Guide to Choosing a Voice Services Provider

By Elizabeth Ballou
November 09, 2017

Voice services such as answering services, virtual receptionists, and call centers are a time-saver for a company of any size. Our guide to voice services, which defines the types and specialties of voice services providers, helps companies choose the right kind of provider.

When customers call a business, it’s usually not to complain. Over half (54%) of customers want to schedule an appointment, while 16% want to ask about a product and 14% have billing issues, according to our recent survey on voice services.

Customers have many reasons to communicate with a business via phone, but not all businesses have the time or resources to handle those calls. That’s where voice services come in.

Voice services save businesses both money and time. However, few reliable guides to voice services exist, which can make it hard to understand the value of an answering service or virtual receptionist.

3 Key Voice Services Topics

  • The function that voice services perform
  • The types of voice services
  • The difference between onshore, nearshore, and offshore providers

Voice services are a part of BPO, or business process outsourcing. According to ISG Momentum, the digital revolution continues to create demand for BPO, as businesses seek to modernize and upgrade their technology. 2017 will be a record year for total BPO contracts awarded worldwide.

If you’re considering a voice services provider for your business, the following facts and interviews can help you define your business’s needs and make an informed decision.

What’s the Function of Voice Services?

‘Voice services’ refers to companies that handle calls for clients. Voice services companies make sure clients keep an open line of communication with their customers.

Businesses struggle to keep communication open with customers for several reasons:

  • Self-employed workers, such as massage therapists or landscapers, often don’t have time to answer the phone.
  • Small businesses with few employees may not have the money for professional phone equipment or a full-time receptionist.
  • Rapidly growing businesses in the process of scaling may lose calls, upsetting customers.

Here’s an example: Say a construction business struggles to return all its calls because its employees work all day with their hands. Sometimes the business loses leads because it can’t manage every voicemail. Eventually, the construction business hires an answering service to make sure callers always get the chance to speak to someone.

In another hypothetical situation, two friends go into business making pottery. They handle every task for their new business and quickly find themselves overwhelmed. They don’t have the money or space for a full-time receptionist, so they hire a virtual receptionist to take calls and set up appointments.

According to our recent research, customers prioritize the chance to speak to another person when they make a call. Of callers who speak to a person (rather than an automated or interactive menu), 21% say that human interaction is the quality they appreciate most.

What callers want from human representatives

That emphasis on actual conversation is what makes voice services so crucial to the business-customer relationship.

As you consider which voice services are right for you, feel free to use our free discussion worksheet.

choosing voice services provider worksheet

What Kinds of Voice Services Are There?

Voice services providers come in all forms. They can perform a variety of tasks depending on their size, location, and specialty. Call centers, answering services, and virtual receptionists are some of the most common types.

Some voice services companies tackle inbound calls, while others handle outbound calls, and many companies do both.

Outbound services place calls to potential customers, which means they often fall under the umbrella of sales.

Inbound services take calls from customers, so they prioritize customer service.

If you want a provider who will help your relationship with customers, clients, and suppliers, you’re likely looking for an inbound service.

The following types of voice services providers all handle inbound calls, but may also perform outbound calls on request.

Call Centers and Contact Centers

  • Definition: A large service that handles calls for many clients
  • Right For: Enterprise companies with high call volume
  • Cost: $

A call center is a physical location where people handle a large number of calls, usually for a list of client companies.

As TechTarget says, “A call center has the ability to handle a considerable volume of calls at the same time, to screen calls and forward them to someone qualified to handle them, and to log calls.”

state farm call center

A call center in Concordville, PA, that serves State Farm

Call centers work well for larger businesses with a high volume of calls. If you’ve ever called Samsung with a phone hardware issue, you probably spoke to a call center employee whose company was contracted by Samsung to handle their customers’ problems.

Contact centers are similar to call centers, but sometimes include more customer service operations (such as email and physical mail).

Because call centers are so large, service quality varies widely. One call center may employ representatives with deep knowledge of their clients’ products. Another may add new clients every week, meaning that representatives know little about each client company.

Answering Services

  • Definition: A small-to-medium-sized service that handles calls for multiple clients
  • Right For: Businesses with a low or medium level of calls
  • Cost: $$

An answering service handles calls for a variety of clients, much like a call center. However, answering services generally aren’t as big and can provide more personalized service.

Answering services work well for businesses with a low to medium level of calls. They also work well for businesses who don’t want customers to know they’re speaking to an answering service. After all, data suggests that businesses shouldn’t give callers a reason to believe they’re talking to a voice service.

