Voice mail is an efficient way to communicate with employees. Margaret Cook, executive director of the Assisted Reproductive Technology Program, thought it would work with customers, too. The Birmingham, Ala., fertility clinic expanded its voice-mail system to give up to 10,000 clients individual voice-mail boxes..

Patients can dial an 800 number to retrieve messages at their convenience, day or night. A confidential PIN ensures security. "We need to be in constant communication with our customers about the timing of appointments and the results of routine procedures," says Cook. Even if all clients had message machines at home or work, Cook wouldn't want to leave confidential messages others might hear, and the alternative--telephone tag--is an inconvenience for both customers and staff.

The phone system also allows patients to retrieve prerecorded instructions and answers to frequently asked questions. Patients can use another 800 number to leave questions for a nurse, who supplies the answer with a phone call or by leaving a message in the patient's voice-mail box.

Feedback from customers has been positive, says Cook. Staff have learned to leave complete messages that don't confuse patients; they also have developed a sense of what information is too sensitive for a recorded message. "Now that the staff is experienced with the system, complaints are minimal," says Cook, "which says a lot in our emotionally intense business. The voice-mail system makes us responsive to customers by providing an effective, confidential way to relay information."

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