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The Best Answering Services of 2021

Adam Uzialko
, Staff
| Updated
Sep 30, 2021

Our teams have compared the best answering services for 2021. See up-to-date reviews and prices for these top-rated services.
Best Overall
Specialty Answering Service
Eight pricing plans
Second-to-second billing
14-day free trial
Best for Small Business
Six pricing plans
6-second incremental billing
14-day free trial
Best for Budget
16 pricing plans
Second-to-second billing
Optional add-ons
Best Customizable
BPO American
Six pricing plans
No setup fee
Free trial and instant activation
Our teams have compared the best answering services for 2021. See up-to-date reviews and prices for these top-rated services.
Updated 09/30/21

This page has been updated to include news about a ransomware attack targeting European call centers and answering services, as well as information about cybersecurity threats facing businesses in 2021.

Finding an answering service that can treat incoming calls from your customers with respect and professionalism is of the utmost importance. After all, an answering service is an extension of your company – it represents your brand, and customers will glean a lot about your company from their interactions with the service. We researched and examined more than 50 services, and considered a number of factors, including cost, the types of features offered and the customer service provided by the service.

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How We Decided
Our team spends weeks evaluating dozens of business solutions to identify the best options. To stay current, our research is regularly updated.

Compare Our Best Picks

  Specialty Answering Service PATLive PCMSI BPO American
Pricing Starts at $31 per month Starts at $39 per month Starts at $67 per month Starts at $29 per month
Billing increment


6-second increments Second-to-second Second-to-second
Free Trial 14-day free trial 14-day free trial No Three-day trial and instant activation
Charged for agent work time No No No  Yes

Our Reviews

Specialty Answering Service: Best Overall

SAS' flexible pricing plans include ancillary services like appointment setting and bilingual support.
As a client of SAS, you are only billed for the time agents spend on the phone with your customers.
There is a one-time $50 setup fee that must be paid prior to activation.

Specialty Answering Service (SAS) is our pick as the best overall answering service. It offers inbound and outbound call center services and several flexible pricing plans, making it a scalable service that can accommodate the needs of your growing company. All calls are answered in the company's California-based contact center.

March 2021: SAS has increased pricing for its plans since our previous review. The rates are now as follows:

  • Economy: $34 per month ($1.29 per minute of overage)
  • 100 Minute: $128 per month ($1.19 per minute of overage)
  • 220 Minute: $219 per month ($1.19 per minute of overage)
  • 500 Minute: $539 per month ($1.09 per minute of overage)
  • 1,000 Minute: $999 per month ($1.05 per minute of overage)
  • 2,500 Minute: $2,400 per month (99 cents per minute of overage)
  • 5,000 Minute: $4,599 per month (99 cents per minute of overage)
  • 10,000 Minute: $8,599 per month (89 cents per minute of overage)

These rates remain reasonably competitive with other answering services in our review. SAS still offers one of the more flexible pricing packages in our review as well.

SAS provides around-the-clock live operator answering and advanced functions like appointment scheduling. Bilingual support is also available.

Here's more about the key features SAS offers businesses:

  • Live answering: SAS' operators answer your business's phone calls 24/7/365. Agents use a client-provided script, which you can customize at any time.

  • Message taking: Agents can take down caller names, their contact info, reason for calling, and then forward the message to your business via phone, text, or email.

  • Order taking: If your business needs some extra help facilitating orders, SAS' agents can assist your customers with e-commerce purchases. Agents can enter and confirm payment information, and can upsell and cross-sell products to your business's customers.

  • Lead capture: For inbound calls, agents can capture lead information and details about where the caller is in the buying journey, which can help your business follow up on potential new sales opportunities.

  • Appointment scheduling: If your business needs help scheduling appointments, SAS agents can set new appointments, which appear in a shared calendar. Each time a new appointment is scheduled, you are notified. All appointments can be viewed in real time on the shared calendar.

  • Bilingual support: SAS agents can assist English and Spanish-speaking callers.

SAS has eight pricing plans designed to suit the budgets of small and large businesses. Its rates are competitive for its high-volume packages and somewhat more expensive for its lower-volume plans (but are not cost prohibitive). It offers a pay-as-you-go plan for low-volume businesses. A 14-day, no-obligation free trial is available for businesses to try before making a buying decision.

