Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Which Answering Service Rate Plan is Right For Your Business?

There is a myriad of rate plan choices for consumers who are in the market for answering services, virtual office solutions and call center services. At AnswerFirst we offer most types and can generally match or beat most competitors’ rates. So the question is:

Which is the best rate plan for your company?

When considering the answer to this question it is also wise to consider how valuable your calls are to your business. For most businesses, calls generate new sales leads and provide customer service. For these reasons, it is essential that calls are answered quickly and that callers are treated to an exceptional customer service experience. It is easy to assume that all call centers will answer your calls quickly, but is that really true? Let’s examine the facts.

Contract Length & Upfront Costs: Most answering services will require you sign a contract for service. The length of the contract you are required to sign can be a factor, but perhaps the more important question should be how much money do you have to commit to over the initial contract period? Even in a month to month agreement the upfront costs can still be in excess of $100.00.

Hidden Fees: The consequences of being charged for fees which you were unaware of is something all consumers are aware of. Our clients have 24/7 access to every call recording and detailed activity reports, so how our service is performing and what charges to expect will never be a mystery. Combine this with our upfront pricing and we become the most transparent service in the industry.

Call Plans: Most call plans require the purchase of a pre-packaged bundle of calls. While this type of plan has been used for a long time and can be easy to sell it may not be the right choice for you. The primary selling or buying advantage is the client pays the same thing for every call. If a call lasts longer than the average it can be cost advantageous, however, for shorter duration calls (hang-ups, wrong numbers, solicitor calls, etc.) paying full price can get quite expensive. No call center can stop wrong numbers or calls from solicitors or vendors from ringing into your account, when this happens all the perceived advantages of this type of rate are out the window.

Call Plans are generally sold in “packages” or “blocks” of calls where the more you pre-purchase, the lower the cost per call. While this may sound appealing, it is important to carefully consider the “forecasting” nature of these rate plans. Choosing a 100 call plan and then only using 25 calls is a win for the call center and a loss for you. With these packages calls do not roll over – use them or lose them. Businesses which are very seasonal in nature can have an especially difficult time with these types of rates. For example, a heating & air conditioning company coming into the busy months must choose the size of the package very carefully. Misjudge and you could be paying much more for the service than needed. Most services charge an “overage” fee which is typically at a higher rate than the pre-purchased package amount, so selecting a package that is too small can be just as bad as selecting one that is too big.

Call plans generally require payment for the entire package of calls before the first call is answered. While this is understandable, pre-paying for your calls does not provide the same motivation to the call center. Because they have already been paid for the package the speed of which they answer and ensuring your callers needs have been met may not be the center’s priority.

It is also very wise for the smart shopper to determine exactly what a call is. Is it only for inbound calls, an outbound call, or both? If the caller center e-mails or text messages you, is this a call? What about a fax – is that a call? Knowing the exact definition of a “call” is crucial to understanding a call plan.

Time Billing Packages: Most time billing rates are also sold in packages and again, the primary benefits are the easy to understand rate and the ability to purchase larger packages for discounts.

The same disadvantages of package buying apply to this rate. Clients now must become well versed at call forecastering to avoid paying for unused minutes or increased overage fees. Again, as with any plan you generally have to pay for the block of minutes up front. Again, this can lead to a less than desirable motivational relationship within the call center because they are being paid in advance for work not yet performed. Knowing how the time is calculated (1 second, 15 second, 30 second or even rounding up to the nearest minute) is also a crucial need when making a smart buying decision.

Message Packages: In the beginning call centers offered message rates. Message rates offer the advantage of only having to pay when a message is taken on your account. The rate for each message is generally higher than the rate for a call because simply because all calls do not result in a message being taken. With this rate all the factors which determine how much work is actually performed on the account have to be considered. Out bounds call may need to be made, e-mails or faxes sent and even an escalation protocol for an emergency delivery made need to be followed. No business will intentionally lose money on an account, so this type of rate is the most likely to have the rate increased immediately if the work load does not match the charge for the services or may result in callers being hurried off the phone.
Messages are usually sold in blocks and so the same forecasting issues, paying for unused minutes or overage fees, prepayment and a desirable motivational relationship should all be concerns. It should also be pointed out that a smart call center will configure these accounts so that a message can be taken for almost every call.

