After I reviewed Ruby Receptionists, Total Attorneys President Kevin Chern emailed me to ask me to review his company’s Virtual Receptionist service, saying “We consistently hear from customers that we kick Ruby’s ass.” After using Total Attorneys’ service for a couple of months, I don’t share that assessment, even though TA’s Virtual Receptionist has some important advantages over Ruby Receptionists.

Read on for my in-depth impressions.

Pricing and setting up Virtual Receptionist

One of the most attractive features of Virtual Receptionist for me is the price. Instead of paying a flat monthly rate, as with Ruby, you pay per call. For about $200, you get 50 calls (I got a free block of 50 calls in order to review the service). The length of the calls doesn’t matter; you get 50. Those calls don’t expire, either, so you can take two weeks or two months to use them up. (I’m not sure what happens when you run out. I assume Total Attorneys will let me know so I can stock up on calls.) I’ve scaled back my practice considerably, so I get maybe thirty calls a month. That makes Total Attorneys a pretty cost-effective option for me, at least compared to Ruby, where the lowest-priced plan (with a lot more minutes than I need) is $219 per month.

Getting set up with Virtual Receptionist is pretty easy. You fill out a questionnaire with your personal information, how to pronounce your name, and call handling instructions. Once you’ve done that, Total Attorneys will give you a phone number to use. I used Google Voice to redirect my calls to Total Attorneys. It took us a few tries to get that right, but my Virtual Receptionist liaison was helpful, and I think the difficulty was due to Google, not Total Attorneys.

This experience was similar to my Call Ruby setup process, except that Ruby sent me a thank-you package as soon as I was set up (during the free trial period, even!), and called soon after to make sure everything was working how I wanted it to work. I’ve never gotten so much as a thank-you note from Total Attorneys, much less a check-in phone call or care package.

Those perks don’t make the service itself better or worse, but it is nice to feel like your business is appreciated.

Working with Virtual Receptionist

Total Attorneys staffs its call center 24/7, meaning someone will pick up your phone no matter when it rings. (This is an advantage over Ruby Receptionists, which is only available during coast-to-coast business hours.) As a civil litigator and business lawyer, I don’t get too many 2 a.m. phone calls, but you might have a need for 24/7 coverage.

TA Virtual Receptionist calls are answered in Chicago—I actually visited the call center earlier this year during the ABA TechShow conference—according to your instructions. You can have your calls handled in a number of different ways. My instructions were to get a name, phone number, and the reason for the call from every caller. Anyone who specifically asks to speak with me should be put through. This can be a “warm transfer,” meaning the receptionist calls me, first, to see if I really want the call. I can accept the call, send back a message, etc. Otherwise, I just get a message by email. I prefer this to voicemail, since the receptionist can just give me the salient details, and I don’t have to listen to a long-rambling message. And it works better than the hit-or-miss voicemail transcription feature of Google Voice.

As with Ruby, you can update your instructions on the fly. So if you are going to be in court for the day, you can log into your dashboard and tell Virtual Receptionist to hold your calls. There’s no iPhone app, but it’s not difficult to log in from a smartphone, anyway.

Everything works very smoothly, from the customer’s end. It feels just like having a receptionist, except that you don’t have to find office space for one—or pay a salary.

What callers experience

When you get right down to it, though, none of the above really matters. The only reason to have anyone answer the phone is for your callers. Just as I did with Call Ruby, I made a couple of test calls and asked callers what they thought about my receptionist. Here’s where Total Attorneys really distinguished itself from Call Ruby: the reactions were 100% negative.

Every caller I spoke with said they were put off by the receptionist’s manner, didn’t have confidence in the receptionist’s competence (i.e., that I would actually get the message), and that the receptionist did not reflect well on my firm. The first time I got this feedback, I chalked it up to bad communication or my receptionist having a bad day. After three or four other people agreed, I decided it was a bigger problem.