SAS' pricing plans are as follows:

  • Plan A: $31 per month base fee, plus $1.19 per minute

  • Plan B: $117 per month for 100 minutes, plus a $1.09 per-minute overage

  • Plan C: $199 per month for 220 minutes, plus a $1.09 per-minute overage

  • Plan D: $490 per month for 500 minutes, in addition to a 99 cents-per-minute overage

  • Plan E: $925 for 1,000 minutes, plus a 95 cents-per-minute overage

  • Plan F: $2,200 for 2,500 minutes, plus an 89 cents-per-minute overage

  • Plan G: $4,199 for 5,000 minutes, in addition to a 85 cents-per-minute overage

  • Plan H: $7,749 for 10,000 minutes, plus a 79 cents-per-minute overage

Service is month-to-month. (No long-term contracts are required.) Clients can change plans on a monthly basis if they expect a spike or dip in call volume. There is a $50 setup fee; however, SAS typically waives the fee if you become a client following the 14-day free trial.

SAS bills in 1-second increments, meaning that clients are only charged for the time that is used. Many call centers and answering services round up to 6-or 12-second increments, and some round up further. SAS does not round up time and only bills for the time that its agents are engaged with callers.


PATLive: Best for Small Business

PATLive has a 14-day, no-obligation free trial
You're billed only for the time that PATLive agents are connected on your behalf.
The per-minute usage rates are relatively expensive.

PATLive is our pick as the best answering service for small businesses. The company, based in Tallahassee, Florida, works with clients to tailor its services to meet their unique needs. PATLive has a client portal on its website through which customers can view their billing details and call volume.

PATLive offers all the key features we look for in an answering service, plus, as a client, you have the ability (and flexibility) to customize your script through the client portal.

Here's more about PATLive's features:

  • Live answering: PATLive agents are available to answer phone calls on clients' behalf around the clock or during your company's regular business hours, using a custom script provided by the client.

  • Message taking: PATLive agents can take messages for clients when follow-up is required. Messages can be forwarded to you via email or text notifications.

  • Order processing: PATLive agents can provide full order processing duties, including verifying a customer's order, validating the payment method and confirming payment info with your customers.

  • Lead capture: PATLive agents can capture caller names, their contact info, and more, which you can then use to import into your CRM or to create marketing lists.

  • Client portal: The online client portal displays data about your account, such as the number of incoming calls, average call duration and the result of each call. Clients can also change their preferred payment method and customize the script that agents use when answering calls for your business.

PATLive offers a full-featured, 14-day free trial. Clients aren't charged extra for transfer time or agent work time; rather, clients are billed only for the time that PATLive agents are on the phone and engaged with callers. Features and services vary based on the subscription plan you choose. PATLive's pricing plans are as follows:

  • Basic: This plan costs $39 per month plus a rate of $1.95 per minute for one phone number.

  • Starter: This plan costs $149 per month and includes 75 minutes. Starter plan features include one phone number, 24/7 live answering, real-time call summaries, online reporting, message taking, lead collection and call transfers. Overage fees are $1.50 per minute.

  • Standard: This option costs $269 per month and includes 200 minutes. The Standard plan includes all the features the Starter plan has, plus three phone numbers, appointment scheduling, order processing and event registrations, to name a few features. Overage fees are $1.25 per minute.

  • Premium: This plan costs $399 per month and includes 350 minutes. It comes with all the features included in the Standard plan, plus five phone numbers. Overage fees are $1.10 per minute.

  • Pro: PATLive charges $629 per month; this plan comes with 600 minutes and includes all the features found in the Premium plan, plus 10 phone numbers, a dedicated account manager, specialized agent training and monthly performance calls. Overage fees are $1.00 per minute.

  • Pro+: The Pro+ plan is $999 per month and includes 1,000 minutes. This plan offers all the features from the Pro subscription plan, plus 15 phone numbers. Overage fees are 95 cents per minute.

You can see PATLive's pricing in detail here. Its per-minute usage rates were among the highest of the answering services we evaluated, ranging from nearly $1 per minute (with its plan that offers the highest number of live answer minutes) to nearly $2 per minute for its plan with the lowest number of minutes. The average cost we ascertained, based on the answering services we evaluated, ranged from approximately 80 cents per minute to $1 per minute. All of PATLive plans are billed month-to-month, and there is no penalty for canceling.

PATLive bills only for the time its agents spend talking on the phone with your customers. It does not charge for post-call work. After the first minute of each call, PATLive bills in 6-second increments. So, for example, a 1-minute and 6-second call would appear on your bill as "1.1 minutes." Billing in 6-second increments is a common practice in the industry; several other services we evaluated bill in this manner, too.


PCMSI: Best for Budget

PCMSI's flexible pricing is suitable for businesses of all sizes and with varying call volumes.
Some of its plans had the lowest per-minute rates of the services we evaluated.
Some of the optional add-ons available for an extra fee come standard with other services.

PCMSI is our pick as the best low-cost answering service because of its low-volume plans and incredibly low per-minute rates. With several tiered plans that range from 60 minutes to 4,000 minutes per month and rates as low as 55 cents per minute, PCMSI is an exceptionally cost-effective solution. PCMSI agents handle all calls through the company's office in Erie, Pennsylvania.

