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Call us for a free FastStart Consultation: +64 4 488 7035


by Daniel Harris,
Market Research Associate
Last Updated: August 11, 2016

An automated attendant (commonly shortened to auto attendant) is a software application included in many business phone systems. Auto attendants are also known as “virtual receptionist software,” since these applications can perform many of the functions of a human receptionist.

Our buyer’s guide will cover the following topics:

What Is Auto Attendant Software?
Auto Attendant vs. IVR
How Auto Attendant Software Is Packaged
Common Functionality of Auto Attendant Software
Programming Tips

What Is Auto Attendant Software?

You know those voice menus you get when you call a local business? “Press 1 for Suzy, 2 for Bill” etc.? That’s an auto attendant.

The primary purpose of an auto attendant is to route incoming calls by listing options in a voice menu for callers to choose from (for example, “press 1 for sales, 2 for accounts receivable” etc.). Once the caller enters a number or symbol on her or his telephone keypad, the application automatically routes the call to the corresponding extension.

Auto attendants are NOT the fancy menus you get when you call your Internet provider to pay your bill, or when you call your credit card company to check your account balance. That’s a separate kind of system known as an interactive voice response (IVR) system. Let’s take a quick look at the differences in functionality between IVR systems and auto attendants to help you make an informed selection.

Auto Attendant vs. IVR

Auto attendants are commonly confused with IVR software. There are a number of distinctions between auto attendants and IVR systems:

  • User input
    IVR: Allows for voice response on the part of the caller (for example, “please state the reason you’re calling”).
    Auto attendant: Limited to numerical input (“press 1,” “press *” etc.).
  • Self-service functionality
    IVR:> Allows callers to perform tasks over the phone, such as paying a bill or checking an account balance.
    Auto attendant: Routes callers to the proper extension.
  • Business context
    IVR: Call centers that handle a high volume of inbound calls.
    Auto attendant: Smaller companies without large teams of dedicated sales or support agents.
  • Menu structure
    IVR: Menus “branch out” into various sub-menus as callers choose different options.
    Auto attendant: Generally have just one or two menu levels. Many auto attendants have only one level, but some offer a few sub-menus to choose from (for example, for different departments).
  • Call routing
    IVR: Routes callers into a call queue, where they wait on hold for the next available agent. The queue is configured and controlled by a software application known as Automatic Call Distribution or ACD, which usually integrates with the IVR system.
    Auto attendant: Routes callers directly to an extension. In some cases, auto attendants can be integrated with your call queue if your PBX system has ACD functionality (more commonly found in call center solutions than more basic PBX systems).

Typically, IVR systems are used in dedicated call centers, while auto attendants are used by local businesses and businesses that just need directory routing, e.g., dentists’ offices, law firms, consulting firms etc. IVR systems are both expensive and complex to program—they will be overkill for most small businesses, except small businesses that deal with unusually heavy inbound call volume.

IVR systems are generally sold on a standalone basis or they’re packaged in specialized software suites for call centers. Auto attendants, on the other hand, are packaged differently, as we’ll discuss now.

How Auto Attendant Software Is Packaged

Auto attendants are generally included as applications within Private Branch eXchange (PBX) systems. A PBX system is the interface between extensions in a business directory and broader telecommunications networks (e.g., the traditional phone network and the Internet). PBX systems are applications that serve as the core of business phone systems: Indeed, in most cases, the term “PBX” is simply a synonym for “phone system.”

The basic purpose of a PBX system is to enable routing control over both inbound and outbound calls. Most business phone systems are suites of PBX applications that include auto attendants alongside other applications, such as voicemail and call recording.

While most auto attendants are packaged in these PBX suites, some vendors offer them as stand-alone applications. Many of these standalone solutions also offer IVR functionality.

If you operate a call center, want to enable self-service options for inbound callers or want to place incoming calls into a queue, then you should consider a call center system. Smaller businesses can generally get by with PBX suites designed for their needs—many of which include auto attendants.

Common Functionality of Auto Attendant Software

Unlike IVR systems, auto attendants are straightforward, easy-to-program applications. Auto attendants include the following standard functionality:

Voice menu Allows you to record your own voice menus. Some vendors also offer professional menu recording services.
Dial-by-name directory A special auto-attendant phone feature that allows you to reach employee extensions by spelling out the employee’s first or last name with your telephone keypad. Particularly useful for larger offices.
Introductory greeting Allows you to record a greeting that welcomes inbound callers and describes your business or brand.
After-hours mode Allows you to program the system to offer different greetings and options based on your business’s hours of operation (e.g., informs callers that your business is now closed when it enters after-hours mode). Can also be programmed to handle weekends and holidays.

The capabilities of auto attendants can be greatly enhanced by PBX call routing functionality, such as find me/follow me (which forwards calls from office phones to mobile devices after a fixed number of rings) and hunt groups (also known as ring groups; forwards calls to a group of extensions defined by business role, rather than to a single extension). Find me/follow me enables callers to reach employees on mobile devices as well as desk phones from the auto attendant menu. Hunt groups are useful for department-level options in the menu; for instance, when an inbound caller presses #1 for “sales,” the desk phones of every employee in sales will ring.

By using hunt groups with an auto attendant, small businesses that have multiple employees dedicated to answering the phones can set up a very basic call center solution. You can choose to have all your agents’ phones ring at the same time when a caller makes a selection in the auto attendant menu. Alternatively, you can have phones ring sequentially in a round-robin scheme (employee A gets the call first, and if s/he doesn’t answer the call goes to employee B, then C etc.).

Programming Tips

We’ve done industry benchmarking research to determine best practices for programming both IVR systems and auto attendants. Our design report on IVR systems can be found here, and our auto attendant report can be found here. We interacted with hundreds of IVR systems and auto attendants to determine the benchmarking standards detailed in these reports.

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