Many firms - just one receptionist

If you're fed up with automated phone systems, press star now. I'm sorry, you have pressed an incorrect key. If you're fed up with automated phone systems, press star now.

I'm sorry, that is not an option. Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed. And no, you won't be able to speak to a real person, so stop pummeling the zero key.

If this scenario evokes bad memories, you've joined the millions of customers around the world who are having what the automated phone-service industry calls "a negative call-center experience."

The good news is, businesses are acutely aware of the problem and are trying to do something about it. The bad news is that few companies are turning away from the technology, because they are unwilling to pay for a live receptionist - especially one that works in the United States.

But here and there, a few companies are bucking the trend toward automation. By combining technology with a little creativity, they've found ways to maintain a human touch with an American voice.

"Our clients realize that not everything was as expected, so a number of them are bringing their [call-center] operations back to the US," says Esteban Kolsky of Gartner Inc., which provides research on customer-service trends to midsize and multinational corporations in the US.

A cost differential remains, however. An in-house receptionist costs $4.25 per transaction - compared with about $1.80 for an overseas receptionist, according to Gartner research. Comparatively, the same transaction could be handled by a computer for 65 cents or an automated phone system for $1.85.

US companies that prefer - but don't want to pay for - the friendly personable service that in-house receptionists provide can turn to a relatively new option: the "virtual receptionist."

At a fraction of the cost - and without the hassles of dealing with late-to-work employees, vacation time, and benefits, a virtual receptionist company can provide all-day, economical support from a remote location.

"I'm in the retail business, not the management business," says Richard Swartz, owner of Mano Swartz, a luxury fur business in Baltimore.

Selling furs is Mr. Swartz's main priority, and the more time he or his staff spend training or managing a receptionist, the less business he can do.

But Swartz, whose great-grandfather began the company in 1889, had a tradition of excellent service to uphold. So when handling receptionist duties in-house became impractical, he didn't even consider an automated phone system.

Instead, he searched for a receptionist service in the US that would be able to care for his customers as he would. Of the dozen he found, Ruby Receptionists - so named to evoke images of 1950s-era receptionists - won him over. The Portland, Ore., firm now handles his customer-service calls - as well as various administrative tasks.

"They are the genuinely most pleasant people you'll ever meet," he says.

Founded in 2003 to provide businesses with a full range of receptionist services, Ruby's nine receptionists now handle calls for 225 clients across the country.

Each one is trained to take calls for all clients, aided by special software that brings up the appropriate company's full profile with each customer's call.

Ruby receptionists also schedule appointments using Web-based calendars and perform other administrative duties for their clients. Rates are based on the number of minutes a receptionist is on the phone with a client's customers.

But companies like Ruby Receptionists are still rare. The main trend is toward automated services, including voice-recognition software and online chat sessions, both designed to act like a real receptionist.

"We're looking at tricking people into thinking they're talking to someone, when actually we're doing it through the computer," says Gartner's Mr. Kolsky, emphasizing the time and cost savings of such systems.

But some industry observers insist that the value of real receptionists outweighs the added cost.

"It's the human connection that customers want, and that's what's really important to establish trust," says Roz Parry, who's worked for nearly 30 years as a consultant in telephone customer service. "I think the humans are definitely worth the investment."

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