AAA Anserphone has the answers

In the shadows to the east and across Hwy. 49 from Forrest General Hospital sits a blond brick, non-descript building. The work that goes on within its walls might seem like utter chaos to some. But for Clara Boutwell and daughter, Darlene Bond, it’s more like controlled non-chaos. Answering some 1,500 to 1,600 phone calls a day, AAA Anserphone (no, that’s not a misspelling) and Doctor’s Exchange works around the clock – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And it’s done so for more than 60 years.

Once located in a small building at the corner of Forrest and McLeod Streets in downtown Hattiesburg (the one with the mannequin in the window), the answering service finally outgrew its facilities and moved to Hwy. 49 South in fall 2016. The structure had served as Hooper Sound and Rock Solid Gear.

The late Vermae Rowell founded the company in 1959. Boutwell began her association with the company 10 years later.

"My husband, Glen, stopped by the service to pick up his messages, and Mrs. Rowell asked if he knew anyone who wanted a job,” remembers Clara, who had previous experience working a switchboard for two years in high school. Having been employed at Forrest General Hospital, she was home at the time with the couple’s three children. “He called me at home and I went to work the next day and that’s history,” Boutwell said.

In the company’s early years, Boutwell remembers the bank of black wall phones. “She got it up to 100 phones on the wall, and then got her first switchboard,” said Boutwell. One of the black wall phones and an original switchboard sits in the lobby of their new building to remind them have far they’ve come.

In 1977, Rowell approached Boutwell about buying the company. “I’ve been here 48 years. I came to work Sept. 26, 1969, and I’m going to make 50-plus if it kills me,” she laughs. “I think they want me to retire and my husband definitely is ready for me to retire.”

Boutwell recalls those early days down on Forrest and in the years that followed. There were three separate buildings. “She (Rowell) advised me to buy the building next door, never knowing when we might need it,” said Boutwell. “We stayed where we were until 1985 and the big flood. And that’s when we needed the building.”

 They spent 33 years on Forrest, where she described the setup as “everybody in one central station. Anywhere from five to eight phones were ringing at one time, everybody was talking, you couldn’t hear and at times had to ask the caller to repeat what they had said.”

 

New digs

At the new location, there’s plenty of room to spread out. Each of the company’s operators has her own area sectioned off from the others. And when calls come in, there’s not a jarring ring, but a sound like you might hear in any doctor’s office. It’s quickly picked up by one of the phone secretaries, who answer it with the name of a particular business. Those calling never know they’ve connected with an answering service, a goal of the company.

“We want them to feel like they are talking to a secretary in the office they are calling,” said Bond.

Currently, calls are answered for more than 450 companies – from doctors’ offices to plumbers, air and heat businesses, funeral homes, apartment complexes, home health agencies, attorneys and more.

Changes in technology have drastically changed the way the company does business. These days a minimalist headset and computer provide operators with the latest information and instructions at their fingertips from their business partners.

“Their computer screen instantly shows the operator what customer is being called when a phone rings into their station,” said Boutwell. It also provides the necessary instructions, which may change from time to time, about how to deal with the call, whether the person wants to be paged, texted, etc.

Many people describe the business as the one with the misspelled name, but Boutwell explains that an AAA Answerphone (with the ‘w’) and Doctors Exchange was already in business in Jackson when Rowell formed the company. “She wanted to be listed first in the phone book, so she changed the spelling to ‘anser’ without the ‘w,’” explained Boutwell.

 

Original customers 

Some of Rowell’s original customers are still on the books and Boutwell has the ledgers to prove it. Sumrall Air Control Service was there then and remains so today.

Boutwell recounts a story Rowell told about the Sumrall business. "She had a rocking chair in front of the phone that she used to answer calls,” said Boutwell. “And David Sumrall would sit with her and wait for a service call." Sumrall’s son, Cory, runs the business these days.

It’s much the same for Bond, who started working at her mother’s business as a teenager.

“I worked from age 13 to 18,” she said. She then went to work for both Trustmark and Deposit Guaranty. In April 2001, she decided she was ready for a change and joined forces with her mother. “It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long ago,” she said.

And working with her mother? “Working with family can be challenging,”  Bond said. “There are people who work with family who will tell you that, but it has its perks for sure.”

