How to Automate a Phone Answering System

Updated on July 25, 2017
Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok has over 30 years experience developing and supporting automated phone systems. He has a Master's Degree in Computer Science.

Your phone system provides the first impression callers have of your business. If you're in charge of your company's phone system, this guide will help you set it up properly to handle your callers in an efficient manner.


The following information applies to any type of phone system, so I will not be discussing specifics. I will also not discuss physical wiring or connections. That is left for the telephone installer.

A good configuration is important because your phone system provides the first impression of your business.

There are three parts to a business phone system:

  1. The main component is the PBX, which stands for “Private Branch Exchange.” I live person is required to answer and route incoming calls.
  2. The addition of an automated attendant provides a menu of options that callers can select to route their calls without the need for a live receptionist.
  3. Finally, a voicemail component completes the system.

Benefits of an Automated Phone System

Without an automated phone system personnel are not as productive. Calls may interfere with their concentration and give them the extra responsibility if having to take messages for other employees.

When properly configured, nobody has to bother answering other people's phone calls. All calls are accurately handled by the system. Live callers can automatically be routed to specific phones in the office. In many cases personnel can even forward their extensions to outside locations or to their cell phones.

The system will also take messages for personnel who are busy or not available. Each individual can record his or her own personal greeting that plays to the caller if they don't answer when the caller presses a menu option that rings to their phone.

An automated attendant is also useful for allowing your callers to listen to important recorded information without waiting for a live person. Common questions can be answered with Message-Only options, also known as Voice-On-Demand. These are great for providing business hours, directions to your office, listing job offerings, and answers to any other frequently asked questions.

How Do Multiple Callers Get Through on One Number?

If you only have one phone line then only one caller will get through. A second caller will simply get a busy signal because your phone company cannot deliver the second call.

It's not magic. If you don't want your callers to get busy signals, you need a separate phone line for each simultaneous caller and your phone system has to be able to support that many phone lines.

So you need to have the appropriate number of phone lines to support the call volume you expect to have.

For example, if you have 10 extensions and half of your personnel are on outside phone calls all at once, then you will need five phone lines coming in from your phone company. Furthermore, if all five lines are in use, then the next caller will get a busy signal.

The actual method of delivering those incoming calls is a function of the phone company. Every caller dials the same number, your main company number. The trick with using only one phone number for people to dial is to have your phone company provide a feature called rollover service. I discuss the details in another article. But basically if the first line is busy, the next caller rolls over to the next available line.

Busy signals can be avoided by having enough phone lines to deliver all possible simultaneous callers.

How to Make a Business PBX Phone System Properly Handle Your Callers

When setting up the menu of caller options, it’s important to consider the logical placement of the departments and personnel in your company. A well-organized phone menu will help callers quickly get through.

You’ll want to point your caller in the right direction. You don't want to give your caller confusing choices.

When you plan the design for the list of options your caller hears to select departments, personnel or other information, a quick, orderly and easy-to-follow menu is mandatory.

How do you go about planning the proper structure for your menu? The trick is to analyze what most of your callers are calling about. What are their needs and what do they want from you. Then include this in your phone menu options.

Another thing to consider is how well your particular customers know your company.

  • Do they routinely contact specific personnel?
  • Do they know the extension numbers?
  • Do they know the last name of your personnel?
  • Or do they just have a vague idea of what department they need to reach?

Knowing this, you can design your phone menu to match the needs of your customers.

If you have many people calling with a common question, or needing information about your products, make that part of your phone menu. Such as "Press 5 for information about our widgets."

If your customers know your personnel by name, then it is helpful to offer a dial-by-name directory. The caller is instructed to dial the last name on the phone's keypad and the call is then connected. But you need to keep this up to date. If you let a person go or add others, you need to keep your phone directory up to date.

As a security measure, to be sure you don't lose important callers, it is helpful to always give a caller an option to get to an operator by pressing zero. Your operator may be your receptionist, or someone who can help callers who need guidance.

Automated Attendant Etiquette

It's good business practice to make it as easy as possible for your callers to get through to the person they need to accomplish the task for which they are calling.

It's customary to place departments in the menu and assign extensions for personnel.

Based on your specific needs you may want to place people in the menu. You are telling your caller to press 1 for Sally or 2 for John, etc. Note that in this case you are giving your caller an idea of the size of your company. You can avoid that with Dial-By-Name instead, and making that one of the menu choices.

One thing to keep in mind is that a caller may be in a distressed state of mind and may not be calm enough to listen to your menu prompts. Many times these callers want to just press zero and expect immediate attention by a real person. So it is advisable to make menu option zero ring through to an attendant who can help them or who can direct the call.

