Answering Services Have Come a Long Way

I’ve been told that answering services go back farther than even would have suspected. The stories I’ve heard over the years led me to believe that cord-boards and voice pagers were the beginning. This article was inspired by an amazing story I was recently told. The story was told to me by a veteran of the industry who I’ve known for 15 years. The tale demonstrates how far the answering service industry has come, and leaves to the imagination how far it will progress.

My college entered the answering service business back in 1959. At the time, there were no pagers, and cell phones were considered science fiction. Most answering services were internal departments within hospitals. Some hospitals still operate answering services, usually to provide a perk to their doctors.

I struggled to understand why a doctor would have a need for an answering service if there was no way to reach them once they left the hospital. Of course they could be reached at home, but that wouldn’t require the coordination of an answering service. So I asked my college and friend what they did with emergency calls. What was the method of “dispatching” a call? I was really amazed by the answer. The answering service knew the where all of their doctors lived and had a map on the wall. Housewives that lived along major routes traveled by the doctors were paid a small fee to assist. If an emergency call came in after the doctor had left the hospital, a call was placed to each of the ladies that lived along that doctor’s route. Their task was to go outside an either hold or post a sign visible to the doctor. The sign would say “C.Y.S.” for Call Your Service and later color codes were added to indicate the type of emergency. It was amazing cutting edge ingenuity, considering what they didn’t have to work with.

The housewives were probably not happy when a major radio manufacturer came out with their first line of pagers. Some of those pagers were still circulating when I got into the business. The first models were tone only pagers that simply beeped, alerting the doctor that there was an emergency. These pagers had no telephone number; they were activated by a terminal at the answering service. Since the pagers worked using a radio frequency, radio manufacturer was quickly able to add a speaker to them and a microphone at the service. The result was voice pagers, or talking beepers.

The technology used for tone and voice paging was very simple by today’s standards. A unique pair of two tones was transmitted matching a filter inside the pager. Pagers listened to their assigned frequency and beeped when they heard their unique pair of tones. The same technology was implemented at fire stations around the country allowing operators to send a voice message to a specific station. As pairs of tones grew short, the technology advanced to a set of 5 tones.

Digital paging was more of a benefit to the paging companies than to answering services or doctors. Many doctors still tell me how they miss their talking beeper. They were a truly beneficial as the doctors didn’t have to try to read a digital screen while driving, something that we all have learned is dangerous. Alphanumeric pagers soon followed allowing answering services to send a text message immediately to the doctor. This was truly the end of the talking beepers.

While all of this action was going on with beepers, we saw most answering services move away from paper messages and go computerized. Paper messages were sorted using a giant wheel that had a slot for each doctor. Operators resisted giving up their pens and the wheel, much to my surprise. It didn’t take long for them to get over the change.

The phone company filled a big gap with the invention of D.I.D.s, which stands for Direct Inward Dial. D.I.D.s are bulk groups of telephone numbers that allowed answering services and paging companies to assign a unique telephone number to each of their clients. Paired with call forwarding, a solution came about that caused a boom in the answering service industry. Answering service was no longer something exclusively for doctors. Businesses and professionals ranging from attorneys to funeral homes suddenly found that having an answering service was a great benefit.

After pagers, I’d say the fax machine was the next big hit in the industry. I can remember reading off hundreds of messages each morning. One day the boss brought in a fax machine and reading messages quickly became a thing of the past.

One breakthrough in technology gave the answering service a scare. Voice mail came out in the late 80s and offered a cheap alternative to live answering service. Many of us in the answering service industry battled against the phone company who was selling voice mail to businesses. While we won a battle, and stopped the phone companies for a brief time, the scare was for nothing. I learned to not fear change once voice mail’s role became clearer. While it may have cost our industry some clients, it made our service more flexible and lowered our costs. Voice mail is still a very welcome part of our industry. No matter what anyone tells me, I know that businesses will always have a need for A Live Answer.  PCNAnswers Colorado 

Here we are today, pushing a button on a computer and sending a detailed message with the caller ID that arrives on the client’s mobile device within seconds. Our clients can respond to that message and a bilingual operator can relay a response back to the caller.

What’s in the future? V.o.I.P. or Voice over Internet Protocol is allowing answering services to expand their markets. A service in Mobile, Alabama can handle calls from anywhere in the world. Operators can take calls from anywhere in the world. Client’s can log into our system and have calls transferred to them anywhere in the world. V.o.I.P. allows all of this with no long distance and extremely high quality.

Answering services have benefited greatly from all of these advances in technology. I believe our industry has influenced many of these advances. Our needs and the needs of our clients have been one of the major forces that have shaped the technology that almost all of us use today.

I’d like to dedicate this article to a dear friend of mine who will always be a mentor. Kenneth Figueroa and his family will always be in my thoughts. A few years ago God asked Ken to answer some calls up in the big call center in the sky. Ken was a great man and he influenced a lot of people to always do the right thing. His answering service, Answer All, is operated by his family in West Palm Beach. My business is a reflection of the integrity you will find at Answer All and many other owner operated answering services across the country.


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