An auto attendant (also known as an automated phone directory) is a call routing system that relies on interactive voice response (IVR). It’s a self-serve menu your customers or clients encounter every time they call your business. Auto attendants help streamline incoming calls to provide fast, consistent service for your customers, and decrease the chance that they’ll be stuck leaving a voicemail or waiting on hold.
Some auto attendants ask callers to navigate their options by pushing buttons, and others simply tell customers to say what they’re looking for.
Any time you call a business and hear an automated message like, “Thank you for calling [business name]. Press one for the tools department,” or “Tell me how I can help. You can say things like, ‘Product availability,’ or ‘Order status,’” that’s an auto attendant.
Businesses use auto attendants to direct customers to the ideal employee and provide a way for callers to complete basic transactions (such as ordering a prescription refill, receiving information, or scheduling an appointment) over the phone without talking to a person.
In this guide, we’ll look at the pros and cons of using an auto attendant for your business and explore some alternatives. For starters, let’s talk about some of the biggest advantages of this business phone tech.
When your business receives a lot of calls throughout the day, you need to be confident your customers will get served. An auto attendant ensures that every caller receives some sort of assistance. Here’s what it does well.
Every time someone calls your business, you want them to get what they need as quickly as possible. When an employee answers, your customers have to articulate what they want—and they don’t know if they’re speaking to the person who can actually help them. They have to be polite and friendly while trying to decide how to communicate their needs and determine how much detail to provide.
Auto attendants give every caller a clear, simple menu for getting the service they need. The options are already defined, and they know that if they wind up speaking to a person, it’ll be the person who can help them.
Another nice thing about auto attendants: they’re not new. Automated phone directories are already something consumers expect (or at least have experience with) when interacting with a business. Especially with large organizations or businesses with numerous departments. They’re “normal.” They’re intuitive.
If a single person at your business has to field every inbound call, you’re going to miss some. That person is a bottleneck, and the problem gets worse as your call volume increases. An auto attendant can simultaneously answer calls from numerous people, so your customers can find information, navigate to the correct department, and even complete some transactions without waiting for an employee to pick up.
There’s still the chance that the employee your customer eventually needs to speak with won’t be available, but the odds of a missed call go down because the auto attendant is always available. And it never clocks out. So even when someone calls after business hours, there’s a pathway for some callers to get what they need.
Your employees are only human. Even your best staff can have an off day, get distracted, or let a lousy interaction affect how they speak to a customer on the phone.
An auto attendant represents your business the same way every time. It’s never in a bad mood. It never gets a cold or forgets what to say. It never gets irritated or impatient, no matter how rudely a customer speaks to it.
When interacting with your business is predictable (because it’s always the same), customers who call your business often will become familiar with the options and get faster at navigating to the service they need.
Since an auto attendant removes the burden of directing calls to the right employees, your employees only have to pick up the phone when a call is for them. They’ll spend less time trying to discern what a caller wants, determining who they need to speak to, and functioning like a switchboard operator.
But the main way an auto attendant saves time is by actually removing the need for a caller to speak to an employee at all. Your auto attendant’s greeting can communicate basic information like your hours of operation, important policies (such as whether masks are required in store), and service options like curbside pickup availability or online ordering. Depending on the capabilities of the auto attendant you select, your customers may even be able to complete certain types of transactions.
The key to maximizing your auto attendant’s value is to make sure it addresses the most common reasons customers call you and provide a pathway for them to take basic actions. This shifts a greater burden away from your employees, so they can focus on more specialized tasks and more complicated requests.
Since you can customize your auto attendant’s greeting and update it as needed, this is a great way to inform customers when there’s something new they need to know. Maybe there’s a new service you’re offering, or you just launched an online checkout experience. Perhaps there was a recent policy change that will impact their in-person service.
The only caveat is that you don’t want your greeting to be too long. If you try to communicate too many announcements or they don’t feel important to your callers, it can start to feel like people are calling your business to listen to an ad. People are going to hang up out of frustration if you overload your greeting.
Auto attendants are surprisingly affordable. Prices vary from platform to platform and get more expensive depending on the number of extensions you need and the features you want, but you can expect an auto attendant to cost anywhere from about $20–$100 per month. That’s a small price to pay for freeing up your employees and providing better service.
Once you think about how much time your employees spend answering repetitive questions, and how often you miss calls, an auto attendant can start to look pretty appealing.
But it’s also smart to consider some of the ways an auto attendant falls short, and see if there’s an alternative that makes more sense for your situation.
Auto attendants answer every call. But they can’t help every caller. And that leaves some gaps your business will have to solve in other ways.
A good auto attendant should be able to preemptively answer some of your customers’ questions and provide a self-serve option to get the service they need. But in most cases, it is ultimately a phone directory, and that means a significant number of calls are still going to be directed to specific people.
