Rubys bells are ringing

'Virtual receptionists' offer a friendly voice all over U.S.
by: Jim Clark, From her Ruby cubicle in the Pearl District, Becky Kari is a nice voice at the other end of the line for businesses across the country.

If you call Mano Furs in Baltimore (410-323-4175), instead of a Chesapeake Bay accent you might notice something familiar about the voice that answers the phone.

'We get all these sweet old ladies asking, 'Is this Mano Swartz?' because the store dropped the Swartz,' Alison Wenk says. She answers the phone for Mano at Ruby Receptionists, a virtual receptionist company based in the Pearl District. Wenk, 23, is one of 17 staff members who intercept calls for 480 small businesses spread out across the nation.

Generally, the good ladies of Baltimore don't have much time to chat. But they could if they wanted to.

'Yes, we're allowed to interact,' Wenk says cheerfully.

More than an answering service (which just passes on messages) and far more than an auto attendant ('Press 1 for sales'), Ruby Receptionists tries to provide a complex human interaction in a few short seconds. High-speed Internet access and fast computers make the service possible - that and a quick mind and endless patience.

Wenk usually has five or six windows open on her computer screen as she fields calls. Calls can be picked up by any of the women - and they are all women - in the room. They each take an average of 200 per day. The TeleCall software uses caller ID to automatically bring up the name and details of the company. For instance, if it's a call for Dr. Kelly Fitzpatrick, who performs gastric bypass surgery in Eugene, Wenk consults the doctor's calendar while greeting the caller.

Notes on screen tell her exactly what to say. She has a pleasant intonation: musical but not too singsongy, warm but not annoyingly perky.

Clicking on buttons on the screen will direct the call to the doctor's various lines and inboxes. There's an electronic 'in and out board,' and voice messages can be forwarded as audio files to e-mail. There are a lot of options, all held together by human intelligence.

Wenk also e-mails clients constantly. (On a recent day her archived inbox had 27,673 items.) She also keeps an instant-message window open so she can chat with colleagues or silently notify them when she's busy. And during downtime she reads her favorite news sites - BBC and MSN - and a Chicago Cubs ticker.

The key is to stay one step ahead of the robots by doing what humans do best.

Just as Scotland is considered a better place for a call center than, say, London, because the labor can be inexpensive and the people are pleasant, so Portlanders, it seems, have cornered the nice market.

'West Coast people have a mellow accent that's not too difficult to understand, and we seem to be a little bit more patient than our East Coast callers,' says Cassandra Angelechio, 20. She's been with Ruby for eight months and likes it a lot, working the 5:30 a.m.-to-2 p.m. shift.

'Sixty-five percent of our business is on the East Coast,' says Jill Nelson, founder and president of Ruby Receptionists. 'And it's that Portland personality that people on the East Coast get blown away by.'

'Let's make this work!'

Nelson started the company in 2003 to sell office administration services, calling it WorkSource Inc.

'As soon as we put the Web site up people started calling from the East Coast wanting virtual receptionists, so we said, 'Let's make this work!' ' Nelson says. In 2005 they started doing business as Ruby Receptionists. Local branding firm Sockeye Creative came up with the name to personify the experience.

'They're incredibly personable and professional and kind of fun - they get to know their customer's customer,' Sockeye boss Andy Fraser says. They considered Moneypenny, Switchboard Sally, E-Line, Doris. 'We wanted something short, old but still fresh.' Ruby harked back to the days of the indispensable secretary/receptionist.

Most of the company's new business comes from key word searches on Google Ads and Yahoo Overture. Ruby Receptionists pays the portals from 5 cents to $5 for anyone who clicks through after searching for 'virtual receptionist.'

'We like to think of ourselves as 'remote receptionists' because we're real people, but 'virtual' is what people are searching for,' Nelson says.

Last April, when the only similar company, Perceptionist in Ohio, got into the drug prescription call-center business, it transferred its clients to Ruby. In May Ruby won a Top Ten Growth Award from the Portland Business Alliance and plans to move to bigger Pearl digs in October.

Staff manager Ty O'Steen is the only male in the company. He confirms that what they value is niceness.

'We're looking for bright, articulate, intelligent people. We've noticed people with years of front desk reception experience aren't always the best fit for this job.'

A high school grad with a professional attitude and friendly demeanor is more attractive.

'A business background is a plus - like knowing 'AC' means accounts receivable,' O'Steen says.

But the main thing is people have to be above average in the niceness stakes.

Wenk says that being polite all day 'is really easy for me. But when you get backed into a corner, with people screaming, you just have to say, 'I am just the service, all I can do is take a message, but I will get this to them.' '

In a bid to relieve stress, Sadie Medley of Yoga Pearl was hired to teach the staff simple relaxation techniques - basically, deskbound deep breathing and stretching.

Voices are versatile

Typical clients include sole-practitioner law firms and tech companies with distributed staff. There's also the Valmonte Center for Performing Arts in New Jersey, and the Baron Financial Group, two Jersey brothers who jokingly compare themselves to television's 'The Sopranos.'

'Most are small-business professionals whose call volume would never justify having their own receptionist,' Nelson says.

Although you can get a virtual auto attendant for $15 a month (for example, ConnectMe, Nelson says her clients pay an average of $300 a month. Ruby bills an average of $1.20 a minute and only for the amount of time 'Ruby' is on the phone.

Becky Kari, 26, has certainly made herself at home. Her desk holds a collection of Japanese vinyl toys, and her desktop wallpaper is 'The Great Wave Off Kanagawa' by 19th-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.

'This is probably going to be one of my next tattoos,' she says, measuring out her arm. 'From about here down to here.'

Despite her warrior look, she is sweet and patient on the phone. 'I was a receptionist at Clear Channel with 10 or 15 lines, it was a lot more stressful.'

Her buddy Heather Brackett looks on from the opposite cube.

'We communicate, on a lot of stuff,' Kari says. 'Usually IM (instant messaging), because if someone's on a call you don't want to hear shouting. But sometimes you have to say something out loud.'

While they try to remain anonymous to callers, the receptionists' minibiographies are sent to clients so that they know the Rubies are real.

While technology and the needs of business continue to change at warp speed, certain old-fashioned things remain essential.

'We're in competition with the auto attendant, so we're not just a warm voice, we're real people,' Nelson says. 'That's what's so attractive for our client, they want their customers to be treated nicely.'

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