What is a virtual receptionist?

What is a virtual receptionist: Photo of Lainnie Alexander, a virtual receptionist at Ruby

They’re listeners. They’re communicators. They’re problem-solvers and connection-makers. They’re the friendly, human voices who answer on behalf of countless organizations every day.

We’re talking about virtual receptionists.

What is a virtual receptionist, exactly?

A virtual receptionist is someone who speaks to people who call a business, but who is not employed by that business.

Some virtual receptionists also respond to website visitors through live chat.

Like web designers, accountants, data analysts, or others in specialized jobs, virtual receptionists are trained professionals who perform a specific business function. In a virtual receptionist’s case, that function is customer communication.

It’s a bit of customer service, and a bit of sales, but a lot of answering questions, collecting information, and helping people feel heard and at ease.

What’s “virtual” about a virtual receptionist?

Back in the day, many businesses had one or more receptionists who worked as full- or part-time employees. As the realities of business changed, however, and the world went online, the role transformed—and the virtual receptionist was introduced.

These days, not every business has or needs its own receptionist. Instead, organizations can save money—and still ensure callers reach a real person—by using virtual receptionists.

Virtual receptionists are “virtual” in the sense that they stand in for a business.

They’re not bots. They’re not holograms. They’re real people who represent a company and talk to callers, but are not physically located at that company’s office or employed by the company.

For this reason, virtual receptionists are sometimes referred to as “remote receptionists.”

Why are virtual receptionists essential to today’s growing businesses?

Because virtual receptionists provide a range of benefits (more on that here)—at the fraction of a cost of an in-house hire—they’re an ideal solution for small and growing businesses.

They can answer and connect calls, take messages, answer common caller questions, schedule appointments, return calls, screen for solicitors, and more. Some even speak multiple languages to better communicate with callers from different locations and backgrounds. They can do it all on demand, when businesses need them, for ultimate flexibility.

And yet many businesses don’t know about virtual receptionist services, or feel unprepared to use them.

Why certain businesses don’t use virtual receptionists:

  • The predominance of automated technology. From answering machines to phone trees (robotic voices who say things like “press 1 for sales”), tons of free and low-cost solutions are available to small businesses. Although callers typically dislike these solutions, businesses continue to use them as low-cost options.
  • The shift to mobile devices as the primary or sole phone lines for business owners. Countless business owners list their own numbers as their business numbers, essentially making themselves personally available for callers. While this can remove barriers between businesses and their customers or clients, it almost always leads to unanswered calls, difficulty separating business and personal time, and poor experiences for business owners and the people they serve.
  • The seemingly high cost of virtual receptionist services. Some business owners that would benefit from virtual receptionists feel they can’t afford the expense. While it’s true that virtual receptionist services aren’t the right fit for every business, this concern often overlooks the return on investment that comes with optimizing customer communication. If a business wants to make sure a real person picks up the phone when someone calls—and can’t make sure that happens 24/7 otherwise—virtual receptionists are a great solution.
  • Confusion over the term “virtual receptionist.” As virtual receptionist solutions have steadily gained popularity since the early 2000s, many providers have adopted the term—sometimes to describe something totally different than “person who represents a business remotely.” Some companies use the term to refer to software, call centers, phone trees, or even chatbots.

To clarify that last point, let’s explore more about what a virtual receptionist is by delving into what they are not.

What is a virtual receptionist is not

Virtual receptionists can do a lot for today’s businesses. But they don’t do everything. Let’s clear up some common misconceptions regarding virtual receptionists and similar services.

Virtual receptionists vs. in-house receptionists

Many businesses have front office admins or receptionists ready to greet walk-in visitors. These customer-facing employees wear many hats, answering phones, setting appointments, responding to customers’ inquiries… the list goes on.

Customers and clients usually appreciate (and sometimes expect) businesses to have a real human as the face of their operation.

That said, while there are plenty of pros to having a real-life person manning the front desk, they’re also, well, human—meaning they have limitations on what they can accomplish on their own.

In-house receptionists often have their hands full.

In-house receptionists typically do more than handle customer communication. They may also perform the duties of an office manager, office administrator, event coordinator, project manager, travel booker, accounts payable specialist, human resources staff member, and more.

In fact, according to the International Association of Administrative Professionals’ recent “State of the Industry” report, the majority of administrative professionals have over a dozen different day-to-day responsibilities, only a quarter of which relate to customer communication.

