Businesses are facing a conundrum; how to provide consistent, meaningful customer service on a 24/7 basis, without the costs of hiring a customer service team to work around the clock. In one corner, they have automated chatbots – AI-powered answering and data-gathering tools. In the other, they have human virtual receptionists leveraged through a call handling service.

Outsourcing your customer service – either using real people or AI – gives businesses the freedom to scale up their customer service without the massive overheads of hiring their own in-house team.

And that’s ultimately what all of these services are about. They give businesses the customer service clout of a multinational corporation, without the usual staffing costs. 

But which is better for your business? In this article, we’ll explore:

  • The biggest differences between virtual and automated receptionists 
  • Which is right for your business
  • Some quick tips to help you get the most from either service
Smiling receptionist taking call using time-based 24/7 live answering service


Most businesses first realise they need an answering solution when they start getting messages about missed calls and complaints about wait times. And regardless of why you missed it – due to high call volumes or the call coming in outside of business hours – a missed call can cost you.

Customers expect businesses to offer round-the-clock coverage, but they also want real responses from real people. In fact, 78% of people prefer to chat with a person, be it by phone, live chat or email, as opposed to a bot.

Smiling receptionist on call to customer using custom call script

Response times

How fast do bots answer? Pretty fast. In conversation, phone chatbots often leave a delay after being posed a question to ensure the customer is finished speaking, just as a human would. But in live chat, bots can provide an almost-instant response to questions. So instant, in fact, that some people are put off by the immediacy.

To counter this, chatbot programmers include an option to add “bot delays”. Bot – or message delays, as they’re also known – allow you to specify the amount of time (in seconds) that a bot waits before it sends the next message in the queue. These are often accompanied by “typing” bubbles to make it seem the chatbot is crafting an answer from scratch.

Depending on what system they use, businesses without chatbots can take anywhere between 3 rings of the phone to 30 minutes. AnswerConnect answers 98% of calls within four rings. That’s essential to customer satisfaction, with 82% of consumers rating an immediate response when they have a marketing or sales question as important or very important.

Woman adding status updates to in-app work updates via mobile

But the real question is, how quickly do both options resolve a query or issue? The answer will define which solution offers the best customer experience. 

Customer satisfaction

Customer satisfaction is the key differentiator of your business today. As Jerry Fritz said, “You’ll never have a product or price advantage again. They can be too easily duplicated. But a strong customer service culture cannot be copied.”

Chatbots can provide some level of satisfaction. For smaller businesses who struggle to answer calls in under five minutes, chatbots offer a quick solution. Perhaps most importantly, they seem like a better alternative than just letting the line ring out.

But are chatbots really better than nothing? A 2021 international survey into consumer attitudes to AI has the answer; over 35% of consumers say automated services never resolve their problems. And while a quarter of consumers think AI is improving customer service, 45% think it’s making the experience worse.

A woman choosing to press a green smiling face, beside an orange neutral face and a red sad face


People are adaptable. Bots operate in a binary sense. Despite all the improvements in AI in a relatively short space of time, it still lacks the versatility of a person. Sure, AI is more capable of recognising, processing and responding to different accents, syntax and language, than ever before. But it’s still nowhere near the level of comprehension of a real person.

Take Facebook Messenger’s automated ‘M’ chatbot. Initially launched using a combination of automated replies and human input, M was envisaged as becoming totally AI within a few years. However, even at its maximum capacity, the platform never surpassed 30% automation.

While AI is becoming more versatile every day, it’s a long way off being able to adapt to the wide array of situations customers present on a daily basis.

Hands typing personal development plan on laptop for learning time


In business, cost informs every decision. But the cost of a product or service isn’t a true measure of its value. So how does the return on investment between a virtual receptionist service and an automated chatbot stack up?

The cost of an automated chatbot service varies according to several factors, including the number of “conversations” with customers/prospects, the channels they operate through and the elevation process to a real human. Many chatbot packages come free initially, with additional charges for support and upgrades.

In comparison, virtual receptionist services tend to price per call or per minute. Often, calls under a certain time aren’t counted towards your minutes (to account for wrong numbers, spam calls and poor connections). This saves you money and ensures your plan minutes aren’t wasted on pointless calls – something chatbots often fail to recognise.

Woman making notes on difference betwen automated chatbot & real human virtual receptionist

Ultimately, you need to figure out how many sales you make a month before adding any kind of answering service, and how many you’d need to make after setting up the service. 

But you also need to consider how it will affect your existing customers. It’s difficult to quantify what increased customer satisfaction means in terms of ROI. But, it’s worth considering what impact (if any) it could have on extending the customer lifetime value. To that end, you can run customer satisfaction surveys before and after launching your answering service.

Lead capture and qualification

Gathering lead information is like drawing a breath for your company; without it, you won’t survive. But that information has to be After all, if you can’t gather information accurately, how can you give callers definitive solutions to their queries?

For industries such as healthcare, patients can be more likely to divulge sensitive information truthfully than when speaking to a real person. But for other industries, the anonymity provided by an AI responder can encourage people to leave false information.

Smiling receptionist on call to customer using Appointment Scheduling Service

AI still has a narrow range of data-gathering tools, often offering callers just a limited number of options to choose from. But real life is often far more complex than a narrow range of choices. Only people can interpret the huge range of information, in the diverse ways of communicating that information.

How to get the most from an answering service

  • Set clear objectives before writing your script – What do you want to achieve from this? Most people simply want their calls answered, but you can expand this to include conditional transfers and lead qualification, among other actions.
  • Identify your elevation process – Who will calls be transferred to in your team? Of course, that depends on the nature of the call – is it a lead enquiring about a service, or an existing customer calling to complain? 
  • Keep it simple! – There’s a temptation to add as many different scripts as possible to cater for every possible scenario. But your answering service works best when it fulfils clear objectives. Plus, when the answering service is made up of real people, they can adapt to hundreds of unscripted scenarios while staying on-brand.
Cropped shot of a human virtual receptionist taking notes while forwarding call


Ultimately, it’s up to you what solution is best for your business. But the data is unequivocal in the importance of offering real responses. People prefer it, and many countries are already drafting laws that make it a legal requirement to have a real person available for callers.

AnswerConnect’s huge team of customer service experts are on hand 24/7 to give callers a professional response.

Want to find out what people-powered customer service can do for your business? Check out our Pledge People, Not Bots campaign!