The company offers several types of services for businesses, including:

  • Live answering: PCMSI agents are available 24/7/365 to answer phones on clients' behalf, using a script developed by the client in cooperation with the PCMSI account manager. If you need to make a change to the script agents use, you'll work with your PCMSI account manager to implement those changes.

  • Call transfers: Agents can transfer calls directly to you or to specified staff members, connecting customers directly with you without placing them on hold.

  • Appointment scheduling: PCMSI agents can schedule appointments that can be viewed in real time by those who have access to the master calendar. When new appointments are set, you and your staff are notified via email or text message.

  • Order taking: Agents can take orders from your customers and provide detailed product information and customer service.

  • Lead capture: With each call, agents capture the names and contact information of leads for later use. Agents can also follow up on captured leads.

  • Help desk: PCMSI offers a Level 1 help desk service that offers basic technical support for products and software. If an issue requires technical assistance, PCMSI agents can dispatch calls directly to your company's IT departments.

PCMSI offers four service tiers. Its Business and Enterprise plans offer some of the lowest rates among the answering services we evaluated. The Enterprise plan of 4,000 minutes per month has a rate of just over 55 cents per minute, and the midtier plan is an affordable option for businesses on a budget. Overage fees for each plan are 75 cents per minute, which was on the low end compared to other answering services we evaluated.

Starter Plans:

  • $67 per month, which includes 60 minutes
  • $99 per month, which comes with 120 minutes
  • $154 per month, which includes 240 minutes
  • $219 per month, which includes 360 minutes

Professional Plans:

  • $285 per month, which includes 480 minutes
  • $355 per month, which includes 600 minutes
  • $425 per month, which includes 720 minutes
  • $515 per month, which comes with 900 minutes

Business Plans:

  • $570 per month, which covers 1,020 minutes
  • $700 per month, which includes 1,260 minutes
  • $825 per month, which includes 1,500 minutes
  • $1,100 per month, which includes 2,000 minutes

Enterprise Plans:

  • $1,375 per month, which includes 2,500 minutes
  • $1,650 per month, which covers 3,000 minutes
  • $1,925 per month, which comes with 3,500 minutes
  • $2,200 per month, which includes 4,000 minutes


There is an additional fee if you want the following services:

  • Pre-operator announcement: $10 per month

  • Voicemail: $20 per month

  • Patching: 10 cents per minute

  • Appointment setting: $40 per month for a PCMSI online calendar

  • Additional phone lines: $10 per month, per number

  • Secure text message: $6 per month (HIPAA-compliant accounts)

  • Faxing messages: $10 per month

  • Email management: 75 cents per email

PCMSI bills in 1-second increments, which means there is no rounding up in terms of minutes used. If a call lasts for 1 minute and 5 seconds, you are billed for 65 seconds. The industry standard is to bill in 6-second increments. PCMSI stands out in this regard. It also does not charge for post-call work time, meaning that you only pay for the time agents are on the phone with callers.

There is a one-time setup fee of $35, which was low compared to the setup fees charged by other answering services we assessed. You'll need to remit a deposit for the first and last month of service. After that, you are billed each month for your plan and any overage fees incurred. All calls are recorded and stored.


BPO American: Best Customizable

You can immediately begin using this answering service with BPO America's instant activation option.
You are not charged a setup fee.
Features such as live web chat are not included in the monthly subscription.

BPO American is our pick as the best customizable answering service. It offers both answering services and call center services. (The primary difference between both types of services is that answering services are a specialized version of call center services, geared specifically toward small offices, unique businesses and niche industries.) BPO American has six different pricing plans for various call volumes and can develop custom packages for clients with specific needs.

BPO American offers an easy-to-use instant activation service, with an online tool that automatically builds a script based on your responses to a few questions. You can immediately get up and running with the instant activation option, which allows for basic answering services. You can add other common services like appointment setting, live web chat and order taking. All calls are answered by BPO American agents in the company's South Carolina-based call center. It offers a three-day, full-featured free trial following instant activation.

  • Live answering: BPO American offers 24/7/365 live answering by agents who work off scripts generated based on details you provide. Agents can answer basic questions, capture caller information, transfer calls and take messages for your business.

  • Order taking: BPO American agents can help callers navigate e-commerce platforms and create new orders.

  • Transfers: Live transfers can be set up so that agents can directly transfer a call to the relevant party if a caller needs to speak to a member of your organization.

  • Lead capture: BPO American allows you to set five custom questions its agents can ask callers in order to obtain lead information. You can always change these questions (and other details) in the client portal.

