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Telephone Answering Service

How Well Do You Work from Home?

Empower Employees to Excel Regardless of Where Their Office Is

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

We are now approaching one year since many businesses sent employees home to work. Though some staff have returned to the office, either all the time or on select days, many workers continue to toil from their homes. Some have set up fully functional workspaces, while others persist with cobbled together solutions that mostly work, most of the time. These workers—or the company that employs them—persist in this mode, hoping to return to their office accoutrements any day. Until this occurs, their customers suffer through less-than-satisfactory outcomes.

When businesses first decided to, or were forced to, send workers home, many sent out Covid-19 response emails to their customers and stakeholders. These were both unhelpful and repetitive, providing little useful information. The essential message was for us to lower our expectations because their employees were working from their homes.

One email I received, however, delighted me. This company said their employees had always worked from their homes, so I could expect the same high quality of service and responsiveness I’d always enjoyed. As far as they were concerned, it was business as usual.

This business-as-usual message should have come from every organization, whether accomplished at having home-based employees or pursuing working from home as a new initiative. Yet I still hear companies apologize for their poor service and delayed responses because their staff struggles with the limitations of their home-based offices. 

On the onset of this development to send staff home, I offered tolerance for a week, even a month, as employees adjusted their perspectives and equipped their offices to provide full-functional support in all they did. Yet for them to remain mired in this mindset eleven months later is unacceptable.

Although some jobs require face-to-face interaction, most work occurs at a distance using the telephone, email, and video. Office location shouldn’t matter. And it certainly shouldn’t be an issue after all this time.

Though we hope that employees who once worked in an office will soon be able to return, the wise approach is to proceed as if this might never happen. 

If you’re working from home, look at your office configuration. Is there anything you can’t do or can’t do as well from home as you could in your office? What do you need to do to correct that? Don’t let the limitations of your home-based office affect your staff or clients any longer.

And if you have employees working from home, are they fully functional or partially provisioned? What do you need to do to close that gap? What must you do to ensure their location isn’t an issue?

It shouldn’t matter to your stakeholders where you work from. They deserve the same quality of service and responsiveness whether you’re at home or in the office.

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.

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Telephone Answering Service

Rethinking Remote Operators

What Was Once Optional Is Now Required

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

The potential to have remote operators work off-site from the main answering service location goes back to the 1990s, when I made a presentation about this topic at the ATSI convention. I covered the two key aspects of having a distributed workforce. One was the technology to make it happen and the other was managing a dispersed staff.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

The technology aspect of remote work was, at best, convoluted, not nearly as stable as being on site, and it involved a great deal of planning. It required having a data connection and an audio connection. Both had to work well to answer calls. Technology has changed much since then, with remote access being as simple and as flexible as a good internet connection.

The management concerns, however, remain unchanged. It’s still challenging to manage and supervise remotely located employees. Yes, we now have more tools to tap into to do this, but the human difficulties of managing someone we can’t see is still fraught with problems.

Given the risks associated with not having staff conveniently working in one place has caused many answering service owners and managers to dismiss remote operators as an option. In other cases, the inability to find and retain a local workforce has driven other answering services to embrace remote operators as a requirement.

Until recently, most who have pursued off premise employees have done so out of necessity, not principle. This has changed.

With lockdowns, restrictions, and limitations placed on most people across the United States and around the world, allowing staff to work from home has become the only way for them to answer client calls. For many it was go remote or go out of business.

Some who have gone down this path have celebrated the flexibility and embraced it as a new business model, perhaps one even superior to what it replaced: a centralized answering service operation. Other industry leaders, however, look at remote operators as a necessary solution that they one day hope to retreat from. They long for the days of walking into their operation room and seeing all their staff in one place, busy working.

Though returning to a centralized operation may one day be possible, we must consider that we may never be able to fully revert to this traditional operational model. We should, therefore, learn to embrace having remote operators for the long-term, whether it’s our preference or our only option.

And even if this current crisis abates to where we can again safely gather in an office, with cubicles not quite six feet apart and staff unable to wear masks, history could repeat itself with another pandemic forcing us to send people home to work.

Though having remote operators was once optional, it’s now a necessity, both for the short-term and for future flexibility.

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.

