What Does Business Want From a Service Bureau?

By Roy Emmett

Every communications service bureau in North America is or should be going through a self-assessment these days. Let’s face it, the typical “Telephone Answering Service” isn’t the prime communication service provider for the small business market that it once was. It’s time to get a grip on who’s buying what from whom, and make sure that you’re on track to capture your market share.

Somewhere around the last few bends in the latest technology, a variety of new communications alternatives for small businesses showed up and became more the norm than the exception. The business world was entering a new era. A new era that might best be described as the era of “communications alternatives.” That new era has spawned both competition and opportunity.

Once upon a time, there was only one concern and just one solution. If you needed your phone answered when you weren’t in – you hired an answering service. By being very efficient and very necessary assistants to a wide range of business categories, the Telephone Answering Service became a fundamental part of the business world.

Along with the multiple options for communications and messaging, businesses have developed individual specialized needs that demand more than just simple solutions. Nothing is cut and dried anymore. Messaging has become more complex and technology has raised the level of communications expectations to new heights. And through it all, the world has become far more accepting of solutions that provide for something other than just a live person on duty to handle telephone communication.

The cost for people has been getting higher and unnecessary for many applications. Then too, automation has become acceptable in many circumstances. In fact, we have come full circle with a decided preference among many business people who favor voicemail, rather than a person, to take and dispatch messages and perform other routine tasks. But as technology began to slowly but surely close the doors on the former era, it opened new ones with fresh services that were drastically changing the way that the world would conduct business. The world was getting a little less personal, even though we were introduced to so many new ways to keep in touch.

So what does the business world want ? Today there’s an incredible desire for personal, custom-tailored solutions and a personalized business relationship for long term follow-up. Actually, that’s what the TAS of the past used to provide! Now, with so much complexity and so many choices for so many services, businesses crave a personal source to help them through the techno-confusion.

Think about it. All the institutions that provide communications services to the mass market, are offering cold, hard, packaged services that leave it up to the consumer to figure everything out and make them work. The only recourse is to call a remote customer service line for assistance, that is now more than likely a call center in the Midwest, not a true company representative! And, most of these mass market institutions are selling individual user services, not organizational programs, networks and specific local solutions for companies as a whole.

Where’s the “Communications Consultant” that can come to the office and sit down with the client and go over the specifics and analyze needs from real life situations? Where’s the first name basis relationship that makes customers feel good about doing business with you well into the future?

What certainly makes sense for us, is to sell the services that people need and want and of course to introduce new ideas to those who would order what was offered if only they knew they were available. What’s needed to make the plan work is our efforts to become known as the local resource for specialized services and then provide the close personal support we promise. That means-“relationship marketing.”

Let’s explore what all we have at our disposal as if we were creating an enormous jigsaw puzzle from an array of giant puzzle pieces. Each puzzle part is a service or an out source solution. All puzzle pieces are potential profit centers. All pieces are relative to what the business world actually wants from a service source, to assist them in their business. Our opportunity then is to sift through all the possible pieces and collect those that will fit our own desired puzzle shape.

What we will end up with, if we exercise creativity and logic, is a picture of a business that will specialize in services that are known to be profitable and that solve concerns for business customers so they will want to respond to what we offer. Each puzzle piece represents a unique segment of your business. Although each is an entity of its own, they will all contribute synergistically to the success of the others.

Here are the primary puzzle pieces we have to choose from, to configure our own special business:

  • Specialized voice processing
  • Operator services
  • Enhanced fax services
  • Paging service
  • Alphanumeric service
  • Long Distance and 800 services
  • PCS services
  • Internet services
  • Consulting services
  • Basic voice messaging
  • Order entry and ad response

Of course you can add more if you choose. There are dozens of profit centers that service bureaus are engaged in that may fit a specific direction, such as pay phones, debit cards, alarm monitoring, website design, fulfillment services, and computer related services. The list of 12 above is the essence of what today’s service bureau can merge together in a concise business to assist the small business market.

I spend a lot of time on the phone with many different service bureaus around the country. In analyzing these conversations, I have come to the conclusion that we have now reached a point where there are two succinctly different industry segments of communications service bureaus vying for the local small business market.

They are both local, privately owned, interconnected, communications service bureaus. One is the TAS Call Center and the other is the fully automated Voice/fax Processing Center. These are the businesses that have essentially replaced the TAS of the past as far as providing out sourced business communications service solutions.

Many of these companies are in fact the direct evolution of the TAS companies of the past but with new puzzle pieces in place, to provide more current service features and greater diversity. The main difference of course is that one is labor intensive and the other is automation intensive.

Voice mail service in most TAS/Call Centers is little more than an ordinary service feature or a basic adjunct to the primary Call Center services. Most TAS/Call Centers are simply not in the business of selling primary business solutions with advanced Voice Processing capabilities. It’s a matter of choice, not limitation.

