Defining the Answering Service
Telephone Answering services historically focused on taking messages for clients outside of normal business hours. These services would have a live person answer calls transferred from the clients' phone line to give basic information like the normal business hours and take messages. Often, if there was an emergency the answering service would be able to contact their client to pass on any necessary information.
As time has worn on things have changed considerably. The modern spin on the answering service is the "call center" in which agents will answer a client's call and attempt to handle their requests and other issues. Department stores, credit card companies, computer manufactures, and many other businesses now outsource their over-the-phone customer service and marketing to call centers. Much of it is even outsourced to other countries where the people speak English as a second language and make your phone experience that much more difficult. Thankfully, this is leading to a resurgence of call centers whose agents speak English as a first language - or at least speak with an easy accent.
Defining "answering service" as a service with people whose job it is to answer phone calls and perform some kind of task in order to complete some type of transaction, the first answering service was operated directly by the phone companies. Starting in 1878, the year telephone services were first introduced to the general public, calls were handled and transferred locally and in some communities there were simple party lines. There were no phone numbers in the beginning; people connected by name using telephone operators instead. The operators didn't just plug one line into another blindly - instead they would answer the phones and find out where to route the callers and then make the connections using long patch cords.
In addition to their main duty of patching callers together, operators were also expected to act as an information desk for the town. Operators were tasked with informing customers of election results, streetcar breakdowns, storms and train arrivals among other things. As time wore on the operators were eventually cut to a minimum and replaced with electronic number oriented switchboards and eventually automatic switchboards.
It is somewhat shrouded in history when the first commercial answering service opened for business. The earliest services likely began by catering to physicians. The oldest one still in operation at the time of this writing (April, 2011), got its start in 1923 by doing just that.
Where Have All the Answering Services Gone?
Answering services began as a dispersed decentralized crew working with a new technology and eventually obtained its own singular identity as a service unto itself. A number of basic telephone answering services are still around, but many now also offer other services including telemarketing, surveys, third party verification, help desks, order taking, appointment setting, and other forms of customer service. Many large corporations have taken the route to this call center format.
Many professional services still utilize these call centers for basic answering services to field important calls, including lawyers and especially physicians' offices that often take after-hours calls for pediatric patients, cardiac surgery and other 24/7 medical specialties. As long as businesses and professionals will need to maintain that 24/7 contact with their clients there will always be a need for the ever-evolving system of telephone answering services.