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Telephone Answering Service

The TAS Industry Helps People Communicate

Move beyond a Mindset of Answering Calls to Facilitating Interactions

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

This year has been a challenging one no matter how we look at it. Our status quo as an industry—to whatever degree we ever had a status quo—has been shaken. Everything seems to have changed. Our response has been as it always has been, to adapt, to adjust, and to accelerate into a new tomorrow.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

To do this, we re-examined our staffing, from hiring to training, from scheduling to supervising. We’ve sent people home to work, whether for the short-term or for the conceivable future. And we fine-tuned our sales and marketing efforts to redefine success in an unfamiliar environment where all the rules have changed. Coupled with this, of course, is morphing how we must manage our answering service and our staff in a way that’s consistent with these new ways of doing business.

It’s also an appropriate time to look at the why of telephone answering service.

It’s easy to think of ourselves as being in business to answer telephone calls for our clients. Though true, it’s also a limited perspective. A more insightful view is to think of ourselves as being in business to help people communicate. This may use the telephone, or it may tap other communication channels. Don’t lose sight of this. 

People today communicate through email, text messaging, and social media. They also increasingly visit websites to solve problems, place orders, and safely and securely connect. None of these involve the telephone, which is an essential and predominant channel in our industry and much of what we do.

Yet when we reimagine ourselves as facilitating interaction instead of just answering calls, we open a door to new possibilities. We then become a telephone answering service that processes emails, handles text messaging, and monitors social media for our clients. We’re connected to their websites for text chat and assisted browsing opportunities. And, yes, we also answer the telephone.

This is our future, and our future is here.

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.

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Telephone Answering Service

A Lifetime of Industry Related Writing

Article Repository Consolidates Industry Resources  

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

I published my first article in 1982. It was about pagers. Remember them? 

It was also the hardest piece I’ve ever written, but it set me on a journey for a lifetime of writing. Over the years I authored a couple thousand articles, some of which have been forever lost, but most are still available online. And I’ve written even more blog posts. That’s millions of words.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

I write a lot about the telephone answering service and call center industries. Each year I publish twelve columns for TAS Trader and another six each for Connections Magazine, AnswerStat, and Medical Call Center News. That’s thirty new pieces of industry related content each year, with over 500 in total. 

You can go to the respective publication websites to read these articles, but now they’re all compiled into one convenient repository at peterdehaanpublishing.com/peter-lyle-dehaan-articles for easy access. Please bookmark this page for future reference.

The articles are also grouped by category. This allows you to quickly drill down to your area of interest: answering service, call center, and healthcare call center. They are also cross indexed by specific topics. There are 100 articles about telephone answering service, 200 addressing the call center industry, and nearly 200 covering healthcare call centers. In addition, I have posted 130 business related articles and over 600 about writing and publishing

Now, for the first time ever, these are accessible for you at one location. Altogether I’ve posted more than 1,400 articles that I’ve written over the years.

In addition to them being online, I will compile and update the best, most relevant articles for upcoming books. With a dozen book title ideas in mind, I’m already working on the first one. The working title is Customer Service Success Stories. I’ll let you know when it’s available. 

My next title will cover the telephone answering service industry. I think I’ll call it The Best of TAS Trader. I can’t wait to share it with you.

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.

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Telephone Answering Service

Streamlining Your Answering Service, Summary

Roundup of Articles on Fine-tuning Your TAS Processes

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Over the past several months we have addressed several ways to optimize your telephone answering service and help position you to increase your efficacy and enhance the service you provide to clients. 

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Here’s a recap:

1. Optimize Your Sales

How long does it take your staff to respond to a sales inquiry? Now make it faster.

2. Optimize Client Onboarding

Once a client signs up for service, how long does it take you to set up their account and begin answering calls? Do they find this acceptable or frustrating?

3. Optimize Customer Service

How long does it take you to acknowledge and correct a customer service issue? Do you ever lose clients because of it?

4. Optimize Agent Hiring

Do you measure your hiring process in terms of weeks, days, or hours? How often do you lose a promising employee because you didn’t react quickly enough?

5. Optimize Operational Processes

What does your policies and procedures manual look like in your answering service? If you don’t have a manual, how’s that working for you?

6. Optimize Agent Training

What steps can you do to make your agent training more efficient and more effective?

7. Optimize Billing

How many steps are involved in producing invoices? How much time do you take between billing cut off and sending invoices? The longer it takes, the more you hamper cash flow.