  • Appointment setting: You can add appointment setting to your answering services so agents can automatically schedule appointments on a digital calendar and alert you when a new appointment has been set.

  • Email response: BPO American offers email management services and can respond to email inquiries as well as phone calls.

  • Web chat: BPO American can implement a live chat feature on your company website so customers can ask questions and receive a timely response.

BPO American has six service plans, starting at $29 per month and topping out at $369 per month. There is no setup fee, and all plans run month-to-month with no penalty for canceling.

Here's more about the price structure of BPO American's answering service plans:

  • Plan A: This plan costs $29 per month and includes 25 minutes with text message delivery, email delivery, transfers. The overage rate is $1.09 per minute.

  • Plan B: For $89 per month, you get 75 minutes and all the features of Plan A, plus online reporting. The overage rate is 95 cents per minute.

  • Plan C: This package costs $109 per month and comes with 100 minutes. It includes all the features in Plan B; the overage rate is 90 cents per minute.

  • Plan D: For $139 per month, you get 125 minutes and all the features of Plan C. The overage rate for this plan is 85 cents per minute.

  • Plan E: This package costs $229 per month and includes 250 minutes and all the features of Plan D. The overage rate drops down to 80 cents per minute.

  • Plan F: For  $369 per month, you get 425 minutes, plus all the features of Plan E. The overage rate for this plan is 75 cents per minute.

BPO American offers custom packages as well. Contact a sales representative to discuss your options and to get a custom price quote. BPO American offers a three-day, no-credit-card-required free trial with 75 minutes included.


Answering Service Costs

Pricing varies. Most services charge by the minute or charge a monthly subscription. Some employ long-term contracts, but this is uncommon. Whichever model you choose – by the minute or monthly subscription – depends on your business's call volume, the features you need and how long you intend to work with a service. 

It's important that the answering service understand your business so that its agents are armed with extensive knowledge about your company so they can assist your customers. Answering services are highly personalized; it requires time for agents to learn your business inside and out. Some answering services charge a setup fee, while others build it into their rates. 

Answering services may charge various other fees and upcharges. When you call for price quotes, ask about additional fees (such as for setting up your account) as well as any recurring and incidental fees (such as overages or holiday rates) that you may be charged. Before selecting a service, pore over the company's contract to ensure you're aware of all possible fees.

Buying Guide

Answering Service Features

Answering services advertise many different features, but there are some that are considered "core" features. (Most of the answering services we evaluated provide these "core" features.) As you do your research, you'll likely encounter these terms. Below is a brief definition of these core features.

As you do your own research, we recommend that you consider which of the features below are most important to you, which ones are nice to have, and which features aren't necessary before you request proposals from companies.

  • Live answering: When most people think of an answering service, they think of live answering, which is when an agent picks up incoming calls and interacts with customers on a client's behalf. Agents often act as if they are employees of the business they are answering calls for. Basic live answering services consist of greeting the customers, requesting the caller's info, and then forwarding the caller's name and message to you, the answering service client. Other services, though, may answer customers' questions or assist customers with certain tasks.

  • Message taking: Commonly included in even the most basic services, message taking is when agents record the caller's name and info, and forward it to one or more points of contact you've provided for your business.

  • Call transfers: Many answering services can transfer calls to a client-provided point of contact when needed, whether the caller requests a transfer or the agent simply cannot assist the caller further.

  • Customer support: Some services can answer your customers' questions and field complaints from callers, acting as an outsourced type of customer support.

  • Order taking: Some answering services help customers place e-commerce orders by walking them through your business's online store, capturing payment information and even sometimes processing the order completely. Some agents can upsell or cross-sell products or services to consumers.

  • Appointment setting: If you need help with setting up and managing appointments, some answering services can do that for you using a shared calendar. When an agent sets an appointment with a caller, you're notified automatically via the calendar, email, text or all three.

  • Email and text notifications: Answering services will notify you of new calls, messages and other updates via email or text message.

  • Live webchat: Through the service, you can implement and manage a live chat channel on your website, which gives customers another way to interact with your business.

  • Client portal: Some answering services maintain client portals that include account information, the ability to run reports, and customization options, such as changing the call script or adding new features.

Types of Answering Services

Answering services can help your business in a number of ways. For some small businesses, for example, an automated answering service, known as an auto attendant, might be sufficient to direct callers to the right person in your company. For other businesses, a live operator might be needed, because it's imperative that your callers reach a human who can answer their questions then and there. Here's a short explanation about the features offered by answering services:

  • Automated answering service: Automated answering services include features like an interactive voice response tree, which directs callers to the person they are trying to reach. Auto attendants tend to be simple, but they're designed to quickly and efficiently direct callers to the right individual or department.