Besides, many people are in a rush and some callers don't have the patience to listen to complex menus. You don't want to lose these potential customers and you definitely don't want to frustrate them. Providing live help via the standard menu option zero is always a good thing to do.

Another thing that is important is not to mix business and personal greetings. When your employees forward their extensions to their cell phones or home phones they may not want their callers to hear their personal outgoing greeting message if a transferred call is not answered.

Many good PBX systems allow blocking the caller from hearing a personal greeting from the destination voice mail. Enabling call screening can accomplish this.

When Your Personnel Are Not Available

Your personnel may not always be available to take calls. After all, they are working. But it is just as important to take care of your customers or potential customers when they call.

So when a call goes unanswered, quickly directing the caller to an appropriate voice mailbox, with instructions in a personal greeting, will help assure your caller that he or she will be taken care of in a timely manner.

When your personnel need privacy to accomplish complex tasks, their extensions can be set to "Do-Not-Disturb" mode so that important callers don't just hear ringing or fall into "Voice Mail Jail."

When an extension is set as Do-Not-Disturb, it will play an alternate greeting that the mailbox user had set up to handle the times when they are unavailable. This greeting is known as an "Unavailable Greeting." It gives instructions to your caller to be used while not available.

The fact that the mailbox user can record both a regular greeting and an unavailable greeting makes it easy to switch to Do-Not-Disturb (or unavailable mode) and back again without the need to record a new greeting.

Obviously it is important that you do indeed follow up with all messages. So it is important that your personnel check their voice mailboxes on a routine basis or that they have a message notification method enabled.

How to Connect Remote Workers Thru Your Phone System

It’s important that your remote workers are accessible to your callers.

If you have a mobile workforce, employ Work-at-Home Personnel, or you have satellite offices, it's important to tie all your workers together in a unified phone system.

Some PBX phone systems allow programming extensions to route calls to outside phone numbers. If you have that feature, create extensions for all remote personnel who need to be accessible.

Proper Use of Extension Cellphones

If your remote personnel are not at specific locations, they probably are still using cellphones. You can program the phone system’s extensions to route calls to their cellphones. A caller who dials their extension will get connected via the cell phone without even knowing that they are not physically in the office.

However, you may want to consider the fact that missed calls left in voice mail may not be picked up and returned in a timely manner. A solution is to disable call screening and let all calls drop into their cellphone's voice mail if there is no answer. The benefit is that they will not have to check for messages in two places. They just need to check the cellphone, which probably has a message-waiting signal to indicate a missed call.

Note that the caller will hear the personal greeting on the cellphone if there is no answer. So the greeting has to relate to the business if this method is used.

Proper planning is required, but he final result will make a great impression on your callers when they find it easy to get in touch with the appropriate personnel to achieve what they have intended. This benefits both you and your clients in a positive way.

Making a Phone System Handle Your Needs

You'll want to consider the flexibility of use and how your callers will be able to get the most benefit from your custom automated attendant menu.

You should decide which features to use and how to implement them correctly. You don’t want to create a situation where a feature of the phone system interferes with services you may be using from your phone company.

Here is a quick rundown of some common features and how to use them:


It's also important to disable voicemail service from your phone company. Your phone system should do that for you. A good phone system should include voicemail for every phone extension.

That means that if any of your personnel are busy on the phone, their voicemail will take the message. Each phone extension should have its own mailbox with its own personal greeting capability.

Transferring Calls

If you have personnel at remote locations, you may want to allow callers, who dial their extension, to be transferred to their cell phones.

A good phone system should be able to handle various types of transfer features that your phone company provides. Such as three-way calling or transfer and release, which is a feature known as Centrex.

If you don't have any transfer capability with your phone company, then a decent phone system should still be able to transfer callers back out to another number by patching the call via two phone lines.

Call Screening

Instead of connecting the caller when answered, it first plays their name to the recipient. Then they can press a key to accept the call.

If a cell phone's voice mail answers, it will not send back a key-press and the caller will not be connected. Instead the caller will be taken back and dropped into the business system's voice mail that has the appropriate business-related greeting.

Test and Verify Your Phone System Configuration

Finally, when you have a new Automated System set up and programming is completed, be sure to call your own number, listen to your own company greeting, and try every option in the menu to be sure everything works as you expect.

You don't want your callers to run into something strange. You can catch it and have it corrected before your important callers find something wrong with the programming logic of your automated attendant.

Remember, your phone system is the first thing your customers and clients will experience when they call you. So make a good first impression.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

    © 2015 Glenn Stok


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