What Is a Virtual Receptionist, and Do You Need One?

By Numa -

Virtual Receptionist

A virtual receptionist is a type of phone answering service where a real person answers the phone on behalf of your business but doesn’t take up actual space in your building. They work remotely for an agency that specializes in over-the-phone receptionist services. 

It’s like having a front desk receptionist on demand. And virtual receptionists are far more affordable than hiring a new employee. You never have to find something for them to do or train them to deliver better customer service. And with most pricing models, you only pay for a virtual receptionist when you use them.

If your business winds up with a lot of missed calls throughout the day, a virtual receptionist ensures they get answered. But a virtual receptionist has limitations, too. And there are other ways to prevent missed calls. So how do you know if a virtual receptionist is what you need?

In this guide, we’re going to explore:

  • What a virtual receptionist can do

  • The pros and cons of using one

  • How much virtual receptionists cost

  • How they compare to other phone answering services

Let’s start by looking at what a virtual receptionist can handle for your business.

What can a virtual receptionist do?

Every virtual receptionist agency is a little different, so the exact services you can expect will vary. But there are a handful of tasks and processes virtual receptionists will generally be responsible for, and some specialized services that aren’t hard to find.

Answer the phones 24/7

The biggest reason businesses turn to a virtual receptionist service is to answer calls. They don’t clock in or clock out, so you can count on a virtual receptionist to answer calls outside of your business hours. In fact, some businesses use virtual assistants specifically to manage the phones when no one is in the building. You can usually specify the hours you’d like a virtual receptionist to answer calls, so you can bring in backup when you need it.

Since you’re relying on a team of receptionists, you don’t have to worry about people taking a vacation, getting sick, or going on break. Someone is always there, ready to represent your business with professional customer service. Larger virtual receptionist agencies may also have multiple locations, so even power outages and natural disasters won’t disrupt their ability to take your calls.

Most virtual receptionist agencies will use a customized greeting you provide to make sure they represent your business the way you’d like.

Give callers information

Most calls to your business are repetitive requests for information like hours of operation, products or services you offer, availability, or directions to your office. Virtual receptionists follow a script you provide, so they’re always equipped to offer callers the same answers you’d give. 

Ideally, a virtual receptionist agency will request a list of frequently asked questions with your answers, so they’re prepared to serve your business in the most helpful way.

Transfer calls

When callers ask to speak with a specific person or department, or want specialized services an employee needs to provide, a virtual receptionist can transfer calls wherever they need to go. If it makes sense for your business, they may also relay helpful context for the call, such as telling a sales representative what services someone is interested in. This ensures a smooth handoff and sets your employees up for success.

Schedule appointments

Virtual receptionists can often help manage your calendar. If you take appointments with clients or need to schedule services, callers can find a time that works without having to transfer to another employee. Depending on the agency you hire, your virtual receptionist team may be able to use the same scheduling tools you already use, or they may have some specific programs you’ll have to add to your routine.

Manage reservations

For restaurants and other relevant businesses, some virtual receptionists can place reservations, so your servers have one less thing to worry about. This gives your customers the power to call outside of business hours to make their plans, so you don’t have to worry about losing reservations to competitors who keep answering phones when you’re closed.

Take messages

You can’t always answer the phone when someone calls your business—that’s why you’re looking into virtual receptionists. But if you’re busy when a customer needs service only you can provide, a virtual receptionist can take messages and make sure you get them.

You might be thinking, “I have voicemail—why would I need someone to take messages?” If you actually use your voicemail and return people’s calls, that’s understandable. But most people won’t even leave you a voicemail. 

Voicemail simply isn’t a communication channel consumers use. Only one-third of consumers listen to voicemail messages from business contacts. If they don’t recognize the phone number, only 20 percent of consumers listen.

If clients know that a real person is relaying their message, you’ll likely find that you have a lot more callback opportunities.

Send or receive emails and texts

Not all virtual receptionists offer this service, but some are happy to support your business through other communication channels like email or business texting. This enables your virtual receptionist to respond to customer inquiries that come through these channels or even send outbound communications when you need a client to reschedule an appointment, or you have an update to share with them.

Text-based communication is far more efficient than talking over the phone, and texting is actually the channel most consumers prefer to use when they interact with a business, whether they’re booking hair appointments, receiving payment reminders, making travel reservations, coordinating with a vacation rental owner, or communicating about other services.

Use your CRM software

Some virtual receptionist agencies are happy to use your customer relationship management (CRM) software to help you record and track customer interactions. If your business uses a CRM solution, you don’t want a separate system for keeping up with customer calls and messages. And that would be a headache to manually keep them in sync.

Provide bilingual service

If you don’t speak the same language as some of the people who call, you’re losing business, and you’re not serving people who could benefit from what you do. Not all phone answering services are bilingual, and it may or may not come in their standard offerings—so if the demographics you serve require bilingual support, make sure you find a virtual receptionist that can provide it.