8. Optimize Collections

What is your average days payable (also known as days payable outstanding)? Seek to collect more of what’s owed to you faster.

9. Optimize Accounts Payable

How quickly do you turn around invoices? Seek to pay faster to win your vendor’s appreciation and build a buffer for times of tight cash flow.

10. Optimize Tech Support

Is the technical aspect of running your answering service a strength or weakness? Regardless of your answer, look for ways to make tech support better.

11. Optimize Admin

When it comes to overhead effectiveness, look for what you can eliminate, delegate, or streamline. Make sure everything you do counts.

Pick the item on this list that deserves the most attention and will produce the biggest positive change for your answering service. Then pursue it. Once you have one item done, pick another one to work on. Work through this list until you have streamlined your entire answering service.

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.

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Telephone Answering Service

Streamlining Accounts Payable

Discover Why You May Not Want to Follow Conventional Wisdom for Payables

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

The standard business advice when it comes to accounts payable is to delay payment as long as possible, even beyond the stated due date—assuming you can get away with it. This benefits cash flow, making more money available for day-to-day operations.

This may be shrewd business, but it’s not good business. 

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Although lengthening payables may make sense from a money standpoint, it may not be the best overall strategy. Here’s why:

Build A Buffer

A business that mails payables at the 30-day mark or pushes payments beyond that, say perhaps to 45 days, has no cushion when cash flow gets tight and there’s not enough money in their account to pay all the invoices that are one month old. 

A business that pays invoices quickly, perhaps in one week, benefits by establishing a buffer for those times when they can’t pay as quickly. After all, what vendor would care—or even notice—if they received your payment in ten days as opposed to the usual seven? Having a policy of paying invoices quickly whenever possible, builds a buffer for those times when remitting payment suffers a bit of a delay.

Act Ethically

Some businesses readily agree to their vendors’ terms of service, such as net 30, knowing they have no intention of ever following through. Yes, they will pay, but it will happen when they want to and not according to the agreement they committed to with their vendors. This is not an ethical policy. Stop doing it.

Reduce Needless Interruptions

When a business pays invoices late, even by a couple days, they receive collection calls. Each call about a late or missed payment is an interruption to the person receiving the call. Now multiply this by every vendor you work with. That’s a lot of employee time spent dealing with an avoidable problem, and it diverts them from work that’s more important and more profitable.

Become A Preferred Customer

Whenever I have a special promotion who do I contact first? It’s those who pay their bills quickly, followed by those who pay within 30 days. I never consider customers who pay late and cause me extra time chasing down the payments that they committed to make. In short, becoming a preferred customer has rewards, while those who pay late end up on a different list.

Summary

Of all my optimize articles, this may be the least acceptable. I get that. But consider your accounts payable policy and how that affects your vendors and your staff. Granted, you can’t immediately go from paying in 45 days to paying the day the invoice arrives. But you can move in that direction. First, take steps to make sure all vendors are paid within the timeframe they expect and that you agreed to.

Next, consider incrementally shortening your payables cycle one day at a time. Keep working on it until you can pay every invoice quickly. The ultimate accounts payable streamlining will occur when you can pay every invoice on the day it arrives. Your vendors will appreciate it, and your staff will respect you for it.

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.

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Telephone Answering Service

Streamline Technology in Your Answering Service

Don’t Overlook the Technical Support Component of Optimizing Your TAS

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

In our final article on streamlining your telephone answering service, we’ll look at the technical side of things. For many services, the technology that runs it remains the least favorite aspect of the business. It’s necessary, but it’s not enjoyed.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

By streamlining the technical aspects, answering services can remove some of the pain and uncertainty of maintaining a platform and its supporting components.

Hosted Solutions

The easiest way to streamline the technical aspects of running your answering service is to outsource it. Tap a hosted services provider to supply your technology needs from a distance. Not only does this give you added flexibility for remote agent stations, it also moves the tech-support aspect from your purview to theirs.

Backup Power

Making provisions to power your equipment during a power loss is essential for premise-based systems, but it’s also important for cloud-based solutions since some gear remains on site. Most backup power solutions will automatically switch over if utility power becomes unreliable. Resist the temptation to save a little bit of money with a manual transfer switch.

