A virtual receptionist should be more than an answering service. Sure, the basic idea is that you have a real person answering calls instead of letting them go to voicemail, but that's just the start.
Depending on whose statistics you believe, as many as three-quarters of first time callers to a business will hang up if they reach voicemail rather than a person. We don't know how old that figure is, and we suspect people are more comfortable with voicemail now than they were a decade ago.
An answering service is basically just a human being pretending to be an answering machine, though at one time we would have put that the other way round. Someone phones, you don't answer, the service picks up the call, takes a message and forwards it to you, typically by SMS or email.
A virtual receptionist goes beyond that. He or she will take a message if necessary, but also gives you a way of having a single public number covering everyone in the business. Calls are answered just as a 'real' receptionist would, and then directed to the appropriate person's landline or mobile. The illusion of being a larger business can be encouraged if the service ensures the same agent answers your calls whenever possible.
Virtual receptionists should also be able to provide answers to basic questions such as "what are your opening hours?", "what is your address?" and "do you deliver flowers to Mater Mothers' Hospital?"
Even if your business is at the stage where it needs a real receptionist, it may be worth adding a virtual receptionist so you know you are covered if you're flooded with calls, during breaks, or the occasional sickie.
Some of these services also offer call screening, so you can avoid being interrupted by routine inquiries that can safely be left until it's convenient for you to return the call, while making sure that important clients and family members can reach you at any time if it is at all urgent.
Or you may want to go even further. Virtual receptionist services may be able to take orders ("a large bunch of gladioli to Mrs Jane Doe at Calvary North Adelaide Hospital by noon tomorrow, please") or book appointments ("I'd like a perm on Friday, please, what time can Adele fit me in?" or "I'd like a quote for cutting down a tree in my garden").
Other add-ons may include out-of-hours answering, fax-to-email, and even a virtual postal address.
All this comes at a price, of course. While the costs vary, providers typically charge a monthly fee that includes a certain number of calls, with an additional charge for every call after that. Services that simply pass on messages are normally cheaper than those that can connect calls (screened or otherwise) to one or more people, and some providers charge per minute rather than per call. And be prepared to pay extra if the nature of your business is such that you really need someone with local knowledge to answer calls - some services only use offshore workers.
Finally, if you need more specialised tasks performed in addition to those usually done by a receptionist, you may need a virtual assistant instead.