Bond’s daughter, Lindsay Pace, also worked for the company for awhile until a job came along that offered insurance and other benefits.

And it was Boutwell’s two sons and a grandson, who did most of the renovation of the new building, which needed a lot of TLC. All-in-all it’s been a total family project.

The two women’s work styles are quite different also. “I’m more forgiving,” said Clara. “If something happens I’m more apt to say, ‘Oh well, it was a mistake and we’ll do better next time.’”

“She’s the nicer of the two,” Bond said. “I’m the harder of the two. I don’t put up with a lot and I expect people to do what they are told to do the first time. I guess that’s my Type A personality. If you do your job right, I’m great to work for.”

Boutwell says if there is a disagreement or any type of discussions, she usually leaves the room.

“We try not to talk business when we were at home,” said Bond. “We try to just be family, but sometimes it’s hard. As I’ve gotten older I’ve kind of come around to her way of thinking on some things and as she’s gotten older she’s come around to my way of thinking, so between the two of us we do a pretty good job.”

Boutwell is only in the office about three days a week, paying bills, getting things ready for the accountant and other needed things.

Bond explained that sometimes calls are “a matter of life and death. You’ve got to be on it. If your instructions say page the doctor, put them on hold or whatever, you have to do that.”

Boutwell adds that there’s a schedule for every doctor, books and books of them, which are programmed into the computer. “It’s up to us to read and see who’s on call and who’s not,” she said.

Bond describes it as a very multitasking-type business. “You really have to be able to do more than one thing at a time,” she explained. “It’s really like you work for every person -- all 450 of them.  And we want them to picture themselves as a secretary in every single one of them. It helps make them understand.”

 

Busy times

Boutwell and Bond aren’t just owner and manager, respectively. They are also both on the work schedule and can answer calls from a remote system at each of their homes, which Boutwell, who mans phones from 7:30-9:30 a.m. each morning, describes as “absolutely fantastic.”

The busiest times of day are before businesses open for the day and around 5 p.m. While the service can cancel appointments for those calling in, they can’t make appointments or reschedule an appointment. That would require access to the office’s computer system.

And while the business and operators are all Hippa certified and compliant, staying on top of their own computer system is more than enough to handle.

Because of Hippa regulations, operators are not allowed to have their personal cell phones in their office area. Phones are placed in a divided box that was once used to place the messages they took. “Their phones are in a central location and they can pick them up when they go on break,” Boutwell said.

“Many people who can’t keep an appointment will cancel late at night or early in the morning, so they won’t be charged for missing an appointment in offices where they do that,” Boutwell said.

On the average, three shifts answer a minimum of 800 calls a day. One shift works from 6:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. and then 2 until 10:30 p.m. and then an overnight and the longest shift, 10 p.m.-6:30 a.m. At any given time, with the exception of the overnight shift, there are at least four operators, with Boutwell and Bond adding backup as needed.

Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Boutwell jokes that when she dies, they’ll have to have the visitation at the office, so that all of her employees can attend.

And she’s not kidding.

“I may have the funeral elsewhere, but we have a perfect place out there now where people could come in the door, pay their respects, go on through to the kitchen and pick up refreshments and then out,” Boutwell explained.

“That’s what she’s said from Day 1,” added Bond.

“No, I’m serious,” Boutwell pipes in. “Well, we can’t close. We have to answer the phones and I want everybody, all my employees, to come. I don’t want them to have to hire people to come in and answer phones, so they can come to my wake. We’ve also got great parking out there.”

On a serious note, Boutwell said the business does tend to curtail the time she can take off, especially for out-of-town trips.

“I don't take vacations often,” she said, and she and Darlene “can't be out of town at the same time.”

 

Technology

Since taking over the company, Boutwell said she has seen a number of changes, especially in the way technology has affected the business.

"We used to take messages on pieces of paper,” she said. “Now we type everything on the computer," she said, but added, "We still have one-on-one contact with our customers. Everyone has his or her own preferences. Some want their calls right then. Some check in every few hours."

The business currently has about 18 employees, with some of those part-time, Boutwell said.