The pros of using a virtual receptionist service

If you’re struggling to keep up with phone calls, a virtual receptionist is one of several phone answering services you might want to consider. Before we compare your other options, let’s look at the key advantages of a virtual receptionist.

A real person answers every call

Virtual receptionists don’t just eliminate missed calls. They ensure a professionally trained receptionist picks up the phone every single time, which is good because 90-percent of consumers prefer to talk to a person via voice than a robot or a recording. A human can interpret someone’s tone and have more success understanding the words they say.

While talking on the phone isn’t how most people prefer to communicate, they’d rather talk to a real person when they have to do it.

Onboarding is a breeze

Virtual receptionist agencies are easy to get started with. Obviously, the more you flesh out their script, the more helpful they can be, but you also don’t have to train them in customer service, CRM tools, scheduling programs, transferring calls, or business texting. This is what they do. 

You’re getting a team of experienced customer service professionals, and you don’t have to manage them. You just have to show them how things work at your business and what you’d like them to say.

It can make your business feel more professional

When a receptionist answers the phone, it helps customers feel like you’re equipped to support them. There’s a dedicated person on the phone trying to help each person get what they need. It’s not a cashier trying to navigate the register while uh-huhing their way through the conversation. It’s not the exasperated manager trying to run a business while relaying basic information. It’s one of the receptionists. 

The person who answers your phone sets the tone for every caller’s interaction with your business. Enlisting the help of a virtual receptionist means that tone will be professional every time. 

Quality control is usually easy

The best virtual receptionist agencies want you to listen in on their calls with your customers. Some will encourage you to do so. And that makes it really easy to tell if they’re serving your customers well and representing your business the way you’d like them to. It’s also a good way to identify potential holes in your script. You might find places where an insight or more familiarity with your business could lead to a sale or prevent the need for a transferred call.

These teams of receptionists want to work with you for as long as possible—and they don’t want you turning to one of their competitors—so they’re willing to do what it takes to improve their service.

The cons of using a virtual receptionist service

Having a receptionist on demand sounds pretty nice. And for some businesses, it’s a good strategy to eliminate missed calls. But there are some disadvantages to going with this phone answering service.

Consumers don’t want to have to call you

The biggest disadvantage of using a virtual receptionist is that people don’t want to talk to your business on the phone. Years ago, a study of 6,000 consumers found that 90 percent of them wanted the ability to text businesses. One-third of the surveyed US consumers indicated that texting was the channel they’d prefer to use to interact with a business. More recently, nearly two-thirds of consumers said they’d switch to a business that offered text messaging as a communication channel.

For most people, texting is the default method they use to communicate with friends and family. Talking over the phone takes more time and more work. You have to interpret how someone’s tone colors the words they’re saying, listen intently to understand what’s being communicated, recognize the difference between a conversational pause and a cue to speak, and you have to say the right things at the right time.

People don’t want to do all that work to interact with a business. But they do it because that’s usually the only option—or it feels like the fastest path to the service they need. Instead of teaching callers to keep relying on voice-based communication, maybe it’s worth exploring other solutions. 

Numa prevents missed calls by asking callers if they’d like to start a text conversation instead of leaving a voicemail. Up to 80 percent of your callers may choose to do this. Using conversational AI, Numa answers their questions and provides the service your customers need. See how it works.

Virtual receptionists only know as much as you tell them

With a virtual receptionist service, your script is everything. Every time a customer asks a question they can’t answer, that call gets transferred to you or your team—even when it comes up a second, third, or fourth time. They won’t be able to support customers with unusual requests unless you tell them what to say. The script doesn’t improve unless you improve it.

They may not be local

Virtual reception services are often outsourced to other countries where labor costs less. Some of your callers may find that frustrating. And it is harder to navigate a conversation when you’re not used to someone’s accent. It requires more concentration and takes more patience—which some of your callers may not be willing or able to give.

When a caller’s kids are running around screaming and they’re struggling to articulate a health issue or problem with technology, understanding an accent makes the interaction with your business a lot more difficult than it already is.

In the future, as business texting becomes the default way consumers interact with businesses, outsourcing reception services to other countries will be much less noticeable. But if you’re hiring an agency to answer phones via voice, this may be something to consider.

They have a limited capacity

Virtual receptionists are real people. And that means there’s a limit to what they can do. Agencies are good at gauging how many employees they need to handle their clients based on call volume, but if your entire agency is occupied, they’re occupied. They can only take a finite number of calls at once. 

Most small businesses aren’t going to max out an agency’s capacity, but if you tend to have a lot of missed calls throughout the day, or there are peak times when you have a high volume of calls coming in at once, you may need to pair your virtual receptionist with another phone answering service.

You might need to get a new phone number

Some virtual receptionists let you keep your business number. Some don’t. They make you list a separate business number to route calls to the agency. That’s a problem. It can confuse customers when they’re trying to find the right number to call your business, and if your agency is returning a customer’s call or calling to reschedule an appointment, they may not recognize the number. The last thing you want is your customers to think your business is actually a scam caller from someone pretending to work at your company.