I did send my concerns to Total Attorneys. I was hoping for some assurance that my results were an anomaly, or that my instructions had a “programming” error that was responsible for the negative reactions (even though Ruby Receptionists got the same instructions). That was weeks ago, and I haven’t received any follow-up. (If I had sent the same complaint to Ruby, I’d probably have five thank-you notes and a gift basket within hours. Plus, when I was using Ruby, several callers actually told me—unprompted—how nice my receptionist was.)

It is definitely possible that my callers were unusually sensitive, or that they had unusually high expectations, but I don’t think so. The callers I polled included my wife, potential clients, an attorney who wanted to refer a client, and a networking contact. I think I had a pretty good sample that gave me representative feedback.

It is quite possible that Total Attorneys has fixed these problems by now, and just forgot to respond to my email. Or that I just had rotten luck and got a series of receptionists in the middle of a bad day. Whatever the cause of the poor service my callers received, they did receive bad service, and that is counterproductive.

Downsides of going virtual

Regardless of the quality of service I received from Total Attorneys in particular, there are some important concerns with using a virtual receptionist, in general.

For example, while Total Attorneys was handling my calls, I started getting calls from a debt collector for “Jane Doe.” (This wasn’t Total Attorneys’ fault, obviously.) Virtual Receptionist took the messages, and I received the messages by email, as usual. This was a lot better than talking to the debt collector personally, although if the calls were going through, I could have just asked the collector to stop calling.

When I did finally call the collection agency, however, I found out that Virtual Receptionist was saying that they would be sure to pass the message on to Jane Doe. There is no Jane Doe at my firm. There is nobody but me, in fact.

When I told Total Attorneys that I had a problem with virtual receptionists making up new members of my firm, here is the response I received:

I can assure you that our receptionists have not been intentionally lying about who works in your office. Sometimes, we are not given the names or information for new employees in our sponsors’ offices. To be sure that we are delivering all messages and calls that come into your toll free number, our receptionists have been informed to take a message unless we are provided with information proving otherwise.

It’s great that Total Attorneys wants to be sure it is delivering all messages and calls, but that doesn’t mean it has to give callers the false impression that someone works for me. A receptionist should have a list of people at the firm. If a caller asks for someone not on the list, the response should be honest. Something like this would be better: “I don’t see that person on my staff list, but I can give your number to a manager, if you like.” If Total Attorneys isn’t asking for a list of staff, it should be.

Similar issues may arise from time to time that threaten to “expose” the fact that your receptionist is not in your office. First, this should not be a secret. If you choose to use a virtual receptionist, both you and your virtual receptionist should be up-front about that fact, should it arise. You don’t have to shout it at every caller, but your receptionist should never conceal it (like mine did, when they pretended to know that Jane Doe works at my firm). In my case, the receptionists’ deception just meant I just had a harder time convincing the collection agency that it had the wrong number. I can think of wrong-number scenarios with much worse consequences, however.

Total Attorneys—and any virtual receptionist—needs to get a staff list from its customers and come up with a better way of handling calls to people who aren’t on that list.

So what’s the best virtual receptionist for the job?

Without taking price into consideration, I think Ruby Receptionists is the better option. Its customer service is outstanding, and so is its quality of service to callers. The receptionists at Ruby handle your calls like seasoned professionals, while the receptionists at Total Attorneys seem more like inexperienced law clerks.

For many of us, though, price remains an important consideration. Depending on your call volume, Total Attorneys could cost far less than Ruby, and you might want to have someone answering your phone even when you can’t. But if you decide to give Total Attorneys a try, make sure you get feedback from your callers to make sure you are happy with the way your calls are being handled. 

With my low call volume—twenty to forty calls per month—I’m going to go back to answering my own phone for a while. But the month my call volume goes up to fifty or more, I’m going back to Ruby. I already know I’m not the best person to answer my own phone, but I’m not willing to pay good money for someone who doesn’t do a better job.

(photo: Shutterstock)