  • Live answering service: A more advanced service, live operators answer calls and represent your brand. Your customers will not know they are speaking to an answering service – they will think they are speaking with an employee of your company.

  • After-hours answering service: Many companies employ answering services to handle after-hours or overflow calls only. When your business is open or call volumes remain manageable, your callers can reach your company directly. But if you receive an influx of calls, with the touch of a button, you can activate your answering service to capture overflow calls. Answering services can also be at the ready when your business is closed to ensure that callers' questions or concerns are handled with care and professionalism.

  • 24-hour answering service: With this option, the answering service essentially becomes your remote receptionist for every call. A 24-hour answering service can be a great solution to free up internal resources and ensure your callers receive timely, helpful customer service.

Many services offer all of the options described above. If you aren't sure how or even if an answering service will work for you, we suggest that you partner with one under a limited agreement. For example, you could just work with an answering service to answer overflow calls at first. If you are pleased with the initial results and think transitioning to 24-hour live answering could benefit your business, most companies will happily upgrade your plan.

Frequently Asked Questions

When selecting an answering service, it's important to ask the right questions. There are a few industry policies that are somewhat complicated. If you're not aware of these policies, it can significantly inflate the cost of the service, so it's critical to learn the details of a company's policies before making a purchasing decision.

The following questions will help you identify an answering service that's a good match for your business and won't try to gouge you with surprise fees and costs.

How do answering services work?

Typically, there's an intake or onboarding period, during which the answering works with you to capture crucial information about your business. As part of this process, many services will work with you to create a guideline or script for its agents to use when speaking with your callers. These guidelines and scripts can often be updated through an online web portal. Following the onboarding process, the answering service will then begin handling calls in the way you specified.

Some answering services make real-time reports available through a client portal so you can monitor billing, the number of calls coming in, how quickly they are being answered and how long they typically last. Others offer an end-of-month report only. A good answering service will be transparent into how your calls are being managed by their agents.

Who needs an answering service?

Any business that is overwhelmed by its current call volume, is missing late night calls or is hindered by declining customer satisfaction could benefit from an answering service. Agents are trained in customer service and can deliver exceptional support to your callers. The two main goals of hiring an answering service are, one, to free up your internal staff so they can focus on operations, and, two,  increase customer satisfaction.

What types of businesses do answering services help?

Answering services can work with virtually any type of business, but they are especially common in niche areas. For example, attorneys commonly rely on answering services to help manage client communications with care. In the healthcare industry, medical answering services are frequently used, because they comply with the strict security standards set by laws like HIPAA and the HITECH Act. However, you don't need to be in one of these industries to use an answering service.

What Can an Answering Service Do for Your Business?

An answering service offers several features for your company, which includes call screening and recording messages. These services also help companies manage clients during times when call volume is high, such as over the holidays. Having an answering service ensures clients' calls are received and answered in a timely manner.

Why Should I Outsource My Customer Service to a Call Center Service?

There are a few major reasons why you should consider outsourcing your customer service to a call center or answering service:

  • Call centers and answering services excel at customer service. A good answering service offers agents who are trained in customer service interactions and resolving calls to customer satisfaction. Many small businesses don't have this expertise in house, so outsourcing to an answering service is a great way to add a layer of professionalism to your business where it matters most – where your customers interact with your company.

  • Answering services free up internal resources. When the phones are no longer ringing off the hook, you and your staff can focus your attention on day-to-day operations. Outsourcing your phone lines to an answering service or call center (as well as your email and social media management) goes a long way to giving you back the time you need to get more done for your business.

  • Answering services make tracking easy. Most answering services offer reporting tools and access to call recording archives that give you better insight into who is calling your business most and for what purposes. This data can be useful in devising more targeted marketing campaigns or simplifying aspects of your business that cause customers significant confusion. Those insights might not be available if you simply answer calls in house.

What should you look for in an answering service?

You want an answering service with agents who understand the ins and outs of your business. Make sure it offers an online database where you can check and analyze call history with ease. Also, a service that can cater to non-English speakers makes your customer service accessible to more clients.

You also want to find the pricing structure that works best for your company's budget. For example, would per-minute or per-call billing be cheaper for your business? See if the company charges for agent work time, which is any time agents spend working on your account when they are not on the phone with customers.

Also consider in your budget whether the company rounds up to increments and, if so, what they are. For example, a call center that charges second by second will only charge for the actual time an agent spends on the phone; one that rounds up to the nearest six-second increment will round a call that lasts 1 minute and 1 second up to 1 minute and 6 seconds on your bill. Six-second increments are the industry standard, but some call centers round up time to the nearest minute, which could significantly inflate your call center costs.

What is a virtual receptionist?

