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In 1989 the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), Inc., Alexandria, Virginia, discovered it was losing nearly 400 telephone calls every month. A call coming to a busy line would bounce to another busy telephone and then to an already overloaded switchboard at the receptionist's desk. The call dropped, cutting the customer off. We were not providing the excellent customer service ASTD demands.

To quickly increase our capacity to handle incoming telephone calls, we had two options: Upgrade our telephone system or increase the ability of each staff member to handle incoming telephone calls. Upgrading the system meant purchasing additional telephones, telephone lines, and the hardware to handle them--and hiring a second receptionist to field the calls bouncing to the switchboard. A voice mail system, on the other hand, ultimately was less expensive and allowed each staff member to take messages and respond efficiently and quickly.

How it works

In simplistic terms, voice mail is software that assigns every telephone its own computerized mailbox. If the telephone is not answered within a certain number of rings, voice mail can be activated and the mailbox opened so that a message can be left. It date- and time-stamps the message and files it in the mailbox. An indicator light on the telephone signals a message has arrived in the mailbox. You can gain access to the mailbox from any telephone. The similarity to answering machines ends there.

With voice mail, each message occupies a discrete file in your mailbox. You handle messages as if they were paper files. You can listen to each message sequentially--skipping over some, replaying one without having to listen to all the others, and saving or erasing each one. You can reply to another staff member who called you without having to hang up and redial. If you receive a telephone call that is better handled by someone else, you can forward it to that person with background information and instructions.

You can link telephones from a particular group in your association--the membership services department, for example--into a call group. If the first number called is busy, the call bounces to the first telephone in the call group that voice mail finds free. Voice mail gives callers the option to either stay on the telephone line for the person they called or talk to another staff member. Even without established call groups, a caller can dial zero at the tone to reach the association's switchboard or dial another extension number to reach another staff member.

You enter your mailbox by pressing a designated key on the telephone and entering your personal password. You can use any touchtone telephone to retrieve or act on messages, to send messages, or to change your greeting. It's easy to revise your greeting to inform callers that you are out of town until a certain date but will be calling in periodically for your voice mail messages. You can give callers the option to leave a message or dial someone else you have designated to handle telephone calls in your absence.

Voice mail is also a paperless memo system. You can record and review a message, send it to a group of staff members, and aks for their response by voice mail. You define the group by their extension numbers, assign a two-digit number to your list, and store the list in voice mail. A numbe rof lists can be established, either for use throughout the organization (such as a list that addresses all staff members or all managers) or for use by an individual (such as one that addresses all members of your department).

To send a memo, you identify the list you want, record and review a message of any length, and dail the number of the list. The group members can listen to the message and respond to you immediately without ever exiting the voice mail system.

In addition, voice mail is a personal reminder system. When you are away, for example, you can dial your office, leave yourself a spoken memo, and be assured it will be there for you to act on when you return.

The voice mail system gathers data on the number and disposition of telephone calls--individual, group, and systemwide. This information is a valuable management tool for analyzing workload and staff productivity. A usage report for each mailbox shows the number of telephone calls that were unanswered and thus switched to voice mail, the aging of unerased calls, the number of hangups, the number of calls picked up by the user after voice mail kicked in, and the number that reached a busy mailbox. You may identify staff who need additional backup or who need refresher training on using voice mail. You also may see the need to add or revise call groups, or to change telephone coverage patterns.

Managing the system

Phyllis Roderer, ASTD's director of administration and human resources, advises, "The system does not haave to be managed. It's not enough just to install it." She stresses that ongoing training is critical. Your voice mail vendor should offer initial training to both your internal system manager and the entire staff, and should provide each staff member with user aids, such as a wallet-size card describing all the options and instructions for using the system.

Initial training makes voice mail users comfortable and confident with the system. The first two weeks after voice mail was installed at ASTD, the association only used the system for internal calls. We now use voice mail for internal and external calls.

