An auto-attendant phone system is basically a virtual receptionist for your business. It answers calls, learns more about your callers, and routes them directly to the right departments and employees. Auto-attendants don’t replace receptionists—instead, they automate trivial tasks and empower your live operators to focus on more important to-dos.
Below, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about this helpful feature found in the best business phone systems, including how they work, pros and cons, average costs, and best practices.
How Does an Auto-attendant Phone System Work?
Auto-attendants go by many names. For example, they can be referred to as an automated phone system, interactive voice response (IVR) menu, or phone tree. But they all mean pretty much the same thing—digital receptionist. The auto-attendant receives an incoming call and then uses preconfigured rules, or, in the case of multilevel auto-attendants, asks for input (whether voice or number pressing) to decide how to handle them.
For example, the process might look something like this:
- Caller dials phone number.
- The auto-attendant plays the automated voice recording greeting. It then asks the customer to press “1” to talk to Sales and press “2” to talk to support:
- If the customer presses “1,” dial the first available sales agent.
- If the customer presses “2,” dial the first available support representative.
- If the customer doesn’t press any number, repeat the message. If the auto-attendant repeats the message three times without any response, kindly end the call.
While auto-attendants sound like a simple module, it serves as one of the most useful small business voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) features a team can have in their arsenal.
Benefits of an Automated Attendant
The best auto-attendants on the market help automate workflows and better handle incoming call traffic. Advanced auto-attendants can even answer questions, set up appointments, complete transactions, and accept customer data without any human hand-holding. This means they can help you serve more customers without raising your headcount or increasing your work hours.
Here are a few more of the top benefits of an automated attendant:
- Reduce robocalls: Requiring dialers to press a button or speak a command to advance the call helps to prevent robocalls from getting through to agents. This action alone can save your employees and agents countless hours.
- Provide answers to frequently asked questions: Callers don’t always want to speak to someone—they just want answers to their questions. If you can provide that quickly with an auto-attendant, then most customers are happy to self-serve.
- Free up agent bandwidth: The more callers your auto-attendants can help, the more bandwidth your agents will have to handle more important calls.
- Save money: Most voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) providers include auto-attendant features at no extra cost, and these services are far cheaper than an agent’s wages.
- Establish professional presence: A professionally recorded auto-attendant can make a great first impression for every new caller.
Average Auto-attendant Costs
Auto-attendant costs vary by phone system. Most high-end VoIP platforms provide a built-in multilevel auto-attendant, or interactive voice response (IVR) system, but you’ll often need to upgrade to a service’s more expensive tiers to get access.
Check out these popular VoIP service provider costs to get a good feel for the average amount you’ll need to spend on an auto-attendant:
- RingCentral: $19.99 per user, per month on the annual plan for two to 20 users
- Nextiva: $21.95 per user, per month on the annual plan for five to 19 users
- Vonage: $24.99 per line, per month for 20 users
- 8×8: $12 per user, per month
- Twilio: $0.001 per call on a pay-as-you-go plan
More complex IVR systems with advanced features will cost more, but your business may just need a simple auto-attendant solution.
Features to Look for When Evaluating Auto-attendant Systems
Every auto-attendant system will vary, but here are the core features you’ll want to pay attention to:
1. Language Options
If your business serves an audience in a variety of languages, you’ll want a platform (like RingCentral) that can provide a voice menu option for non-native English speakers too. This could be as simple as starting with a voice menu option that says, “Press ‘1’ for English, and press ‘2’ for Spanish.” Your platform will then need to have the functionality to begin a call flow in another language.
Auto-attendant systems could be as simple as letting your caller “Press ‘3’” for store hours, or it could be as advanced as “Enter your subscription ID to hear your latest payment details.” If you want to build a more custom-made self-service system, then you’ll need to ensure you have an advanced, developer-friendly platform.
3. Call Routing to Groups
If you run a call center, you don’t want your auto-attendant ringing individual employees—they could be busy or already in a queue for another call. Instead, you’d want to customize the IVR to dial a call group to get your callers connected to the next available agent as soon as possible.
4. Dial-by-Name Directory
Most callers won’t know every employee’s extension, but they’ll know the name of the person they want to reach. Dial-by-name directory features empower callers to choose from a list of names or even speak a name to have the auto-attendant dial the correct extension.
5. Third-party Integrations
Modern IVR systems allow you to connect your data with popular customer relationship managers (CRMs) and business software. For example, a Salesforce integration could automatically capture caller details and enter them as prospects, leads, or new customers.
Pros & Cons of Auto-attendant Phone Systems
|Free up your agent bandwidth||Lose the human touch|
|Automate trivial tasks||Irritate customers|
|Save time and money||Potential for overkill|
Auto-attendant Tips & Best Practices
Auto-attendants are only as good as you design them to be. By following a few best practices, you can ensure your system is ready to handle inbound calls with the least amount of caller frustrations:
- Keep it short: Provide a short and sweet greeting. Don’t drown your callers in marketing announcements or jargon—help guide them on their way to caller resolution as quickly as possible. You can take a look at our script suggestions for inspiration.
- Make commands simple: Don’t give your callers a list of nine different extensions to dial from a single menu. This can be overwhelming, and they’ll almost always need to hear the entire list of extensions again before choosing the appropriate party.
- Provide a “Talk to an Agent” option: Some people will immediately be turned off by an auto-attendant. Give these callers an option to “Talk to an Agent” if it requires them to wait in a different queue.
- Hire a professional: Some systems allow you to type commands for a virtual receptionist to relay, and others require you to use your own professional voice recordings. If you go the voice recording route, hire a professional to get the job done right. Most voice actors are surprisingly cheap, and they’re oh-so-worth the investment.
- Test and optimize: Run your IVR system through different test scenarios. Have employees and customers try the auto-attendant flow and provide feedback. Continue iterating to optimize and perfect your menus.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Are auto-attendants available for landline phone systems?
Yes. Many leading PBX systems offer auto-attendant functionality. However, you can also set up a digital IVR system that forwards calls to a landline phone, giving you the best of both worlds.
Why should my business use an auto-attendant?
Auto-attendants free up valuable employee time and help inbound callers self-serve. Decades ago, auto-attendants were still a relatively new thing—now, the majority of businesses use one in at least one department. Callers are used to this new way of calling companies, and they even have come to expect it.
Can I customize the voice of my auto-attendant?
Yes. Some services will allow you to type in your voice commands and choose your virtual receptionist’s voice. Others offer the option to upload a custom audio file into the system. To make your business warmer and inviting, we recommend using a professionally recorded voice greeting.
Auto-attendants are the future of business communications. Manage your incoming call traffic, automate trivial conversations, and boost your company’s professional image by investing in one today. Fortunately, you can find multilevel auto-attendants in any of the most popular VoIP service providers.