A virtual receptionist manages a business's appointment schedule, fields client calls, helps customers find who and what they need, and takes down messages and leads. A virtual receptionist is just like an in-house receptionist in that they help connect customers to the appropriate department or employee. Most call centers and answering services offer a virtual receptionist who can carry out these tasks as if they were a member of your staff, making your callers feel they are communicating directly with your business.

What is an auto-attendant phone system?

An auto-attendant phone system is also called a digital receptionist or interactive voice response (IVR) menu. It offers a voice menu system without the need of a live operator. Like an answering machine, an auto attendant helps you navigate callers' messages. Callers can be transferred to the extension they want by dialing in the digit the IVR provides for it. Auto attendants tend to be more cost-effective than shared agents, automating the customer service process to route the call to the appropriate person at your company.

What Is the Difference Between a Phone Answering Service and a Virtual Receptionist Service?

Virtual receptionists and answering services are closely related, and often through the same vendors. The main difference is scale and capabilities. A virtual receptionist answers calls on your company's behalf, takes messages and forwards calls.

Answering services do the same thing, but generally have a higher capacity and offer some more sophisticated functions, such as order management. They can also generally handle after-hours or overflow calls, which a virtual receptionist service might not include.

Ultimately, while these services are similar, there are some differences that might make an answering service more appropriate for a scaling business. However, some companies define the terms "virtual receptionist" and "answering service" differently; always get an explanation in writing of what a company expects its responsibilities to be in terms of each service. Always secure in writing the details of exactly what you are paying for each month when working with an answering service or virtual receptionist.

Questions You Should Ask the Answering Service

Can I see a breakdown of the monthly price?

Answering services commonly charge setup fees, plus fees for additional services. We recommend that you obtain a proposal that includes a complete breakdown of the price, letting you see exactly what goes into the total bill. And, if possible, request a breakdown of a typical month's pricing as well, as the first month often includes deposits and setup fees.

Are there any contracts or monthly minimums?

Most of the answering services we evaluated base their billing on month-to-month subscriptions and can be easily canceled. Some, however, require a contract or monthly minimum. It's important to know upfront if there is a mandatory contract, or if you are required to provide advance notice to the answering service before canceling. Read the proposal closely for the cancellation terms.

What billing increment do you use?

The billing increment should be a major consideration when searching for an answering service. The billing increment determines how much the answering service rounds up per-minute usage, and it can significantly impact your monthly bill.

Some answering services bill second by second; the industry standard is to bill in 6-second increments. This means a call lasting 1 minute and 1 second would be billed as a 1-minute and 6-second phone call, appearing on the bill as "1.1 minutes." Some of the services we evaluated bill in 12-second increments, and the service with the highest billing increment rounded up to the nearest minute.

Be sure you understand the billing increment before signing up with a service, because they can make a seemingly affordable service expensive in reality.

Does this answering service bill in a 28-day cycle?

Another common pitfall businesses run into with answering services concerns the 28-day cycle. When a service bills in a 28-day cycle, you have less time to use your minutes. Moreover, it adds a 13th billing period to the year, so, essentially, you pay for an extra month. Taken together with billing increments, 28-day billing cycles can increase your costs.

Can I access on-demand reports?

Many answering services offer client portals where you can review your account usage, run reports, and update the script that agents use when answering the phone on your company's behalf. These portals are useful windows into how an answering service is managing your account, not to mention a nice tool to have if you'd like to update how they answer the phones and interact with your customers. Most client portals include an on-demand reporting function that allows you to run detailed reports, granting you additional insights into who is calling and why. Finding out a portal's reporting capabilities and the types of reports they provide could make your buying decision more clear cut.

How much should you expect to pay for an answering service?

Answering services generally charge a per-minute rate that typically ranges from $0.70 to $1.20 per minute. For these rates, answering services provide phone answering and message taking services. They will also use a script or guidelines to better represent your brand to callers. Bear in mind that more than just the per-minute rate can influence the total cost, as some answering services round up time on the phone or charge additional fees. Some also bill for "agent work time." This is when an agent is servicing your account, but not on a call.

How should an answering service receptionist answer the phone?

When answering on your company's behalf, an answering service receptionist should act as an extension of your brand. Callers shouldn't know that you are using an answering service. Receptionists should be professional and speak slowly and clearly throughout the conversation. They should take messages, including contact information and brief notes on what the call is about. An answering service receptionist should not go off script unless they have explicit permission to do so.

Answering Service Trends to Watch in 2021

After a year that saw the frequency of "difficult" customer calls increase by over 100%, experts predict a bounce-back 2021 for the answering services industry, which will find itself in higher demand among businesses unequipped to handle unprecedented numbers of frustrated customers.

