To recruit new customers, Lens Express advertises heavily, both in print and on television. Menderes Akdag, president of the $53-million mail-order contact-lens company in Deerfield Beach, Fla., used to hire a telemarketing firm staffed with operators to field calls generated by his TV ads. But the firm's reports showed that 30% to 40% of the people who dialed the Lens Express 800 number were getting busy signals.

Akdag first experimented with an automated voice-response system for the overflow calls. Although he was initially wary of directing potential customers to an automated menu, he discovered that the switch didn't affect response rates. Then he tried using automated voice response to answer all the advertising-generated calls - and found that he could save 40% to 50%. Now people who call the Lens Express 800 number get a menu inviting them to "press 1 for a free brochure, press 2 to order from a Lens Express operator." According to Akdag, 88% of the callers want the brochure and don't need to talk to a human being.

Because the automated system can handle thousands of calls at once, Akdag says he no longer has busy-signal problems. He considered the automated voice-response services offered by telemarketing companies and other long-distance providers, but in the end he chose his long-distance carrier. One factor: The phone-call volume that once accrued to the telemarketing firm now counts as Lens Express's, so the company can qualify for a lower phone rate based on volume.