Hung Up On Lost Business? – The National Post

It was a long time ago, but Leif Soderholm, owner of Soderholm Maritime Services Inc., a Hamilton-based provider of water-related construction services, will never forget the time he lost a big contract, simply because he couldn’t answer a call.

“That was a painful lesson. It was 17 minutes between getting the page and finishing my bank transaction. I lost a $6,000 job because I didn’t respond immediately.”

Since then he has been using off-premise reception, or call answer, services to ensure there’s always a live body to answer the phone, respond to questions and forward calls when the situation warrants it.

Automated answering services may be fine for many operations but for others the personal touch is essential to their success. For Mr. Soderholm, who has a staff of nine scattered across Ontario, it simply isn’t practical to have someone answering the telephone 24/7.

AnswerPlus service lets him provide dedicated team members to speak to the customer, determine who should get the call, and then patch them through when required.

Ralph Brook, another Hamilton-based business owner, relies on off-premise reception to answer phones and book appointments for his two businesses: HomeInspectors Inc. and Brook Building Consultants Inc. In service businesses, he says, you only get seconds to engage the customer.

“If someone wants a home inspection they go through the phone book. If they get an answering machine they hang up. If the person answering isn’t knowledgeable they move on. You just have to be there and have a person answering that knows what we do, can answer questions, book appointments and put someone through to the right person.”

There has been a growing interest in virtual or off-premise reception services in recent years, says Paul Lloyd president of AnswerPlus in Hamilton.

“[The service] is essential to businesses that don’t want to staff phones 24/7 but want and require a human being at the other end to take the call, calm people down or reassure. Every time someone calls, they get an enthusiastic and professional voice at the end of the phone and not an auto attendant.”

(Order taking and outbound telemarketing are not part of the AnswerPlus service.) Mr. Lloyd says the technology is designed to make it as simple as possible for his customers and theirs. As soon as a call comes in from any location, an intelligent switch determines which customer service representative should get the call based on its classification. When the call is answered, the person’s information comes on screen as well as scripted software to help the service rep ask and answer questions. Fees for a single agent, 24/7 answering service start at about $50 a week.

The process is seamless. Since AnswerPlus uses VoIP (voice over IP), local calls can easily be routed to and from anywhere through a central location. “A business owner could be on a beach in Florida, and as far as the caller knows, he’s sitting in his office in Hamilton,” Mr. Lloyd says.

Mr. Brook estimates the services for both companies run him about$450 a month, which include appointment booking functions and daily printouts of calls received. “The two company schedules are blended on to one calendar so I don’t get caught double booked.”

He says he couldn’t survive as a business if he didn’t have someone answering his phones. “It’s just me, along with a few consultants. I don’t have employees working for me. So I don’t have time to be spending on the phone. But that personal touch is important to me and my customers,” he says.

Mr. Soderholm contends that the human touch can make or break a small business. “I’ve built my success on answering the phone directly. Efficient personal communications translates into good service all around.”

Denise Deveau, Financial Post · Monday, Sept. 13, 2010