Answering services in 2021 will employ the recent advancements in cloud computing and AI to better serve customers. Over 85% of future customer service interactions will occur without the customer speaking to a live agent, and the rapid implementation of AI algorithms into these answering services has accelerated that timeline. Expect to see answering services promote their AI functionality as a chief selling point rather than an afterthought, especially with reduced staffs. Some of these improvements will come as chatbots are better able to integrate with your website. The number of integrations and their ease of use will be a key differentiator between options.

Although many of these services will expand further into automated messaging, their ability to handle live customer calls will remain the primary emphasis. Over the last year, according to a Zendesk report, 81% of customers used the phone to speak with customer service, and 76% preferred to speak to a live person over the phone when they had complicated requests. Limits on personal interaction will increase the importance of empathetic agents in the coming months. Look for companies to proactively promote the qualifications and experience of their representatives, and be prepared to assign higher value to these factors than in previous years. 

June 2021: Grandview Research recently released market report projects that the contact center industry will grow at a staggering rate of 21.1% worldwide through 2028. In 2020, the industry was valued at $20.5 billion, but analysts estimate it will reach more than $90.6 billion in value by 2028.

The growth is driven largely by increased adoption of contact centers by businesses, as well as an expansion of services to include an omnichannel approach across phone, email, text message, and live chat. The report names some of the top companies in the space, including notable names like Amazon Web Services, Five9, Cisco Systems, Talkdesk, Twilio, and 8x8.

August 2021: Consolidation in the answering service industry continued largely unabated through 2021. This consolidation of a rather crowded industry has been an ongoing trend for years, especially in the medical and healthcare space. For example, in July 2021, MAP Communications acquired Stericycle, a medical-focused answering service dedicated to serving healthcare organizations. Mergers and acquisitions throughout the industry mean the narrowing competitive field and standardization of rates and services could potentially benefit small businesses. And, as a crowded space, there remain hundreds of answering services out there to choose from. In 2021 and beyond, expect consolidation to continue, but in a way that benefits entrepreneurs in need of an answering service.

January 2021: Market research from Orion Market Reports suggests that mass adoption of artificial intelligence in the call center and answering service industries will speed up in the coming years. The market analyst estimates that AI solutions will be worth $2.8 billion in call centers by 2024, up from just $800 million in 2019.

The growth is likely to be driven by the proliferation of AI chatbots for live chat services. In addition, AI is expected to play a key role in the gathering and contextualizing of business intelligence, which will be used to inform brands about the customer experience and their customers' motivators. For small businesses, call centers could be a way to leverage AI technology without the upfront expense of implementing a platform.

Community Expert Insight

As part of our research, we reached out to readers for their input about which answering services they use.

Ollie Smith, the CEO of Card Accounts, uses RingCentral. "I like the fact that you can add specific features such as additional users, the fact that it integrates well with over 100 external apps, and its affordable price of just $20 per month," Smith told  

Bruce Moss, of the Law Offices of Bruce A. Moss, is a family law solo practitioner who has used Answer Connect for more than three years. He said he has received positive comments from his clients about how nice his receptionist is.

"They answer 24/7/365," Moss said. "They patch all calls to me directly. If I am unavailable, I receive a text message and an email with the message. I have rarely had any problems with them."

Our Methodology

For this year's update, we began our research by compiling an extensive list of vendors in the answering service and call center industry. We gathered these vendors from our existing database and by searching the web, reading reviews, and contacting active companies.

Next, we analyzed each company's website, comparing prices and features. From there, we narrowed our list down to a dozen finalists. We then contacted each service to learn more details about the onboarding process, the services offered and pricing, and to obtain a proposal from the company.

With the proposal in hand, we examined the policies of each company and looked to see whether there were any hidden fees or charges. We also contacted each of our dozen finalists to evaluate the quality of its customer service.

In determining our recommendations, we strived to pick companies that offer the best balance of affordability, useful features and first-rate customer service.

What to Expect in 2021

In 2021, the answering service industry will likely see continued growth after several consecutive years of expansion. Market research released in 2020 suggests the global call center and answering service industry will grow to nearly $500 billion by 2027. That projected growth rate was recently revised upward after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many businesses to shift to remote employment and customer service, many outsourcing to call centers and answering services in the process.

That trend should continue into 2021, as businesses of all sizes will still be dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and its eventual aftermath. Remote work will remain the norm for at least part of the year, so many companies have turned to answering services to handle incoming customer calls.

Many answering services have seen significantly increased demand as businesses transition to a fully remote work environment amidst the pandemic. For answering services, this means finding at-home employees who are prepared to make or receive customer service calls. According to a story in The New York Times, many answering services and call centers are hiring people with disabilities to fill their vacant positions. The at-home agent will likely become a more prominent part of answering services' business models in the future. The impact of that trend on the industry and its clients remains to be seen.