Both women said one of the interesting things they have learned from answering calls is that, "People will call at four in the morning to a doctor's office to make an appointment. When we answered calls for the cable company, people would call to say their cable was out and they wanted it on right now. We'd say, 'Do you have power?' They'd say, 'I don't know,' and they'd be sitting in the dark."

Pace said one of the things she enjoys about working at the answering service is the variety it provides. “Taking calls for our customers is like being a secretary at each one,” she said. "It's like working for several hundred companies. You never do the same thing all day long. Each situation is different. One minute you may be trying to get an expectant mother to labor and delivery, while the next call may be for a veterinarian and there’s a cow down.

“And that’s really kind of what makes it exciting. The down side of what some refer to as a call center is you never really see the people you answer for. We have a lot of residents with Merit Health and Forrest General and we never see those doctors.  But the more you talk to people the more you get to know them and put a face to it, even though you don’t see a face.”

Boutwell said one of the things she tries to do to help her telephone secretaries is when something comes out in the paper announcing a new doctor, she cuts it out and puts it on a bulletin board. “It allows them to actually put a face with a name,” she said.

Each business they answer calls for has its own particular set of guidelines. “We are the gatekeeper,” said Bond. “We triage the calls per customer’s instructions. If we don’t do that, we haven’t kept the gate closed. Most of our customers we have really good interaction with."

The most hectic time for the service is during the holidays, a time when you would expect things to slow down. However with many smaller businesses closed for several days around the holiday or even a week, the volume of calls goes up. “With our staffing, it’s hard to handle the call volume,” Bond said. “We don’t even realize it’s a holiday.”

 

Exactly what do you do?

Bond said most people don’t realize what a telephone answering service is and what services they provide. “Call center has a negative connotation,” she said, “so we are a telephone answering service.”

While a number of calls are taken before and after hours, calls come in during the day, which may prove difficult for a small service company, like a plumber or air conditioning business, where there is no secretary to answer the phone. In another instance, they might be answering the overflow calls from a doctor’s office that only has one secretary.

“We think it’s the best money you can invest in a business,” said Bond. “You can’t pay a secretary one day for what we charge for an entire month. Our prices are very reasonable.”

Customer contracts are on a month-to-month basis and customers are charged a flat rate plus an overage fee, if that occurs.

“If somebody is not convinced how beneficial our services are, we suggest they do a trial basis,” said Bond. “I guarantee you will be on board with us and won’t leave. It’s the best investment a business can make.”

She said a lot of times people work independently with a couple of service people, but no secretary, where billing is done at home, “we are their secretary.”

“In many instances where these independents are answering their own phone, they can’t get anything done for answering call after call all day. We can answer the phone for them, send a text message with name and address, which can then be forwarded on to a serviceman, who can dial straight from the number to check out. And the customer gets a report the next morning of all incoming calls, which can be used for billing purposes. It’s sort of a checks and balances system.”

According to Bond, an average small business will pay from $115 to $131 a month for service.

 

Training

Those operators who come on board at the business undergo two weeks of training, going over each of the types of calls she might answer, how the computer works and what the different keys do, questions to ask, message forms and service calls vs. physician calls.

 “Our keyboard is standard,” said Boutwell. “It just has different functions.”

The system has become rote for Bond. “I can do it in my sleep,” she said. “When I train people, I can’t tell them, I have to show them. I do it so much, it’s becomes a series.

“Knowing how to talk to someone is key,” said Bond. “And once they get it, they know it.” She said they have had employees leave to have kids and then come back or former employees who want to pick up some extra cash, who come back in to work holidays or summer vacation.

“They pick it right back up,” Bond said. “Once trained, they are a godsend. They already know everything, so it’s easy to bring them back in and put them to work. It’s hard to be a part-timer unless you’ve been here previously and can walk back in and go to work.”

And with technology comes pitfalls, at times. During a recent national phone outage, which was felt from Louisiana to Alabama, parts of the Hub City also went down, including Anserphone, which was down for three hours – 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and right before lunch, a busy time. Out purchasing office supplies, Bond received the dreaded call that rebooting the computer, something that had worked in previous outages, wasn’t working this time. She hurriedly made her way back to the office and put the emergency protocol into action, while at times juggling five phones.