It’s no wonder these professionals biggest concern is “juggling multiple priorities.” As such, they’re unable to manage customer communication full-time, let alone 24/7. Virtual receptionists, by contrast, are always available to answer calls or respond to chats.

In-house receptionists can only help one person at a time. 

The best front office admins know how to delight clients by greeting them professionally, providing prompt service, and making them feel at ease. They’re usually talented conversationalists and know how to turn a phrase.

But they’re only able to connect with one customer at a time. Lines form, call waiting gets activated, and impatient customers take their business elsewhere.

Employees need a break from time to time.

Whether it’s a lunch break in the middle of the day, calling in sick, or taking a well-deserved vacation, in-house receptionists can’t be expected to be at their desk all day every day.

Virtual receptionists can help fill in during those times when your employees are unavailable.

Their flexibility means they can jump in for both expected and unexpected absences—and rather than paying salary and benefits for a backup employee, virtual receptionists only charge for the time they work.

Virtual receptionists vs. virtual assisstants

Virtual assistants are typically freelance agents and independent contractors who provide professional, technical and creative assistance to clients.

Many act as jacks-of-all-trades, helping companies and small businesses with myriad administrative tasks, as well as more involved projects, including posting on social media channels, blogging, bookkeeping, and other responsibilities.

While virtual assistants often handle customer communication in the form of email responses and call screening, it’s rarely their sole focus.

Virtual receptionists, on the other hand, are dedicated to providing personalized service and forming connections with each individual caller.

For businesses that take advantage of outsourcing, virtual receptionists and virtual assistants can work together to make sure work is getting done while customers are kept happy.

Virtual receptionists vs. automated attendants

An automated answering service (also sometimes called an interactive voice response system, or IVR system for short) is a phone system that interacts with callers without a real human on the line. The entire phone call, or phone tree portion of the phone call, is done through interactions with a preset machine.

These systems vary, depending on what you’re looking for, but they have some general processes in common:

  1. They answer an incoming call.
  2. A pre-recorded message plays.
  3. The system asks callers for their intent.
  4. The system transfers caller or provides pre-recorded information.

While these services are typically affordable, easy to use, and highly customizable, the lack of human interaction negatively impacts customer service.

Furthermore, inefficiencies in automated systems can frustrate or confuse callers. While automation can be a necessity for large organizations that receive hundreds or thousands of calls a day, they run the risk of alienating customers and clients who expect to reach a real person every time they call—costing businesses money in the long run.

Simply put, people dislike IVR.

Virtual receptionists serve the same function as IVR systems—answering incoming calls, directing calls to the appropriate person or department, providing with callers with account information, and more—while providing a human touch that these automated systems lack.

Virtual receptionists vs. answering services

A growing number of businesses out there are using answering services to ensure their callers always get through to another human being. So, how are these services different from virtual receptionist providers?

Well, in many ways, virtual receptionist solutions are answering services. But they’re also so much more. Here are just a few key areas where virtual receptionists outshine a typical answering service:

Live call transferring: Many traditional answering services can only take messages. Live virtual receptionists are able to transfer calls to businesses whenever and wherever they like. They’re even able to try multiple lines—say, a person’s desk phone, then their personal phone—at no additional cost.

Professional and friendly service: Answering services are built on efficiency. It’s what allows them to take on large amounts of clients and answer countless calls each day.

However, this focus on efficiency above all else often results in impersonal service for both a business and the people it serves. Virtual receptionists, on the other hand, are trained to provide one-of-a-kind experiences for callers and website visitors.

Minimal background noise: Unlike noisy call centers, the best virtual receptionist services use noise-canceling technology to keep background noise to an absolute minimum.

This helps keep callers from realizing they’re talking to someone outside of the business’s office.  

Additional features: As the name implies, answering services excel at one thing: answering calls. However, they offer few other services aside from taking messages.

Virtual receptionist services like Ruby offer a multitude of additional features and services, such as business number hosting, texting, lead capture, appointment scheduling, and more.

What about call centers? Call centers are built for size and speed. They’re used by large companies and organizations that need to handle a high volume of low-complexity calls at once—as quickly as possible. Unlike virtual receptionists, who provide personalized customer service experiences, call center agents typically work from pre-written scripts and undergo less intensive training for each business they represent.

And there you have it—the basics of what a virtual receptionist is, what the term “virtual receptionist” really means, and how virtual receptionist services differ from other solutions.