Automated Backups

You backup your database and hope you will never need it, but when you do, it better be current. Manually backing up information is not only time-consuming, but it’s also prone to human error and oversight. Of course, for hosted solutions, your vendor will manage all your backups for you.

Shared Responsibility

Too often the technical aspects of running an answering service fall to one person. This becomes a week area should that lone individual be unavailable. Therefore, have multiple people oversee this important responsibility. Don’t leave it on the shoulders of one person.

Clear Procedures

Document all technical processes in clear step-by-step instructions so that anyone on your staff can follow them. Be sure to post this information where your staff will need it, not filed away where it’s hard to find.

Service Agreements

Foregoing vendor service agreements and managing your technology in-house is one potential way to save money. But allowing your vendor to do this for you will likely save time and minimize service interruptions. Make sure your staff knows how to contact vendors and when to do so. Again, for cloud-based solutions tech-support is part of the package.

Action Plan

Take steps to streamline the technology that runs your answering service and the tech-support behind it. Doing so will minimize any anxiety you may feel over keeping your service up and running. 

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.

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Telephone Answering Service

Streamline Your Answering Service Administration

Streamline Your Answering Service Administration

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

In past issues, we looked at streamlining various aspects of telephone answering services: sales, client onboarding, and customer service, agent hiring and training, billing and collections, and processes and procedures. Now we turn our attention to upper management: the admin function.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Every role in every business carries a bit of fluff, some more than others. This includes upper management, also known as administration. Here are three areas to look at when it comes to streamlining your answering service’s admin function:

1. What Can You Eliminate?

What admin tasks fall short in producing a tangible benefit for your service? These include activities that once held value but no longer do, as well as work that never did contribute to overall business success. Especially scrutinize projects which are done because they’re enjoyable, and duties pursued because they seem essential. Analyze each one.

Ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen if no one did this chore? If the answer is nothing or if there’s a risk of investing in an inconsequential amount of time at some point in the future, then cut that activity.

2. What Can You Streamline?

Of the remaining tasks, consider how to make each one of them more efficient. This includes removing steps that don’t significantly contribute to the outcome, as well as cutting the number of people involved in the project. Each resource removed from the undertaking will serve to make it easier to do and less time-consuming. This frees up energy and staff for other activities of greater importance.

3. What Can You Delegate?

For those items that past the first screen—the ones considered essential to your service’s profitability, viability, or effectiveness— and are appropriately streamlined, consider who should handle them. You may not be the right person for the job. It could be you’re overqualified to manage it, that your time is too valuable to devote to it, or that someone else is better suited to the task.

Look to delegate what you can. This will not only lighten your load, but it will also empower people on your team. Most will jump at a chance to oversee a higher-level responsibility at your answering service. And if someone claims they’re too busy to do your delegated assignment, challenge them to look at what existing tasks they can eliminate or delegate to others.

Act Now

To realize the benefits of streamlining admin functions requires a bit of effort to get there. If you think you’re too busy to do this, you’ve just confirmed how essential this optimization project is.

Start with doing a time study of everything you do for at least a week. Yes, it’s a hassle, but the information is invaluable. And, as a bonus, many people who keep a time log find it automatically makes them more efficient because they don’t want to document their inefficiencies or poor time investments.

Summary

Once you determine how you spend your time, ask how important each task is to your answering service’s overall well-being. Look to cut non-essential work. Then streamline what remains. And last, delegate what you can.

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.

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Telephone Answering Service

Moving Toward a New Normal for Telephone Answering Services

We Should Assume We’ll Never Return to Business as Usual

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

As the telephone answering service industry responded to an unexpected, pandemic-induced spike in call traffic coupled with some workers reluctant to come to the office, changes occurred out of necessity.

Many services looked to address this two-pronged threat by pursuing a work-at-home model, either as their first test of remote workers or as a fuller embrace of the concept.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

This increased focus on remote staff is not likely a temporary solution until things return to normal. Instead, we should view it as a new normal. Even when a reprieve from the coronavirus crisis happens, many predict a second wave to occur—possibly this fall—which could be even more intense. And a few wonder if we’ll see a seasonal reoccurrence each year.

Here are the key things to consider in your plans:

Technical Logistics

The first step in allowing staff to work from home is the technical aspect of getting them connected. This starts with a stable internet connection and adequate computer resources in each home. Consider the glitches and challenges that occurred when doing this. Address them now instead of waiting for the next wave to hit.

