Virtual receptionists replacing the real thing

Receptionists in the flesh are harder to find as virtual ones move in. But can a virtual receptionist really replace a live "director of first impressions?"
Written by John Dodge, Contributor

Clearly a victim of tough economic times and improved phone forwarding and answering technology, receptionists have succumbed to the virtual world. In the flesh, they are hard to find.

Receptionist Pam Beesly in "The Office" is fictional in more ways than one. credit: Fibers.com

And so are numbers that attest to their dwindling ranks. Let's face it, working as a receptionist is usually low-paying and stressful during busy times.

But the phone still needs answering so filling in the gap are "virtual receptionists" in the form of Internet-based software.  While the human interaction is lost,  virtual receptionists have some features live ones do not.

When was the last time a real receptionist texted you about an important call? Or worked 24/7 (there's labor laws against that)? A virtual receptionist works for peanuts and doesn't demand benefits.

eVoice, for instance ($12.95 a month after a six-month free trial), emphasizes more than automated routing and answering. Its demo video shows a dad taking that all important call at his kid's soccer game. "The new service finds me wherever I go," he says. It also gives the illusion that he has an office when clearly he doesn't.

There are others: the Onebox receptionist, VoicseShot and DaVinci Virtual Receptionist. There's also remote answering services that might be 3,000 miles away from you. One posits the idea of "virtual live receptionists" while an oxymoron, appears to be a real receptionist, but who's far away.

This begs the question: will the office be the next to go? Cheap, available and proven technology that allows us to stay in touch with action central and dispersed employees has been around for years. But the maxim that nothing replaces face-to-face contact still held until this latest recession. The thing to do until 3-5 years ago was get on a plane and visit your customers or in my case as a journalist, sources.

Now that's considered expensive, time-consuming and a hassle if it involves flying. With receptionists, face-to-face contact, apparently, is just not worth the money. Boston Globe blogger Scott Kirsner recently rued the passing of the profession in a post "Where have all the receptionists gone?" His final point in the post gives one pause and reminds me of the legendary receptionist Betty Edwards who greeted everyone with a smile at newsweekly PCWeek (now eWeek) for more than 20 years:

"The last time I was visiting VistaPrint's U.S. headquarters in Lexington, Mass. (May 2009), I took this photo of the receptionist's desk, mostly because I liked her title: "Director of   First Impressions." I hope that Dottie is still there...," Kirsner wrote.

Ironically, VistaPrint has its own virtual receptionist product called RingCentral. I looked for Vistaprint's main phone number to see if Dottie is still there, but could not find anything but an 800-customer number. It's Washington's Birthday so I assume if I called, the virtual director of first impressions would come on the line.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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