Customers who believe they’re speaking to an employee of the business they called report higher rates of satisfaction overall. Over three-fourths (76%) of callers who thought they spoke to the business they called say that the business helped them, compared to 44% of the group who thought they spoke to a voice service.

“We have a seamless transition between our clients and the services we provide for our clients. Essentially, we are an annex to our clients’ organization. We provide dedicated staffing and management,” said Sebastian Tickle, Vice President of Operations at itelbpo smart solutions, a nearshore outsourcing company.

“When someone calls the agents through the client, the caller will clearly get a sense that they’re simply speaking the brand whose contact center services we represent." – Sebastian Tickle, itelbpo smart solutions

That’s why answering services can fit the needs of businesses who want a tailored experience and a close-knit relationship with their voice services provider.

Virtual Receptionists

  • Definition: Receptionists who work remotely
  • Right For: Individuals, small businesses (up to 100 employees), or companies without much space
  • Cost: $$$

Virtual receptionists are similar to traditional receptionists – they just happen to work remotely, and sometimes for multiple clients.

Virtual receptionists work well for individuals, businesses that consist of only a few people, or companies without dedicated space for a receptionist.

These remote employees answer questions, set up appointments, direct calls, and perform other tasks that keep your business running smoothly. Virtual receptionists can be self-employed or may work for a company that specializes in providing receptionists.

Abby Connect, a Las Vegas-based virtual receptionist company, assigns only five employees to each account so that those employees deeply understand the client’s business.

“We charge more than a call center,” says Nathan Strum, CEO of Abby Connect, “so we’re able to spend more on recruiting, salaries, and team building. That’s how we can assign fewer people to each account.”

Virtual receptionists provide the most personalized, dedicated voice service and typically cost the most of the three types on this list.

Types of Voice Services

Here's a table that summarizes the strengths and focuses of these three provider types.

 

     Call Center

Answering Service

     Virtual Receptionist

Service Provider Size

Large (250+ employees) Varies, but typically 50-250 employees Small (1-50 employees) or self-employed/freelance

Call Volume per Month (across clients)

10,000+ calls 5,000-10,000+ calls Varies by industry focus, but typically 5,000 or less

Example Client

An international airline A state-wide spa chain A doctor's office

Client Size

Typically 500+ employees Typically 100-500 employees Typically 100 or fewer employees

Level of Personalization

Low-Medium Medium-High High

Cost

$ $$ $$$

Other Services Performed

Data/payment processing, sales, lead capture Scheduling, sales, lead capture Scheduling, email management, social media, research

 

Where are Voice Services Located?

Voice services are typically separated into three categories based on location: onshore, nearshore, and offshore. Each category has its own benefits and drawbacks.

Onshore Voice Services

  • Definition: Providers that are located in the same country as their clients
  • Strengths: Proximity; easy communication
  • Downsides: Cost

Onshore voice services are located in the same country as your business. If you live and work in the United States, then an onshore service also has its office in the United States.

Onshore voice services are good for businesses that want quick, easy internal communication.

If you use an onshore service, expect few cultural barriers, language issues, or time zone problems. Working with this company will be similar to working with any contractor in your homeland.

However, onshore voice services typically cost more, which can cut down on the cost savings you receive from outsourcing calls in the first place.

Nearshore Voice Services

  • Definition: Providers that are located in countries that neighbor (or are near) their clients’ country
  • Strengths: High-quality labor; similar cultural background
  • Downsides: Possible language barrier

‘Nearshore’ refers to countries surrounding the one in which your company is located.

For the United States, that means:

  • Direct neighbors (Canada and Mexico)
  • Central American countries, such as Costa Rica and El Salvador
  • Caribbean countries, such as the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and the Bahamas
  • Occasionally, South American countries like Argentina, Chile, and Brazil

Nearshore companies often have a similar cultural background as their clients, and these companies’ employees are familiar with the language, though it may not be their first.

itelbpo Montego Bay contact center office

itelbpo's office in Montego Bay, Jamaica

“There’s a lot of good labor, which includes good English speakers who understand American culture, in El Salvador,” said Moises Hasbun, CEO of Easybee, an answering service located in El Salvador. Hasbun, who speaks perfect English, added, “I’m a native Spanish speaker. I was born and raised in El Salvador.”

The nearshore workforce is almost or as capable as its onshore counterpart. In countries such as El Salvador, for example, voice services workers may make several times the minimum wage, so labor quality is high.

Hiring a nearshore service means spending less than picking an onshore company, and though time zone shifts may be a slight problem, it’s typically resolved without much trouble.

Offshore Voice Services

  • Definition: Providers that are located far from their clients’ country
  • Strengths: Cost savings; variety of providers
  • Downsides: Possible language and/or culture barrier, time zone differences

Offshore voice services are located around the world. Cost savings from choosing an offshore service can be significant.

