Voice mail can solve many of your telephone-answering problems -- provided you get the right system
It happens to everyone in business -- usually several times a day. You call someone who isn't in. Rather than dictate a long message to a busy receptionist, you leave your name and phone number, which the receptionist jots down on a pink "while you were out" slip. When the call is returned, you're the one who is out, so you find a pink slip on your desk, and the game of telephone tag is off and running. It can take three calls to get two business parties talking to each other -- provided the pink slips get to their desks in the first place. There must be a better way.
For some companies, voice mail -- telephone technology that manages messages without paper -- may be the solution. The simplest form of voice mail is an answering machine. Connected to your office phone, an answering machine lets callers leave any kind of message, however long or complicated, and you can retrieve your messages by calling in from wherever you are. If both you and the person you are trying to reach have answering machines, you can even have a dialogue of sorts.
But answering machines are designed for use at home, not at a business, so they are limited in what they can do. A business alternative is a complete voice-mail system. Here's what such a system can do.
* Serve many people. Every person with a phone in effect has a private answering machine with a personalized greeting.
* Record personal messages. You can record messages that will be played back only to persons who have been given a special access code. You could, for example, record information about flight and arrival time that could be retrieved only by the person meeting you at the airport.
* Forward messages. When you are away from your usual phone, a voice-mail system can record an incoming message, then call you wherever you are and play the message back; you don't have to continually call your "mailbox" to find out if you have any messages.
* Distribute messages. You can record a message and have the system route it to several people -- to all of your sales force, for example.
* Screen and hold calls. A few systems greet incoming calls with a recording ("You have dialed John Smith on extension 413. What is your name, please?"). John Smith hears who is on the line and can answer the call or direct the voice-mail system to take a message ("John Smith is not able to take calls right now. You may leave a message after this tone"). Callers who are put on hold are told how many people are waiting ("You are the third caller waiting to talk to John Smith. You may continue to wait, or you may leave a message by pressing 1").
* Provide a bulletin board. Employees can phone in for messages of general interest, such as office closings or the date of the company picnic. Bulletin boards can be open to everyone or restricted to authorized persons with an access code.
* Furnish access to a computer database. An elaborate voice-mail system can be tied into a company's main computers so that, for example, salespeople can look up inventory and customers can call in and track the progress of their orders.
* Serve as an automatic attendant. Most voice-mail systems can go beyond taking and routing messages, answering all phone calls automatically with a standard recording ("Thank you for calling the Acme Co. If you know the extension of the person you are calling, please dial the extension now. Dial zero for an operator"). Many calls can thus bypass the receptionist. An automatic attendant can also eliminate the need for a special "night-line" arrangement after office hours.
If your company is expanding rapidly, buying your own voice-mail equipment may not be a good idea, as you could quickly outgrow the system. But you can contract for the service through bureaus that operate like traditional answering services. Some local telephone companies sell voice-mail services in much the same way as they sell call waiting or call forwarding. Either way, the equipment is on somebody else's premises but is connected to your telephone lines. The price for this convenience tends to be high, and you are usually limited to basic features.
If your operations are stable enough so that buying a system makes sense, you can select from more than 40 vendors. Usually, the equipment is installed in your office and connected directly to your phone lines or PBX (private branch exchange) system. The price is based on three main variables: the number of telephone lines a system can handle, the system's storage capacity, and the amount of support provided. The price does not have much to do with a system's features; even the least expensive system offers a full array of options. And if you think about how most people use their phone systems, it's likely that many of these features will never be used anyway. Most of us learn only the simplest phone functions: "I'll try to transfer you, but if you get disconnected, dial this number. . . ." As a result, selecting a voice-mail system depends less on features than on other factors, such as the service that will be provided. Look for expandable systems or for a dealer who will let you trade up when necessary.
Low-end systems are designed for small offices with up to four incoming phone lines, or for a small work group within a company that does not have a comprehensive voice-mail system. The low-end products are built as accessory circuit boards that can fit into an IBM PC or clone. Prices are modest: about $300 to $1,000 retail for the boards, plus about $1,200 for a computer, which you may have already. Most of these systems allow you to continue running other programs on the computer at the same time. (For a good survey of this class of products, see "Voice Mail Systems," PC Magazine, January 17, 1989.)
The main voice-mail market consists of midlevel systems selling for $10,000 to $40,000, which can handle from 10 to 400 people. Prices are falling, and systems capable of serving 10 to 50 people should be available for less than $5,000 by the end of this year, although installation charges may raise the price. (There are also high-priced systems, but these are designed to cope with many hundreds or thousands of users.) Midlevel systems normally work in conjunction with a PBX or on Centrex (a phone system in which each extension has its own complete phone number).
A computer user with some experience can put in the software for low-end systems, but for mid- to high-level systems, professional installers usually start them and make any major changes needed in the software, which specifies how calls are routed, sets up mailboxes, and so on. Some newer systems come with microcomputer software that lets you set up and reconfigure your own system. Nonetheless, the quality of support from your dealer is the most important factor in buying mid- and high-level voice-mail systems.
When you are considering whether voice mail is appropriate for your company, don't ignore the human factor, on both the calling and receiving ends. Callers with rotary-dial phones will not be able to use voice mail at all -- it can be operated only from touch-tone telephones. People who refuse to talk to answering machines aren't going to like voice mail either. If you think your calling public will be put off by voice mail, yet you want a system for internal use, consider having a public telephone number that is answered by a receptionist and a separate, private phone number connected to a voice-mail system for employees and people with whom you regularly do business.
Think carefully, too, about what your messages say; remember, your callers will have to slog through the same greeting every time they call. Avoid long, tedious menus that encourage callers to hang up ("Welcome to the Acme Co.'s electronic voice-mail system. Press 1 for sales; press 2 for service; press 3 for . . . "). Too many voice-mail menus seem more intent on showing off the system than speeding up calls. Some installations even force callers to listen to editing choices at each step ("Press #1 if you want to replay your message; press #2 if you want to add to your message; press #3 if you want to erase your message . . . "). You'll want your menu to be short and efficient and to assure callers immediately that help is on the way even if they don't punch any buttons. Calls should always go to an operator if the caller does not make a choice within a few seconds, and people familiar with the system should be able to punch in their choices regardless of what the system might be saying.
Menus are easy to change; voice-mail hardware is not. And it is the hardware that determines how you get incoming messages. The design of most current mid- and high-level systems makes them clumsy to use if you have more than a few messages. Unlike pink slips, voice mail doesn't let you see all your messages at a glance. Since you can operate the system only through a telephone, you have to concentrate and listen; instead of shuffling slips of paper, you have to carefully press buttons on the phone. On most systems, you have to listen to all your messages -- whether 2 or 20 -- in sequence, and trying to find that one important message is a nuisance. Even though some systems let you skip over messages, it is still difficult to keep track of where you are; you can easily miss a brief message if you are momentarily diverted.
Problems like these could be alleviated if phone networks, voice mail, and computers were all integrated. Such convenience now comes only with a few low-end PC circuit-board systems and Wang's voice-mail package. These systems allow you to bring up a list of your messages on the screen, listen selectively, and annotate messages while you are listening. Calls are sorted by time and date, and you can group messages and retrieve them later.
One day, comprehensive message management will integrate voice mail with electronic mail. Then you'll be able to see every message, regardless of origin; when you select a message, it will be displayed on your computer screen if it has come via electronic mail, or it will be played through a speaker if it is voice mail. If you retrieve messages from a telephone, you will have the option of having the computer "read" your electronic mail to you with speech synthesis. With a properly set up system and a cellular telephone in your car, you need never miss a message again.