Is Live Answer Worth the Investment for Businesses?

As the owner of a business where 100% live answer is not possible or cost effective, I do receive my fair share of angry voicemails from people wanting to talk to a human right now. It’s kind of interesting actually. I received this one just recently.

Many would just delete it, as I usually do with rude voicemail tirades. We receive all manner of unbelievably incoherent, garbled and plain crazy voice messages from people.

But as a blunt-spoken no-BS type of person myself, I appreciated this voicemail. I played it proudly for my wife. And I played it for my assistant, “listen, … this is great!” And now I’m blogging about it.

The caller scolds me with the blunt, to the point assertion, “if no one is available you get no sales“.

Listen to it again yourself. It’s perfect! It’s the kind of communication I respect. Clear, concise, to the point. No fluff. I like people who communicate like this.

So, is he right? Am I losing sales?

Of course I am. I just don’t know how many, or if setting up a 24/7 live answer would capture enough lost sales to offset the cost of outsourcing to a live answer call center. To dig into the question a bit more, I’ll go into my call logs for my phone system and dig up some stats, then discuss the pros and cons of live answering services.

Let’s take a look at the past 30 days. Here’s what I have. Below is a call log from the past 30 days. We see 513 calls, 92 outbound and 421 inbound. This doesn’t represent the entirety of calls, because many outbounds/inbounds bypass our main line and are done to and from our cell phone numbers. These numbers below represent just what originates with a call to our business line, or outbound from the desk phones.

It’s the 421 inbound calls, or about 14 per day, that may represent the “lost sales” that my voicemail friend is concerned about.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 3.48.48 PM

Next, let’s look at what happened to those inbound calls. We (me, Sylvia, and Joe) answered almost half of them, or 46.56% of the calls. 176 were missed (hangups) and 49 left a voice message. That’s about 42% missed and about 12% that left a voicemail. Adding the ‘answered’ plus ‘voicemail’, we captured 245 callers, or about 58% of the inbound calls either live or by voicemail.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 3.49.11 PM

But these numbers are deceiving. There are a lot of “duplicates” in the stats. In fact, a single caller can, over the course of 5 minutes, generate several “missed” calls, a voicemail, and an “answered”.

These are those people who hunt their way through the voice menu, hanging up and calling back repeatedly, trying every menu selection until they can reach someone live.

I see this behavior while sitting at my desk on the phone talking with someone. Over the course of 5 minutes I watch the same caller ID number coming through repeatedly, again and again on my desk phone and my cell (my desk phone extension rings out to my cell simultaneously). I don’t put people on hold to answer inbound calls, because I think it’s rude (unless I have an emergency going on and see that it’s my plumber or A/C guy, etc)

So, the “missed” is inflated, but it’s hard to know by exactly how much. My general observation is that it’s a lot, maybe by half if we include the ones who eventually leave voice messages. There are a lot of impatient, neurotic people in the world.

So let’s call it 90 missed calls in 30 days.

Is it fair to assume there could be some lost sales there, out of that 90? Yes, I think that’s fair to assume. There could be buyers, sellers or renters calling around and looking for the first company to answer live. And I’m missing that call. So why not have a live answer?

I generally don’t like answering services. I have had a live answering service over the years, for the reasons we are exploring. I don’t currently because I’ve never liked the customer-facing experience myself. I can always tell when I’ve reached the “answering service” versus the real people.

You can hear the chatter of other operators in the back ground, the tic/tac tapping of the keyboard as the answering rep reads a scripted set of questions. My typical first question is “is this the answering service?“. When they say “yes”, I say “I’ll try back later” and hang up. I think a lot of people are like me. I don’t want to be questioned by a drone. I’d rather just leave a voicemail than speak with someone who knows nothing.

So, the real question for me, as a business owner, becomes “is it better to have a substandard live answer experience, or missed calls?”

The 3 missed calls per day would instead become “messages” instead of hangups. It would cost me about $400 per month to have 24/7 live answer, or about $4.44 per message taken by the answering service if we do the rough math.

If even just two messages turn into a sales listing or a buyer sale, it would pay for the $4,800/yr in answering service costs. And it’s reasonable to think there might be more than just 2 missed sales per year, so maybe the answering service would in fact pay for itself, plus some.

But would it provide a better customer experience for those trying to reach us by phone?

I’m not convinced it would. I care more about that than I do the lost sales. It’s hard to set up an answering system to function as anything other than an “either/or” setup.

In other words, we can leave it as-is and only the “missed” calls go to the answering service, but that’s an additional 2-4 rings on top of the already 2-4 rings the caller has waited. Many will hang up anyway at ring 5 or 6.

So why not send 100% of calls straight to the answering service 24/7?

Because I like answering directly, myself.

It impresses prospective clients when they call in and reach me or Sylvia or Joe live. Remember, the calls are ringing out to our cells same time as the desk phones ring, and we do actually answer almost half of the total volume. I think that’s pretty good actually. Then we can start talking and answering questions right away. They have the real person!

I don’t want a know-nothing functionary in between me and my prospective clients, making the first impression. I’d rather have it be one of us team members, or the voicemail – for better or worse.