When people think of outsourced voice services, they typically envision companies in India or the Philippines. These countries are the most popular for voice services, but the UK, Poland, Ireland, and Spain also host many voice services providers.

A variety of countries means an equal variety of cultural differences, language familiarity, and skillsets to analyze when making a decision about an offshore provider.

If you choose a provider from the UK or Ireland, for example, it’s reasonable to assume that representatives speak English like a native.

However, according to MaritzCX, customer service expectations are lower in the UK than in the US, which may lead to confusion between representatives and your customers.

Language differences exist even among English-speaking representatives. Many Indians speak British English, but Filipinos typically learn American English.

Some nations also have varying expectations when it comes to work schedules and holidays.

In Spain, which has many national and regional holidays, celebrations that fall on a Tuesday or Thursday often mean that employees take Monday or Friday off as well. This four-day weekend is known as a ‘puente’ (bridge) and poses a potential communication problem for American businesses.

If working with U.S. customers, though, some offshore voice services providers may ask their employees to work on those holidays.

If you decide on an offshore voice services provider, make sure you evaluate time zone, language, and communication differences between your company and your provider.

Stereotypes about Call Centers and Answering Services

Both customers and business decision makers may assume certain qualities about call centers and answering services, especially with nearshore and offshore companies.

According to Professor Shehzad Nadeem, a sociologist at CUNY and author of Dead Ringers, a book on the Indian outsourcing industry, common ideas and stereotypes about answering service workers include the following:

  • They don’t speak good English.
  • They aren’t taught phone manners and/or customer service basics.
  • They have few specialized skills.
  • Their companies don’t provide enough information about client companies, so workers can’t handle complex questions.
  • They dislike their jobs.

Any one of these might describe a specific company, but it’s rare for all of these generalizations to be true.

What Are Off/Nearshore Voice Services Employees Like?

Since call center jobs are in demand, workers in offshore and nearshore voice services offices are usually well-educated and qualified.

Hasbun of Easybee said that many residents of El Salvador want to work at answering services.

“There are architects that prefer working in a call center because it pays better. Here, people see voice services as a solid income. A call center job typically pays two to three times the minimum wage in El Salvador.” – Moises Hasbun, Easybee

Nadeem, who has conducted extensive research on answering service and call center workers in India, says that his interviewees are young, educated, and ambitious.

“These workers are typically in their 20s, and middle to lower-middle class,” Nadeem said. “They often went to English-speaking schools and graduated from college. These people are upwardly mobile.”

Workers are also excellent at impersonating other cultures. “Call center employees learn accent shifting, and they change their names [to something American],” Nadeem added.

As the podcast Reply All recently showed, Westernization is common for voice services employees. In the episode “Long Distance,” the show’s co-host, Alex Goldman, struck up a conversation with a call center worker in India who, coincidentally, called himself Alex as well and spoke in an affected American accent. The worker’s real name, however, was Kamal.

These examples demonstrate that American customers may never know they’re speaking to an Indian, Filipino, or Latin American answering service employee.

What Should You be Alert to When Choosing a Voice Service?

A moral downside of offshore answering services is the potential for unfair working conditions.

Sometimes, Nadeem said, call centers in India tell clients that they’re more capable than their current labor supply would suggest. “They [compensate by having] employees work very long hours. There’s labor exploitation.”

While the idea is alarming, businesses should note that exploitation is not universal in India.

When evaluating large, offshore answering services, investigate the promises companies make. If services make claims that seem too cheap to be true, those claims may come at the expense of a company’s laborers. Depending on the country, certain exploitative practices are illegal.

On the whole, though, the diversity of offshore providers means that businesses can find suitable voice services providers in countries thousands of miles away.

Voice Services: Diverse Time-Savers

When you use voice services, you create more time for your company’s key activities.

Whether you choose a virtual receptionist in New Hampshire or a call center in Bangalore, India, you allow dedicated professionals to handle your customer relationships. You cut down on the number of leads you lose, and you ensure that the customer-facing side of your business is friendly, responsive, and helpful.

Now that you know the differences between the type and size of voice services providers, revisit the worksheet from the beginning of this post.

choosing voice services provider worksheet

With your own analysis in hand, you’ll be able to make the best voice services choice for your business.

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About the Survey

The survey respondents consisted of 468 individuals who had called a business or medical organization with a question or concern within a month of taking the survey. Just under two-thirds (63%) of respondents were female, while 37% were male. All were from the United States; 40% came from the South, 25% from the Midwest, 18% from the West, and 17% from the Northeast.