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LA County gets message.


We had looked at voice mail three years ago, but the interest just wasn't there," says Alice Abram, communications-services analyst for the County of Los Angeles.

"People didn't see how it could apply to their situation. But when a major department made the decision to buy 200 answering machines for call answering, I said, 'Hold on, there's a better way.'"

If you can imagine a megabusiness, you've imagined L.A. County.

It employs over 75,000 people in nearly 3600 different facilities spread out over 4000 square miles.

And these people work in jobs as diverse as harbor management, criminal justice, and data processing.

It's understandable when Abram says: "Like a lot of large businesses, we had a problem communicating with each other."

But L.A. County has revamped the way employees and citizens communicate.

By adding voice mail to the picture they feel they are saving money, saving time, and making clients and employees a lot happier.

Growing Pains

The county's communications woes are not unusual.

Like other large businesses, they're linked to change:

* growth of the client base,

* decentralization,

* budgetary constraints,

* and downsizing.

Patricia Thomas, chief of the Telephone Systems Division of the county's Internal Services Department, says staffing has not kept up with a burgeoning population.

As a result, L.A. County has more demand for services and fewer people to supply them.

New Problems

So it's decentralized services.

But that adds concerns about how to serve the public effectively.

Calls, instead of being answered by a central switchboard, are fielded by personnel who frequently have to juggle phone answering with a wide range of other duties.

According to Abram, a clerk typist makes $2400 a month, with benefits.

If that person spends only two hours per day taking messages and routing calls, the annual tab is close to $6000.

Multiply that by all clerk typists in the county answering phones, and the figure is staggering.

Voice Mail Helps

Voice mail means that all employees can use their time more productively.

In addition, they're no longer tied to their desks; callers can leave complete messages any time, day or night.

Thomas and Abram knew a voice-mail system would have to pay its way.

So they put together a business plan, exploring both potential uses and costs.

They knew voice mail would eliminate answering machines, reduce memos and paperwork, and increase employee productivity.

They projected combined hard- and soft-dollar savings of $3 million per year per 1000 employees.

"The cost of the voice-mail service for a year would be about $150,000," Abram says.

"So we think it will pay for itself."

They convinced Richard B. Dixon, chief administrative officer, and the project got started.

Cost Slashing

In addition to budgetary constraints, the county is holding the line on costs by consolidating departments and reducing its management force.

This downsizing has meant a decrease in management accessibility.

Managers like Pat Thomas have more people to interact with, which means less time at her desk and less time near the phone.

Integration was thus a crucial issue.

"We have a 'Heinz 57' variety of telecomm switches in this county," Thomas explains. "We have Centrex, provided by General Telephone and Pacific Bell, plus Rolm, NEAX, Siemens--you name it. To have a viable voice-mail network, we had to integrate all the systems."

The country is counting on a voice-mail service from GTE TeleMessager to do the job.

The original plan was to install voice mail for the 8000 users in the Civic Center.

However, according to Abram: "We realized that with decentralization, we needed something that could be used for answering at many locations and that could help solve the communications problem throughout L.A. County."

So they decided to expand on the original plan.

Phase One of the program went on-line in February at four sites: the Civic Center, the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, the Eastern Avenue Complex, and the County Registrar-Recorder's Office.

Political Mechanism

According to Thomas, "The registrar's staff found voice mail helped their coordinating efforts so much that they were panicked at the thought of losing it when the demo was over. They didn't think they could run an election without it."

With response from Phase One participants running "about 90% positive," Thomas and her staff began to gear up for Phase Two. Beginning in April they added to the voice-mail network two hospitals, the Sanitation Department, the Beaches and Harbor Department, and five remote county offices. The Dunkirk County offices in the Wilshire Corridor alone comprise "11 or 12 buildings, about 3000 lines on one phone system," Thomas estimates.

Phase Three kicked off in July, adding even more county facilities to the system.

Tickler File

"I use the system to keep in touch," says Thomas. "I'm running around all the time. With voice mail, Alice and the others can share information, which I can catch up on at home in the evening. If I wake up at two in the morning with an idea, I call my voice mailbox. It's my tickler file."

Voice mail has been a real boon to the analysts in Thomas' office.

"If they're going to do their jobs, our analysts have to be out in the field," she says.

That means they can't be tied to a phone.

But no matter where they are, they just phone into the voice-mail system and leave, pick up, and redirect messages.

Thomas found she and her staff are more inclined to leave complete information on voice mail.

"Before," says Thomas, "if I called someone and had to leave a message, I didn't take time to delve into details with a secretary."

Now, there's no message-taker interpreting and abridging messages.

"The courts are really excited about the automated-attendant feature," she adds.

This, of course, lets callers route their own calls.

They might press 1 to get to the Adult Probation Department, 2 to transfer to the Work Release Program, and so on.

Or they can input a specific extension or press 0 (or wait on the line) for assistance from a county operator.

Hospitals & Jails

"The hospitals," Thomas continues, "are most interested in voice mail.

"These facilities are very decentralized and have problems attracting and keeping clerical staff."

Voice mail means that departmental greetings or informational messages will always be accurate, timely, and courteous.

Abram explains another exciting application: "The county jail has a program called Bail Deviation.

"Those who've been arrested call to try to get bail reduced. The offender has to meet certain criteria to qualify for reduction."

Instead of everyone answering calls and going crazy trying to get these cases turned around, voice mail can do the initial screening.

Ease Rush Hour

Voice mail may play an important role in telecommuting--getting to work by wire instead of by car.

"I'm on the telecommuting task forces of both the county and Southern California Association of Government," Thomas says.

"We see voice mail as one of the tools--along with a personal computer and a modem--that will allow many county employees to work out of their homes."

They hope telecommuting will save the county money, reducing the budget for building and leasing office space.

Telecommuting can only help to ease L.A.'s famous rush-hour traffic congestion.

Along with saving money, Pat Thomas has found a way to make money for the county.

"We're going to lease voice mailboxes to vendors with whom we do regular business so we can communicate with them even when everybody is out in the field.

"It will be especially useful to vendors in different time zones."

For instance, East Coast vendors can leave messages during their business hours (before sun-up California time), and county employees can pick them up during their business hours.

By the same token, county employees can leave messages for those same vendors.

Pat Thomas sums it up with a great deal of enthusiasm:

"I think you can see we have a diversity of operations, and hardly anywhere have we not found a use for voice mail.

"We've been able to fit one technology into many applications without having to customize software.

"It's an exciting service."
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:voice mail in Los Angeles County telephone system
Publication:Communications News
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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