Pay more and expect more. Everyone wins.

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

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How Well Do You Know Your Answering Service’s Clients?

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter L DeHaan, publisher of TAS TraderI recently read a fiction book set in the late nineties. In a small but pivotal part of the story stood a telephone answering service. The author was mostly accurate in describing how an answering service functions, though his depiction of the industry highlighted several negative stereotypes as the norm.

The FBI investigated one of the answering service’s clients, a professional assassin. They laid out two options to the answering service’s owner: cooperate with us and we will ignore your involvement in your customer’s crime or don’t cooperate and be charged as an accessory to murder, over two dozen of them, and risk spending the rest of your life in jail.

The owner decided to cooperate. Though she had never met the man who signed up for the service or the woman who they contacted with messages, the owner did admit she thought something was suspicious. She assumed her client was involved in some low-level fraud, but nothing to the level of a hitman. Since they paid their bill every month, quickly and reliably, she was willing to ignore whatever business they might be in.

A few days later, her client – the hitman – paid her a visit. The gist of the conversation, aided by the threatening presence of a handgun, was if you tell the FBI who I am, my associates or I will kill you.

Talk about a no-win situation.

This story, of course, is a work of fiction. But I share this scenario because I know that – despite the majority of answering services who would carefully avoid such a client – some services will take any client who can pay his or her bill. Maybe it’s time to rethink that strategy.

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

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