Remote Management

Last month I gave tips on managing a distributed workforce. Look at what went well and what could’ve gone better. Work to fix the aspects that didn’t go so well.

HR and Legal Considerations

Aside from the technical and management issues are the human resources considerations and legal aspects of having a staff work from home, even from another state. Update your employee handbook and procedural manuals to reflect this. Review your insurance coverage to make sure it addresses a distributed, home-based workforce. Consult with a labor attorney in your state to make sure you have the needed protection and adequate recourses in the event an off-site employee goes rogue.

Platform

If you have a premise-based system, consider moving to the cloud. This will best facilitate remote staff and provide maximum flexibility. In addition, an off-premise solution removes equipment from your building, which brings up the next point.

Facility

As staff moves off-site, you require less space in your building. And if everyone works from home, you no longer need a physical office. If you lease this means you can scale back or cut your rent. If you own the building, you can either sell it or lease unused space to other businesses.

Sales and Marketing

Consider how much of your sales and marketing occurs online versus how much results from in-person meetings. Going forward expect that more local prospects will want to avoid physical interaction with your sales team. Strive to reach the point where all sales and marketing efforts occur from a distance.

Business Support Functions

Though much of the work-at-home focus so far has been on answering service operators, explore how you can extend that concept to non-operational staff. What if everyone had to work from home? Could you pull it off?

Stay Connected

As you send more of your staff home to work, consider what steps you can take to stay connected with each other, and engaged in work. What can you do to counter feelings of isolation? Seek creative ways to maintain morale, effectiveness, and efficiency when physical, in-person interaction doesn’t exist or must be minimized. Consider conference calls, video meetings, and online interaction opportunities—both formal and informal.

Conclusion

Though it’s possible we will soon return to normal, making these preparations unnecessary, it’s an unlikely outcome. Instead, plan for the worst and hope for the best.

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.

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Telephone Answering Service

Tips to Manage a Remote Workforce

With More Reasons to Have Operators Work at Home Comes the Need to Better Oversee Them

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Around the world, many jurisdictions have enacted stay-at-home mandates to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Other areas are pursuing a “stay home, stay safe” recommendation. This scenario hits answering services doubly hard.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan-remote workforce

First, as clients respond by revamping their business models, they turn to their answering service for additional help, giving them more work and expecting a wider scope of outcomes. But as answering services strive to take more calls, they may struggle to do so with reduced staffing levels. 

The solution is allowing answering service operators to work from home. For some services, this may be a new consideration, while for others they may now pursue remote staff with more diligence. Few answering services have a 100 percent home-based staff. Yet at this time everyone can see the benefits of working from home.

Here are some tips for successfully managing a distributed workforce, such as when most everyone works from home.

Develop a Remote Perspective

Broadcasting a message to all staff that “there are donuts in the break room” sends a strong message to off-site staff that they don’t matter—or you forgot about them, which you probably did. In all your interactions, put your remote staff first. Figure out ways to effectively communicate with off-site employees. Everything that works for remote staff, will work for local staff too. 

Put All Communications Online

Convert physical bulletin boards to virtual bulletin boards. Move from physical inboxes to electronic inboxes. This may be an email, or it may be something else. 

Put all necessary paperwork online, making it equally and as easily accessible for all staff, regardless of location. The same applies to submit paperwork. Don’t make your remote staff jump through hoops that don’t apply to local staff.

Stay Connected

It’s easy to interact with office-based staff. This can be as simple as a wave or a head nod when you walk through the operations room. But you can’t do this with remote staff. Figure out how to offer the same courtesies to your staff working in their homes. You might want to periodically have a video call with them or set up online group meetings that they can attend. These don’t need to belong or complicated interactions. In fact, simple and shorter are better. Aim for quantity over quality.

Update Your Policies and Procedures

A fourth consideration is to review your written policies and operations procedures. Make sure they apply equally to local and remote staff. Then once you have reworded them to be inclusive, post them online, and provide them to each employee electronically. If they need to sign that they received these updates, digitize that process as well. Eliminate the preference for, and the need for, all printed materials.

Conclusion

Taking these steps will help your remote staff be as successful—and as happy—as your local staff. It will also combat the us-versus-them mentality that often occurs among employees who don’t work at the primary location.

When you do this “stay home, stay safe” becomes “go remote, go to work.”

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.