“We started calling all of our customers, the hospitals first, which is a good majority of what we do every day,” said Bond of the national outage. Luckily, the business has a land line that operates on a different system that can be accessed. They also sent out mass email messages

New backup procedures are currently being worked on that will give them backup to another provider in the event their carrier goes down. “Hopefully, we’ll not have to use it,” said Bond.

 

Down and out

The business has only shut its door twice, and for abbreviated times.

“For the flood of 1985, which sent water into the downtown area, we were down about 24 hours,” said Boutwell. However, with Katrina it was about three days. Bond worked at the Forrest Street office through Katrina.

“Our generator went out the same time as the generator at Forrest General,” she said. “I started with seven people the morning of Katrina and they slowly kept leaving with family members coming to pick them up. By 8 or 9 a.m., there were just two of us. The other girl’s apartment had no electricity, so she stayed with me since there was light.”

Bond remembers it being incredibly hot and sporadically getting calls in, depending on the cell provider the caller had at that time.

“We were still functioning until the next morning,” she remembers. “We were in downtown Hattiesburg, had no power, because the generator had gone out and no one was here. By that time I was by myself and I couldn’t get anywhere.” Within a few minutes, there was a knock on the door. It was Bond’s brother, who had been sent by their mother, “who was at home having a fit.”

She describes that time as “interesting.” “As soon as we got a line up, we were answering 5,000 to 6,000 calls a day with a staff of six or seven.”

 

Archives

While about 90 percent of daytime calls are medical related, nighttime calls usually revolve around service calls and towing. But no matter what the call, there’s a recorded backup.

A recorded call is kept of every call the business takes. “If they are talking to us, it’s being recorded, both sides,” said Bond. “Once a doctor comes on line, the recording is then dropped. But in case something ever comes up, we have that recording to back us up, in the event of something like a ‘he said/she said.’ We can go back to recording. It’s saved a lot of people and is helpful if a lawsuit were to arise.”

Messages on paper are also kept in the computer for two years and are then archived. Archives go back to 2001, when the business got a new system. “And we have had to pull some,” Bond said. At times an office has called back needing a number of a call they took. “We research it and can call back and give them the information. It’s here and it’s all confidential.”

When the phone rings at Anserphone, it rings at every station and whoever can answer it, picks it up. “Our goal is to capture the line within three rings,” said Bond. “On the fourth ring it goes to a generic, ‘All operators are busy, please hold the line’ message.”

Bond said in most instances she can be on and off a call in less than three minutes. “Some are less than a minute, while some can be lengthy,” she said.

On days when the weather is nasty, they handle a lot of cancellations, which start early in the morning and come in one right after another. “You wouldn’t think a telephone answering service would be affected by the weather,” said Bond. “But the types of calls we handle for the companies we answer for are affected by weather, therefore we are.”

Reports listing the previous day’s calls are automatically faxed to offices at 8:05 the next morning.

And calls from Pine Belt businesses aren’t the only ones they handle. “We also answer calls for businesses in Meridian, Starkville, Columbia, Picayune and Poplarville, places where people know of us,” said Bond.

“Technology had done incredible things for us,” said Bond. “It’s made a world of difference.”

“Back when I started, everything was written on little pieces of paper,” said Boutwell. “You couldn’t read people’s writing and didn’t know what it said. With 10 or 12 people writing, it was hard to read. But the time of hand-written messages and hand-stamped times is long gone, thank goodness.”

Both women talk about the ease of sending out mass emails or text messages across the board or to specific groups. “When paychecks are ready, I can send out a blast to all employees,” said Bond.

 

One big family

“And the new building is the best thing we have done in a long time,” added Boutwell. “I was fighting it so hard. I didn’t want to have to die for it to happen, but I thought they could wait until I was not in the picture.” But in the end, it was Boutwell who visited the building first, with one of her sons, and informed Darlene “she needed to come see it.”

“It took months to get ready for the move, in addition to the work on the building, but I went to work July 1 getting the processes in order to transfer the service.”

And when they left the downtown facility, which had served as a good home, there were tears shed, “not just by us, but employees, who were afraid at what the new building would bring. It was leaving a home,” said Boutwell.

