But against the odds, phone answering services like Answer 1 Communications have learned to thrive by embracing the same technology that once threatened to replace them.
“We're not your daddy's answering service anymore," said Mary Jones, who has owned and operated Phoenix-based Answer 1 for more than 35 years. "We've come a long way — the agents today are smart. They're multitasking. They're savvy. They have access to so much.”
The industry pulls in more than $2.5 billion a year in revenue, and entrepreneurs like Jones have used each innovation over the past three decades to make her work cheaper and easier, attracting new customers in the process.
“Voice mail was considered the death knell for us," she said, adding that instead of letting the new technology scare her, she embraced it.
“When we installed the voice mail system, the first thing we did is we sent out a blast to all of our clients, telling them 'You can now pick up your messages and never, ever, ever, have to wait on hold.' They all signed up."
Jones now takes the same view of text messaging, which she considers to be the newest biggest boost to her industry. “The caller has no idea that once the agent is done taking the call, (she) will send a transcript of that message out to the client via text to his cell phone."
Given the range of services her agents can provide, Jones said there is no “typical” client. One example she cites is a locksmith whose wife, who ran the office for him, recently passed away.
“For this guy, Answer 1 is now his office,” Jones said. “When it's well past midnight and he’s holding a flashlight with one hand and jiggling the tumblers of a broken lock with his other, and his cell phone rings on top of it all, we pick up the call, calm down his next client and then text him the info of where to go next."
And it's that personal touch that Jones said is the real reason why customers sign up for the answering service.
“I just don't think you're going to ever, ever, ever replace the person talking to a person,” Jones said. “No matter what new, wonderful technology comes along. I mean it from the bottom of my heart: People like to talk to people. They don't want to talk to a recording.”
One client, Justin Marsh, founder of Phoenix-based Arthur Andrew Medical, said that was the reason he signed with Answer 1. “They'll answer as Arthur Andrew Medical,” he said. “Nine times out of 10 you'll never know that you're speaking to an answering service.”
And despite the downturn, Jones, who runs the 50-person company with her husband and son, has found massive success.
"We took a business that was billing $24,000 a month and turned it into a $4 million-a-year business," she said. "I love it."