Unit Packages: This rate offers to sell you a package of “units”. Again, the primary benefit is the fact these rates appear to be easy to understand – I get so many units for “X” amount of dollars. However consumers must be sure they understand completely the definition of a “unit”. Most of these rate plans will assign a specified time period as a unit – most common being a 15 or 30 second increment of time. When one considers the average length of a typical message is 30-40 seconds, it is easy to see that units rarely align themselves advantageously for the client. For example, if the call lasts 30 seconds or less, you are billed for one unit. If the call last 31 seconds to 60 seconds, you are billed for two units. If the call is a hang-up or doesn’t leave a message, you could be using a unit for a 5 or 10 second call. One should also be sure as to what other events may be considered a unit. When an e-mail or fax is sent, does those each count use a unit? What about text messages or digital pages?

Since these rates are sold as packages, pre-payment each billing cycle is usually required which once again raise the issue of how motivated is my call center. The forecasting aspect with this type rate can also be a concern with paying for unused units. Many of the overage fees for these types of rates can be as high as twice the cost of the pre-purchased units again placing the consumer between a rock and a hard place. Buy too small a package and you could be shocked by overage fees, buy to large a package and end up paying for unused units.

Flat Rates: A flat rate at first glance may seem to offer the most benefits to the client. It is easy to understand – I am going to pay “X” amount and it doesn’t matter how much work is involved – it is an unlimited plan. At AnswerFirst, we realize there is sometimes a need for this type of rate for businesses with very consistent call volume and a very stringent budget. To create a fair flat rate a client’s usage must first be understood. If they do not have current usage statistics we will offer to analyze their pattern over a 12 week period. Once the usage statistics are gathered and analyzed, our staff will provide a cost based on that usage. Should the usage substantially vary the appropriate adjustments will be made.

A large concern with flat rates is an assurance your calls will not be given a no or low priority status. Again, the call center is typically paid in advance with these rates it is important to realize that it doesn’t matter how quickly these calls are answered, or even if they are answered, or if callers are placed on hold for long periods of time, the call center makes the same amount of money. In some cases this rate may actually have a reverse motivational factor – the fewer of these calls the call center answers, the higher their profit margin will be.

If you receive no calls during a given billing cycle, this means you only pay the base rate. You never pay for unused calls or minutes as is the case when committing to a package of calls, minutes or units. There are also never any overage fees. The base rate includes 24/7 access to any of our services and is free of any holiday, weekend or night fees. You may forward your calls at any time and only pay only our regular per minute rates regardless of the day or time. Many disaster preparedness clients choose this rate because they have determined our base rate is a small price to have someone standing by 24/7 in the event of an emergency.

Motivation for how quickly a call center answers calls is also a factor to consider when analyzing rate plans. With our most popular rate, we only make additional money if we ANSWER your calls. If a caller has to wait in a hold queue and gives up, terminating the call, we lose any chance of earning revenue. You can be sure we make answering every call quickly and professionally a priority. After all, your success and growth dictates ours.

Call volume discounts are also available and you do not have to “commit” or pre-pay for a large block of minutes.

We believe this to be the fairest billing method in the marketplace and it’s obvious why this is our most popular rate. You pay the base rate each billing cycle (once every four weeks - 13 times per year) which includes 24 hour access to any of our services, a toll-free number and the finest web interface in the industry. Keep in mind, this is your ONLY commitment to us each billing cycle, we only bill additional if we receive your calls.

That’s it – nothing more. No holiday, weekend or night fees. No fees for forwarding calls outside of specified times. No Operator Gratuity fees or Toll-Free Number fees. No E-Mail, Text Message or Fax, or Summary Report fees.

Contact us today for more information about our call center solutions and answering services.
www.answerfirst.com - Answering Service, Virtual Receptionist, Call Center & Contact Center Solutions

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