The new breed of Voice Processing Service Bureau has become in all respects, the primary new service bureau alternative for small businesses. They provide unique enhanced service solutions that fulfill an incredible array of specialized needs that seem to be available from no other communications supplier.

With the availability of 2-way DID service, today’s Voice Processing service bureau can package up just about anything a small business needs for its specialized applications, including access direct to an operator service, by arrangement.

The TAS/Call Center, even though it’s the direct descendent of the TAS, has primarily turned its energies to the emerging needs of direct marketing, catalog requests, customer service, order entry and other highly profitable and specialized services where operators are essential. The TAS businesses that have elected to continue as traditional answering service, are coming under more intense competition from the new Voice Processing Center.

The new stand-alone Voice Processing service bureau is fast becoming today’s small business solutions company. They can twist and turn the basic building blocks of telephone and communications technology into incredible custom tailored applications. And, they offer highly personalized service and hand holding for their customers, to help them implement the new applications.

Some, though not many, TAS companies are also diversifying into state-of-the-art voice/fax processing services. The key to being a contemporary service bureau is to be able to listen and understand the needs of prospects, to be able to develop niche markets based on the solutions you develop for individual businesses.

It requires that you become a proactive Communications Consultant, actively seeking to assist small businesses in finding better ways to operate their businesses, based on what all you can provide with the latest communications technology. It means too that you will be providing what businesses want and need. It means too that you will be providing what businesses want and need. It means that you will be selling services that are not commodities and that you have to be able to spend time with prospects to learn what they need so that you can provide them with precisely the right solutions.

To bring home my point in this article, I submit nine examples of clients who have transitioned from operator service to automation. These are examples that I have heard from service bureaus around the country. They come from both TAS and Voice Processing companies who have successfully made the transitions for existing clients to enhance their service or from new customers who were in need of a change from another service. Price is/was not the issue for the changes.

  • A real estate office with 60 agents left a TAS to go with a voice processing company. The cost for the TAS was running about $450 a month, the voice processing service costs about $800 a month. Prime benefits in the change: private DID voice mail phone numbers for each agent, the ability of the owner to bill back the voice mail to the agents which actually reduced the owner’s share of the bill from $450 to about $50 a month. The office now has a complete, confidential communications network and an after hours name directory to reach anyone at any time.
  • A medical clinic shifted to a voice processing service to provide automated options for appointments, cancellations and requests, prescription refills, confidential messages for doctors, and an internal network. An option to reach the hospital operator for an on-call doctor was connected through 2-way DID service. Monthly bill – $185.
  • An insurance agency switched from live service to voicemail to enable the secretary to transfer callers into the appropriate person’s voice mailbox if they weren’t available, and to allow evening callers to leave a message using the name directory, and have the agent automatically paged to respond promptly. Monthly bill -$135.
  • A property management company uses voice mail for all messaging, especially to provide tenants with emergency connections to vendors such as plumbers and electricians after hours, using 2-way DID. They also use all the other features such as caller transfer. Monthly bill – $250
  • An independent mortgage broker needed a way to receive her faxes when she was away from the office, which was most of the time. By call-forwarding her fax machine to a fax mailbox, her faxes are digitally stored and she can pick them up from any fax machine, saving her numerous trips across town to pick up important information. Monthly bill – $90 – $120.
  • A financial planning firm uses voice mail to allow highly confidential and detailed messages to be left with each planner, information that would never be left with a third party.
  • A travel agency chose voice mail over live service so they could offer special information on a “Travel Hotline.” With busy/call-forward service on the phone lines, callers could leave a message for a prompt callback rather than wait on the line or get a busy signal. After hours callers can select between emergency contact and leaving a routine message. Only the emergency option reaches anon-call person.
  • A radio station dropped its live service to go to voicemail, to give all departments individual messages and to provide an internal communications network for all employees. They also added a special news hotline. Since the station runs a lot on automation, the name directory after hours lets callers reach exactly who they need to reach, and then record a detailed, lengthy message. Monthly bill -$350.
  • A car dealership needed a way to reach any salesperson and any department, to leave messages internally and to be able to have a caller transferred to voice mail if the salesperson wasn’t available. No more message taking for the secretary and no more tracking down anyone. Monthly bill – $400.

I hear these stories every day and some I experience myself. The world of possibilities keeps expanding for the diversified service bureau. The nature of each business’ needs will vary and they can only be effectively resolved when you can sit down and go over the unique aspects of how a particular business operates. This is the job of the new professional Communications Consultant and the essence of the changes that are taking place in the world of the service bureau.

It’s not happening overnight, but it is happening. And the opportunities have never been more ripe for anyone who wants to diversify into a whole new range of services that the business world is looking for.

[From Connection Magazine – May 1998]

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