Telephone Answering Service

Movie Review: The Bells Are Ringing

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Although I frequently write movie reviews, this is the first to appear in a trade publication. However, given that the setting for this Broadway musical-turned-movie is a telephone answering service, the justification can be easily made.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

In The Bells Are Ringing, Judy Holliday reprises her Tony Award-winning role as Ella Peterson, a telephone answering service operator, in Vincente Minnelli’s musical comedy. Ella can’t keep from eavesdropping on her client’s calls, compulsively going overboard to help them out.

She does this by sharing tidbits of information she hears from other clients. Initially everybody benefits, so her involvement doesn’t cause too much of a problem, but when she goes incognito to meet and help her problem-plagued clients, things begin to go awry.

One of them, playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin), becomes enamored when he actually meets Elle (who adopts a concocted alias), and she falls in love with him.

Unfortunately, Jeffery doesn’t realize who she is, since when she calls him from the answering service, she adopts the voice of an old woman so she can mother him. He buys into the rouse completely by affectionately calling her “Mom.”

Holliday and Martin have great on-screen chemistry, the musical score is superb, and the dancing enjoyable. The production is so delightful that the fact it is a musical (which I generally don’t care for) doesn’t get in the way or detract in the least.

Jean Stapleton (aka “Edith Bunker”) plays the role of Sue, the owner of the answering service, which is cleverly called “Susansaphone.” The answering service has a diverse group of clients, one of which is actually a bookie whose messages are coded to sound like record orders.

Of course, the police, who also suspect Susansaphone of being a front for another age-old profession, isn’t far behind this enterprising crook.

The movie begins and ends with creative and compelling commercials for Susansaphone. Sadly, this was the final film appearance of the talented Judy Holliday before her premature death.

Although released in 1960, the movie still has great appeal to anyone working in the telephone answering service industry – even more so if they used or remember the quintessential cord board.

Learn more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s book, How to Start a Telephone Answering Service.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of TAS Trader, covering the telephone answering service industry. Check out his books How to Start a Telephone Answering Service and Sticky Customer Service.

Telephone Answering Service

Make Your Billing Strategy Work for You

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

There are likely as many billing plans as there are telephone answering services. It seems that everyone has his or her own idea of the right way to bill clients, with each answering service viewing its method as superior. Yet privately, they comprehend its shortcomings.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

In reality, there is no perfect billing philosophy and no single right way to charge clients. Successful billing requires that TAS owners understand their selected rate structure and operate the answering service that enables them to capitalize on their billing structure’s strengths and weaknesses.

Here are some typical TAS billing plans:

Flat Rate

Every client is billed the same fixed rate every month. Though not used much anymore, it was common when client expectations were uniform and call-processing systems were manual.

Advantages: Bills are easy to generate, explain, and understand; all revenue is fixed, and clients know exactly what to expect and can budget accordingly.

Disadvantages: It is not fair – essentially half of the clients are profitable, subsidizing the other half who are not. It also attracts high-volume (unprofitable) accounts while discouraging low-volume (profitable) ones.

Possible abuses: Revenue stays the same regardless if work is done; therefore, there is no direct financial incentive to answer calls.

Strategy: Seek low volume accounts; streamline and automate high volume accounts.

Modified Flat Rate

Each client pays a flat rate, but that rate differs from client to client based on his or her historical usage.

Advantages: There are the same benefits as with flat-rate billing, and the disparity between profitable and unprofitable clients will be largely eliminated.

Disadvantages: Knowing what to bill a new client is hard, it neglects seasonal fluctuations, and you must continually review client traffic for changes in usage.

Possible abuses: The initial rate might be set too high or too low for new clients. Failure to lower rates if usage drops significantly will result in overbilling.

Strategy: Analyze client profitability in each billing cycle by calculating client revenue per minute. Clients with a pattern of low revenue per minute (unprofitable) may need their rate increased or their account streamlined and automated.

Unit Billing

Tracks and bills units of work, such as calls answered and calls made; some services charge an additional unit if a message is taken. There is usually a base rate that includes an allowance of units, with excess units being billed additionally.

Advantages: More work can be tracked and billed; high volume and active accounts pay more.

Disadvantages: Not all units of work require an equal amount of time and effort.

Possible abuses: Performing unnecessary units of work under the guise of being thorough, such as double dispatching.

Strategy: Count every measurable unit of work. Automate time-consuming processes.

Time Billing

The time operators spend working for the client is tracked and billed. As with the unit billing, there is generally a monthly rate that includes a block of time; excess usage is billed separately.

Advantages: Billing will directly reflect the amount of time spent for that client.

Disadvantages: Billing complaints are harder to resolve.

Possible abuses: Talkative operators inflate bills.

Strategy: Provide the client with the services they need, coach operators to be thorough yet efficient, and make sure that all time is tracked and billed.

Tiered Time Billing

Agent time is billed the same way as time billing; any system time or automated activity is also billed but at a lower rate. System time includes non-operator activity, such as automated dispatching, call screening, IVR, voicemail, patching, and conferencing.

Advantages: All of the benefits of minute billing; automated activity also produces income.

Disadvantages: There are more items to track; not all systems provide adequate statistics.

Possible abuses: Same as for time billing.

Strategy: Be sure to track and bill all appropriate time elements.

Other items to be considered for any billing method are ancillary charges (fax, email delivery, and on-call schedules), pass-through charges (local, long-distance, and toll-free costs), or surcharges (holiday fees). Other issues are the length of the billing cycle (monthly versus twenty-eight days), late fees, and discounts for early payment.

Regardless of which method you implement, be sure you know its strengths and weaknesses, follow it ethically, and pursue it strategically. With the right approach, any of these methods can be successful.

Learn more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s book, How to Start a Telephone Answering Service.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of TAS Trader, covering the telephone answering service industry. Check out his books How to Start a Telephone Answering Service and Sticky Customer Service.