Although answering services tend to have high turnover rates, Boutwell said she is proud of how long some of her employees have been with the company. Marilyn Evans has been with the center for 40 years. Another dedicated worker, who eventually left for health reasons, "would come to work dragging an oxygen tank. She was a faithful operator," Boutwell said, adding, "I've got an excellent group."

A 10-year-veteran, Haley Anderson of Purvis has been with Anserphone since she was 17. “She’s getting ready to get married and I feel like I’m her mother. I’m right in on the wedding plans,” said Bond.

“I was terrified when I started,” said Anderson, who now serves as a trainer for others who come in. “We do love our new location, It’s so great being here. I cried when I left the building downtown. I was the last to leave. It was very emotional. I answered the last call and they turned the system of.”

Anderson says she feels like she’s grown up here. And because she talks to so many people, she feels like she has friends everywhere.

She said one of the hardest things to do is flip flop your brain with each call – from heat and air to doctors to plumbers.

She’s very complimentary of both of her bosses, who she describes as “wonderful and great.”

Getting married on Nov. 11, “Darlene has helped me so much,” said Anderson. “She’s been my go-to for flowers and everything.”

“She even sent me a picture of her dress when she picked it out,” said Bond.

Sally Mann, 71, had previous experience as part owner and general manager of answering service in New Orleans, as well as in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

She retired eight years ago, but got bored and after a year called to see about working at Anserphone. “I like it here,” she said, citing two stories.

“I don’t get sick a lot, but I was sick for five days last year and Clara brought me groceries. I didn’t ask her to. That’s just the kind of place this is.”

The women also allowed Mann, who has macular generation, to work in an office inside the building where the glare is not so harsh on her eyes.

“We’ve seen marriages and kids, students go through college, everything,” said Bond.

Boutwell noted that they had had two employees with perfect attendance – one in 2015 and another in 2016. Those employees get a special bonus at the end of the year.

“At a lot of jobs, if you’re not there there are others to pick up the slack or your work is waiting on you when you get back,” Bond said. “But if somebody is out here, somebody has to take that place. We can work short some of the time, but not for very long.”

College students have worked at the center throughout college. “We’re always flexible and work with them once they get their schedules,” Bond said.

For employees, there is no set schedule. “It changes weekly,” said Bond, who tries to get the schedule out as much as possible a head of time, so workers can plan accordingly and still have a life. Most of the operators work two days and three nights (the 2-10 p.m. shift) within a week.

The night shift receives as many as 200 calls each night, from 10 p.m. until 6:30 the next morning.

As they were cleaning out the old office in preparation for the move, Boutwell hated to get rid of the old employee files, so she took their applications, tore the name off and placed it with their photograph in an album. “I probably spent a month or two putting all of that together,” Boutwell said.

 

Interesting

• For those requiring a bilingual interpreter, Anserphone has someone on call to speak Spanish to their clients.

• When Vermae Rowell owned the business, she sold the first nine doctors at Hattiesburg Clinic.

• The lady in the window would be Beulah, who had to make the move with the staff. She now welcomes guests to the lobby. “We couldn’t leave her behind,” said Boutwell of the mannequin she’d always wanted, which came from Rudy’s Silk Hat out on the bypass.

Boutwell said Beulah drew a lot more attention downtown in the window. Beulah gets dressed up for the holidays and Boutwell is appreciative that she never complains about the hours. “She’s really the joke of the office,” she said.

• The old office was also home to some stray cats, which the employees named and took care of. One employee continues to go by the old office on a daily basis and feed them and neighboring businesses have taken them in also. “People asked if we were going to bring them with us, but we felt it was a little too dangerous to bring them here,” said Boutwell.

• Anserphone is the only business of its kind in the Hub City. While there is an AnswerCall in Laurel, the service only answered calls for funeral homes, nursing homes and doctors – nothing else,” said Boutwell. “He sent us customers he didn’t deal with.”

“We feel real important here,” said Boutwell of the new location. “And I consider Ms. Rowell my hero, my mentor. I credit her for where I am today."

With the company recently celebrating 50 years, Boutwell said she continues to look forward to what's ahead.

"September 2009 was 50 years we've kept it going," she said. "We hope to keep it up another 50 or 150, or as long as this world lasts."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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