What are Answering Services?

Many companies and organizations have developed a love/hate relationship with their telephone services. Providing telephone access to the public can result in increased sales or effective communication with clients, but it also means the addition of well-trained employees to handle the extra workload. A company may not be able to run 24/7, but the phone company never sleeps. This is where answering services fill a vital niche in business.

Early answering services take calls for employers before work hours.
Early answering services take calls for employers before work hours.

Early answering services focused primarily on taking messages for clients after normal working hours or during vacations. A physician or lawyer might hire answering services to handle emergency calls over the weekend, for example. These answering services providers would receive transferred calls from the client's business line and usually establish their limitations as caretakers. Important calls may be patched through to a contact phone number, but others would be advised to call the client directly upon his or her return to the office.

An answering service may be ideal for businesspeople on vacation who don't want to be interrupted.
An answering service may be ideal for businesspeople on vacation who don't want to be interrupted.

Now that telecommunication services for businesses have become so advanced, the role of answering services has also changed. Companies can now 'farm out' most of their routine incoming calls to professional phone receptionists trained to understand their system. Calls for employment references, for example, can be handled by answering services with access to human resource records. After-hours sales orders can also be taken through a customized computer program with specific catalog information.

Answering services can also help smaller companies appear to be larger. The staff at the answering services company can often be listed as associates of the client's company. Instead of hiring additional sales representatives or receptionists, a smaller company can suggest that callers ask for 'Sheila or Bill' at a pre-arranged toll free number. Customers may never realize that Sheila and Bill actually work for an answering services company. Some answering services companies will even train workers to become active phone sales representatives for their clients.

Answering services vary widely in price and flexibility. A basic phone answering service may only charge a few dollars a month, but phone calls may be fielded by people unfamiliar with the needs of a particular client. Professional answering services can usually customize their plans according to the client's needs. Some paid training sessions may be involved before the assigned workers can take over the phone lines. Higher-end answering services can provide everything from phone messaging to dispatching to phone sales. These service providers advertise heavily in trade magazines and on the internet. Some may charge a substantial set-up fee, while others offer a flat monthly rate for a toll-free number and the services of their employees.

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Discussion Comments

@EdRick - My pediatrician does the same thing, charges for after-hour calls. My other doctors don't do that.

It makes me angry -- but not at the pediatrician. The problem, I think, is that too many parents abused the answering service. They called too often, for problems that were too minor. The on-call doctor then winds up spending the entire weekend on the phone with anxious parents!

Your health insurance company might have a free nurse line that you can use as an alternative for those evenings when you just aren't sure if you need to take baby to the ER or can wait until morning.


In shopping around for a pediatrician for my newborn daughter and my ten-year-old son, I've encountered something unexpected: a charge for calling the answering service! Evidently they have contracted with a nurse answer line and there is a twenty dollar fee for using it after hours.

Is this common these days? My wife's OB (the only other doctor we've seen regularly lately) didn't do that. If she called in the evening or on the weekend, she gave her message to the answering service, they paged the doctor, and she heard back immediately.

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