I could be wrong about this, and I second guess myself about these things a lot, but as it stands today, I’d rather we answer as many live calls as possible, offer voicemail to those we miss, and let the hang-up callers bypass us if it’s that important to them to find a Realtor with a 100% answer setup.

But I do appreciate my grumpy caller leaving that voicemail to remind me that this question should be revisited from time to time.

7 thoughts on “Is Live Answer Worth the Investment for Businesses?”

  1. Thanks Steve, this is a very timely post, as I am struggling with this exact issue. Not with our brokerage business (in which we do answer the phone most of the time between 9 and 6), but with my house flipping business.

    None of the solutions for receiving incoming house flipping leads are ideal, because:

    1. Live answer, though theoretically the best, can be challenging because you don’t know what mood or perspective the house owner is going to be calling in, and it takes a trained individual to properly understand how to speak to the lead. I can’t have the right trained person who knows what questions to be asked on payroll and ready during business hours to take this call.

    2. Straight-to-voicemail – I did this for years, but became convinced that a number of particularly older callers would feel that our business was a sideline, and would hang up. Younger people may be okay with this, but I think it’s important for older people to speak with someone, even if it’s not a direct employee of ours.

    3. Answering Service – last year we signed up with PAT LIVE, an answering service out of Florida that specializes with real estate. They are good; speak clear American English, and you can’t hear other agents in the background or the clic clac of keyboards. However, even though I wrote the script for them, it definitely is scripted, and I’m sure people know immediately they’re going to an answering service.

    It comes down to this though, and I think this is an important factor for your business too – are the buyers serious people who respect and understand that the best professionals are also busy and serious people who cannot answer every phone call? Or are they people just look for a warm body to do their bidding in real estate? If they just need someone who they think has low skills and needs to be available 24/7 for their unexpected phone calls, are they going to respect you enough to hire you in the first place and if they DO, are you going to want to work with someone who has so little respect for your time and skills?

    I am still not sure that the answering service option is IDEAL, but I figure that at least we have provided a live person to answer their call to show that we are an actual organization and not just a $9/mo voice mailbox. If they truly are motivated to sell us their house, they’re going to (maybe sigh a bit first), but give the necessary information, knowing that we will be calling them back.

    Imperfect, but the least imperfect situation I can offer at this point that doesn’t impact my sanity (like having to answer every call).

    • Hi Robert,

      Great analysis. You should have written the article as your comment is better than the article itself!

      I have now in fact set up a 24/7 answer as an option for just our leasing line. Not having one caused me a 1-star Yelp review because the people were so impatient they couldn’t wait for the soonest slot on our online calendar.

      It’s a Catch-22. Many younger people LOVE our online showing calendar specifically because they *don’t have to speak to anyone* to book a showing, and they can pick the time. Yet if they have a question or odd circumstance they want to discuss, they previously had no clear direction on how to reach a “live” person.

      Many of the lead capture tool that Realtors use such as FollowUpBoss are designed to engage leads literally within a minute as so many “phone shop” for the first answer that it’s important to return the call or email “within 60 seconds”. I just don’t buy into that. It may be true, but I can’t live my life that way or run my business like that.

    • There are several pros & cons for virtual assistants, and all of them you should carefully consider before deciding to adopt a plan of action. Outsourcing to a VA can profoundly change organizational culture – this is not a strategy to take lightly.

  2. I love the way your caller says, “If no one is available, you get no sales.” It is really interesting that you took this call and decided to do the to find out if he is right about this. As a consumer, I have to side with the caller. If a company is too busy to answer my calls, I get frustrated easily and stop doing business with them. For example, I once tried to call the number on a vending machine after it stole my money, but there was no response. If that company would have had some sort of answering service, I wouldn’t have felt as bad as I did. Now, I’ll never give them my money again.

  3. I suspect there is a demographics factor as well. As a “millennial”, I detest the phone, and think your chosen approach and rational are perfect. I’d much rather leave a voicemail than have an awkward interaction with a clueless call center operator.

    I wonder if the caller in your post, and some other commenters that disagree here, are older than me and have more of an affinity for the phone.

    The only suggestion I’d have to improve your current system for younger buyers is to add text messaging to your contact methods, and try to respond quickly to incoming messages with something like: “Busy now; I can call you around 1PM. Ok?”

  4. I love that you shared the VM.
    First and foremost, always try to answer the phone is my motto. Most people will stop their searching with the first reasonable they talk to and NOT keep going through their google search results for more.
    I’ve always been worried about a outsourced service that answers calls too.

    But I would ask a question, when you call the doctor’s office, do you expect to talk with the doctor?

    It seems to me that you are most worried about the quality. Can’t you solve that with training and hiring well?

  5. Great post. I have wrestled with this also with my house buying business. I have tried both live services and voicemails. I myself don’t like the call center feel when I call a business. But it is typical when you initially call a company that you are not going to speak to the person you are trying to reach at first contact. You will reach an assistant that will screen the call or an automated line that will direct you to the appropiate person. My conclusion as of now is answer the phone as much as possible and personalize your voicemail box where it invites your caller to leave a message. Real estate is such a personal and relationship business, people are calling to talk to you or someone as knowledgeable as you.

    Keep in mind you are not going to get them all.


Leave a Comment