You don't need to be told how important it is for your calls to be answered when you're not in the office. Although voice mail and answering machines work well, you might want to consider an answering service as a more personal alternative.
"We're able to provide a personal touch that isn't available with voice mail, and we present a more professional image than a machine," says Marilu Propps, owner of Conrad Executive Services, an answering service in Indianapolis.
Having your phone answered by a live operator projects a caring image and can make your company appear larger than it is. An answering service can also save you time because operators can handle simple tasks, such as providing a mailing address, so you don't need to return those calls. And if you provide the service with the appropriate information, operators can advise callers when you'll be available to return calls and can give individual callers specific messages. It's common for operators to get to know both you and your regular callers, which makes them even more efficient.
Of course, answering services are typically more expensive than voice mail, but proponents claim they're worth it. Propps charges $50 per month for unlimited calls between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Some services charge for each call answered, and rates vary depending on the coverage hours.
When shopping for a service, Propps advises looking for a firm that's been in business long enough to have a verifiable track record. Ask about operator turnover rate; consistency is an important part of their service. Also ask for and check references. Many services offer a free trial period; consider taking advantage of that. Finally, if you sign on with a service, periodically check up on them by calling yourself, and don't hesitate to let the manager know when performance is particularly good or bad.