It removes the bottleneck of a receptionist, but you still run the risk of sending customers to voicemail. And that’s a problem. Because most consumers don’t simply see voicemail as a slower way to communicate—they treat it as a dead end. They’d rather hang up than leave a voicemail.
Missed calls mean missed business. If you want to completely prevent missed calls, see how Numa works.
Similarly, customers will still have to wait on hold to get what they need. And while most consumers expect to wait on hold for at least five minutes when they call a business, that doesn’t mean they want to.
Some auto attendants let you set expectations and give people an estimate of how long they may need to wait on hold, but not all of them do. That leaves callers waiting for an unpredictable amount of time, unable to get invested in something else.
The problem is that phone calls just aren’t an efficient channel for your customers to get the service they need. An auto attendant is designed to optimize voice-based communications, but you and your customers would likely be better served by redirecting phone calls to a more convenient channel.
Imagine that you’ve just sat down at a restaurant, and instead of handing you a menu, your server simply recites it to you. You listen to every option, waiting for the one that sounds like what you want, unsure if a later option will sound better. But then you can’t remember the name of what you wanted, so you have to ask them to start over.
That’s what it can feel like when an auto attendant answers the phone.
Your customers want to make sure they make the best selection from the menu—no one wants to finally get through to a real person only to hear, “Oh, you need to call [other department],” or to get into another layer of options to discover the one they want isn’t there. And the longer that menu gets, the harder it becomes to make the right selection.
An auto attendant is a tool designed to streamline every customer interaction. The more information you front load it with, the more difficult and cumbersome it is to navigate.
Auto attendants remove a lot of the conversational burden on your end, but consumers don’t like them. A 2019 survey found that 90 percent of consumers would prefer to speak to an employee than an automated answering service.
And if surveys don’t make that point clear enough, there’s an entire series of memes around the one thing everyone wants to do when they reach an automated call answering service:
People don’t like speaking to robots. And there isn’t always a clear path for unusual requests. So most consumers use “shortcuts” like shouting variations of “customer service” or pounding the zero key.
Even when an auto attendant uses an open-ended prompt like, “Tell me how I can help,” consumers don’t know what kinds of requests the attendant can actually handle. They have to translate their intent into what they think a robot can understand.
Auto attendants guarantee customers will have a consistent experience, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be one they appreciate.
Depending on your business, an auto attendant might still be the best way to serve customers and save money on your business phone costs. But there are several other solutions that solve many of the same challenges, and they’re probably worth looking into.
Odds are, one of the reasons you’re exploring auto attendants is to avoid hiring a receptionist. But it’s a trade-off.
Obviously, a front desk receptionist is one of the most expensive ways to handle incoming calls, and they’re only available when they’re on the clock. But they don’t just answer your phones and forward calls to the right people.
They serve clients when they come in the door, they can handle inbound and outbound communications through your other channels, and they perform a wide range of other tasks. It’s an entry-level position that frees your more specialized employees to give more of their attention to the tasks that require their expertise.
In terms of cost, there’s no comparison here, but if managing in-person customers is creating as many challenges as answering the phone, hiring a front desk receptionist might be the right option.
A virtual receptionist or phone answering service is an actual person who answers the phone for your business, but they work on-demand. You pay by-the-minute or by-the-call. When someone calls your business, a real receptionist answers the phone every time. You give them a script to follow, and they serve your customers just like an employed front desk receptionist would.
Phone answering services can transfer calls to the right people, schedule appointments, process gift cards, and facilitate other basic customer interactions. They cost a fraction of what you’d pay to hire an employee, and most are available 24/7. But they’re going to cost significantly more than an auto attendant.
So consumers don’t want to talk to robots on the phone. And depending on your situation, it may not be cost effective to hire a receptionist or work with a phone answering service. So how do you serve your customers better while keeping costs low?
Numa isn’t an auto attendant. And it’s not a virtual receptionist. It’s a business texting platform powered by conversational artificial intelligence. When you can’t answer the phone, Numa picks up and asks callers if they’d prefer to start a text conversation or leave a voicemail. Up to 80 percent of them choose to start a text conversation.
The moment that text conversation begins, our conversational AI jumps into action and provides callers with the service they need. It can answer questions about your services or availability and link them to where they can schedule appointments or place orders online.
If someone asks a question Numa doesn’t know the answer to, it flags the conversation in an app, which you and your employees can access via phone, tablet, or computer. Numa remembers your answers, and suggests them when similar questions arise. If you save an answer, Numa uses it automatically when the same request comes up in the future.
Every call gets answered, and the longer you use Numa, the better it gets at saving you time. And it costs you as little as $49 a month.
Unlike an auto attendant, Numa completely eliminates missed calls and prevents your customers from waiting on hold. And the text-based conversational AI can provide specific, relevant answers without making each customer sit through a cascade of information.