They’re not your voice

A virtual receptionist follows a script to try and sound like you. But while they have the right words, they can’t replicate your tone, personality, and style. You don’t train a virtual receptionist the same way you train an employee. If your customers associate your business with the people they interact with in your store, it can be a bit of a jarring experience when a virtual receptionist picks up the phone. And while it might seem like a minor inconvenience, this is one of the most common reasons businesses switch to another solution.

That, and the fact that with a virtual receptionist, you never know what you're going to wind up paying each month.

How much does a virtual receptionist cost?

There’s a huge range in pricing from one virtual receptionist agency to another. It’s fairly common to see pricing packages start under $50 a month or more than $100 a month. Some start as low as $20 a month, but with a catch—you get zero minutes (or very few) and pay as you go. Ruby, one of the leading virtual receptionist services, starts at $199 a month.

Virtual receptionist packages are usually priced based on the number of minutes or number of calls you need them for each month, and then they may have a pay-as-you-go price for anything you need beyond that. This means you’re either paying for more than you need, or else your costs are unpredictable. If one month happens to have more calls or longer calls, your costs will fluctuate, and it’s out of your control.

A word to the wise: if you’re paying per call, it means your virtual receptionist agency is optimizing their services to drive down call times. They can still offer excellent service, but their goal is to get people off the phone as quickly as possible. And that’s not always what’s best for your callers.

Whatever the pricing model, a virtual receptionist is always going to cost you less than hiring an employee. But every spam call, scammer, and sales pitch counts toward your total. So it’s worth considering the other solutions to your missed call problem.

How does a virtual receptionist compare to other options?

Enlisting the help of a virtual receptionist team will drastically reduce the burden of answering your business phone. But so will other phone answering services. So how do they compare?

Virtual receptionist vs. call center

A call center is like a virtual receptionist agency on steroids. It’s a much bigger team, designed to accommodate much larger businesses. But call centers also tend to offer services you’re less likely to find with a virtual receptionist, such as telemarketing, tech support, and chat services. Call center pricing has a much wider range, and depending on the types of services you select they may charge you at an hourly rate—though the cost for handling inbound calls is still usually per minute or per call.

Virtual receptionist vs. auto attendants

An auto attendant is an automated phone directory. It’s a prerecorded message that gives callers a menu of information to request or transactions to process (such as refilling a prescription or speaking to a pharmacist). This provides a self-service option for callers to handle basic interactions with your business. But it’s also not an ideal experience. When speaking to a business on the phone, consumers prefer to talk to a human.

Pricing-wise, an auto attendants cost about the same as a lot of the starting packages you’ll see for virtual receptionists: somewhere in the realm of $20–$100 per month.

Virtual receptionist vs. front desk receptionist

Hiring a new employee is your most expensive option. But depending on how your business is growing and the challenges you’re facing right now, this may be an investment you simply have to make. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by in-person customers or struggling to manage the flow of clients in and out of your business, a virtual receptionist isn’t going to alleviate that problem.

If you do need to hire a receptionist, and you can’t afford it right now, or you’re waiting for the right candidate to come along, a phone answering service could be a good option 

Virtual receptionist vs. Numa

Numa isn’t like other phone answering services. It’s a business texting platform powered by conversational artificial intelligence. When you can’t answer the phone, Numa picks up, and asks callers if they’d prefer to start a text conversation or leave a voicemail. Some of our customers have found that as much as 80 percent of callers choose to start a text conversation.

The moment that conversation begins, our conversational AI jumps into action and provides callers with the service they need. It can answer questions about your services or availability and link them to where they can schedule appointments or place orders online.

Unlike virtual receptionists, Numa: 

  • Has unlimited capacity and can simultaneously communicate with many customers

  • Allows customers to communicate how they prefer—via text 

  • Isn’t motivated to end calls early or extend them based on pricing structure

  • Charges a flat monthly fee for unlimited service

  • Learns from how you interact with your customers

  • Interacts with customers in your voice

The more you use Numa, the better it gets at serving your customers. 

If someone asks a question Numa doesn’t know the answer to, it flags the conversation in an app, which you and your employees can access via phone, tablet, or computer. Numa remembers your answers and suggests them when similar questions arise. If you save an answer, Numa uses it automatically when the same request comes up in the future.

It’s like if a virtual receptionist transferred a call to you, observed how you assisted the customer, and then suggested ways to improve their script. And Numa does that every time you manually respond to a customer.

Every call gets answered, and the longer you use Numa, the better it gets at saving you time. It’s an ideal standalone phone answering service, but if you do hire a receptionist or work with a virtual team, it also enables them to communicate with your clients in the channel everyone prefers: text.

And it costs you as little as $49.99 a month. 

Schedule your Numa demo today!