Automation will continue to play a role, but won't replace answering services

As in years past, automation will play a major role in customer service at all stages of a small business's growth. In fact, researchers at Ameyo predicted four years ago that 85% of all customer service interactions would be automated in 2020, especially with the rise of artificial intelligence supporting automation of the simplest tasks. While automation has grown to be a major part of today's customer service equation, Gary Pudles, CEO of AnswerNet, says call-answering services will remain integral.

"Artificial intelligence doesn't really understand how to make inferences based on a large number of answers … it can't pull information out of contextual speech," Pudles said. "Answering services are actually able to. [These services] are able to operate side by side with technological advancement."

To put that into perspective, Pudles added that "as technology continues to increase, answering services will continue to be the place where the human lives."

While many answering services offer phone trees and interactive voice response (think "press 1 for sales, press 2 for technical support," etc.), do not overlook person-to-person service's importance in customer satisfaction and loyalty. Consumers will still interact with chatbots and other AI going forward, but you should always give them the option to speak with a live person when the bot doesn't answer the question.

Omnichannel communications will grow in importance

Today's average consumer communicates in multiple ways on a daily basis, such as telephone calls, video chat, SMS and any of the various social media platforms. According to data from Microsoft, as of 2017, 66% of consumers had used at least three different communication channels to contact customer service. A 2018 survey by Forrester found that 33% of customers have contacted a company using Facebook and similar social channels.

That diversification of communication methods will continue to spill over into customer service methods, with answering services likely to address the trend in 2021 and the coming years.

Data portals will be easily accessible

Another anticipated change for the answering service industry is the more widespread introduction of data portals that will let users access call data on a whim. Over the course of the year, more services will probably offer a centralized online location where companies that outsource their call-answering needs to a third-party service will be able to log in and find data on each call. In some cases, those users can even listen to the interaction and extract data to use for follow-up.

April 2021: Recent market research published by projects the value of artificial intelligence (AI) used by answering services and call centers will grow from $930 million in value in 2020 to more than $3.1 billion by 2030. Adoption of AI solutions for answering services and call centers, already a trend well underway, accelerated in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As AI solutions improve in sophistication, offering benefits like reduced overhead for answering centers, an improved customer experience, more responsive chatbots, and improved data analytics, more answering services and call centers are expected to integrate them into their existing systems.

September 2021: A ransomware attack targeting Covisian, a major Spanish call center company (along with its Latin American subsidiary GSS), impacted dozens of major businesses in multiple countries when it froze the customer service provider’s IT systems. Major businesses, from the City of Madrid’s water supply service to Vodafone Spain, saw their customer service capabilities disappear in a moment, leaving them without answers for their own customers.

This cyberattack is an example of how important cybersecurity is not only for your own business, but for businesses you work closely with. Since businesses share access to systems and important information, data breaches, ransomware attacks, and other forms of malicious activity threaten more than just the target of the attack. Ensuring your business and those you work with are protected is critical because cyberattacks can have a big impact on your bottom line. According to the annual IBM Cost of Data Breach Report, the cost of a data breach increased 10% in 2021 over the previous year to an average of $4.24 million per incident. 

Unique challenges posed by organizations with significant remote workers compounded this increase. The cost of data breaches for businesses with more than 50% remote workers is nearly $5 million on average per breach. It also took IT teams nearly a month longer to respond to breaches when most employees worked remotely. Developing a cybersecurity strategy and incident response plan is important for all businesses, especially those that transitioned to a remote-work environment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

May 2021: Speech analytics is a particular type of machine learning making its way into contact centers, including answering services. Speech analytics tools allow contact centers to monitor the voice patterns of customers when they call in and determine their satisfaction rating based on the analysis. Businesses can use this data to improve customer service by identifying pain points for callers and training employees on specific issues and best practices.

Contact centers anticipate the implementation of speech analysis to begin identifying keywords. For example, if a high volume of calls complaining about faulty products comes in, companies could use speech analysis tools to identify the issue and proactively announce a recall. Speech analysis could also be used as a form of biometric security to prevent fraud.

Adam Uzialko Staff
Adam Uzialko is a writer and editor at and Business News Daily. He has 7 years of professional experience with a focus on small businesses and startups. He has covered topics including digital marketing, SEO, business communications, and public policy. He has also written about emerging technologies and their intersection with business, including artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and blockchain.

Other Services Considered

With 22 locations across the U.S., XACT is a flexible answering service and call center with a variety of pricing plans and services suitable for businesses of all sizes. It offers both shared and dedicated agents. Available services include live operator answering, message taking, order taking and appointment setting. XACT also provides call center services, including those for customer service, help desks, appointment reminders, hotlines, email management and web chat.
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