Your members, of course, will notice the change when they call your association. ASTD used its monthly newsletter to notify its membership that it was switching to voice mail on a certain date and that they should find ASTD more responsive as a result of the change. We have not received any negative feedback from our members.

Management should use the system's reports to adjust telephone coverage and call groups and to make sure all staff are aware of the features voice mail offers. Initially, the telephone options may seem staggering, but over time you can learn and relay to your staff the many ways they may use voice mail. Call your staff when they are away from their desks and make sure that if you were the customer, you would feel comfortable leaving a message. Each greeting should include information on who the staff member is and how soon the customer can expect a call to be returned. It should also given instructions on how to reach someone else at the association--either by staying on the telephone line, dailing anothre extension number at the tone, or dialing the operator.

Roderer also emphasizes that your association's customer service philosophy should underlie your voice mail selection. From your written customer service philosophy, you can develop the criteria for establishing call groups, for the number of rings allowed before answering, for recommended greeting formats, for coverage patterns, and so forth.

Your customer service philosophy will help determine the path that an incoming telephone call will follow--will callers always reach a person, or will they reach a recording giving them options on what services are available? If callers always reach a person, how will they be helped in the most efficient way without being transferred to several other staff members? If they reach a recording, how user friendly is the recording? Such decisions determine the initial contact customers have with your association and will affect both their impression of your organization and their willingness to use your products and services.

Voice mail benefits

Ask ASTD staff members what they think of voice mail, and they're likely to respond enthusiastically, "We love it." It has proven to be a great time saver, and has increased ASTD's staff efficiency and productivity. We have virtually eliminated telephone tag--especially within the organziation. Internal and external callers have learned they can leave detailed messages asking for specific information and that staff will save them time by returning their calls with answers in hand.

Paperwork has been reduced, since we now send many memos through voice mail. And using voice mail as a personal reminder system has proven a fail-safe way of picking up notes to ourselves.

Customer service has improved. We have stressed that voice mail is not a way for staff to avoid answering their telephones but an efficient means of delivering personalized service.

Voice mail also imparts confidence, reliaiblity, and confidentiality to callers. They can be confident their messages will be delivered to the intended person and that messages (no matter how lengthy or detailed) will be exactly as left. And they can feel comfortable leaving confidential or sensitive information in a message, since only the intended receiver has the mailbox password.

Avoiding drawbacks

Unless a voice mail system is well-suited to your association and training and system management are well-conceived and well-executed, staff and members will find voice mail irritating and unusable. Therefore, it is imperative that

* staff learn that voice mail is not an excuse for them to neglect answering the telephone;

* staff learn to leave messages stating what they want (not, "This is Joe, call me back," but instead, "This is Joe, call me back with the latests figures you have an membership recruitment.");

* members are not overwhelmed by the options given them when they dial in;

* members are not left hanging without being able to get to another staff member or the receptionist.

When introducing a voice mail system, you may encounter technophobics--both among staff and among members--who refuse to use voice mail fully. For staff, training and retraining can help alleviate this problem, and coaching and encouragement from a supervisor and peers may help. You may assist outside callers in overcoming their reluctance to fully using voice mail by encouraging them to leave detailed messages and assuring them you will respond quickly and completely.

You may also experience the "fax syndrome." You may feel that every message is urgent when you face six or eight calls, each requesting specific information and a quick call back. Listening to all new messages, forwarding to other staff those problems that can be delegated, and prioritizing the remainder can help overcome the sense of drowning in voice mail work. As you reply to each message, erase it from your mailbox. Since each message is time- and date-stamped, you can always find out when a message arrived in your mailbox and use that information to help prioritize your calls.

Finally, voice mail is not cheap. According to Paul Scappini, ASTD administrative services supervisor, a comprehensive voice mail system costs $25,000-$60,000 and may not be an efficient solution for an organziation with fewer than 50 telephone lines. The purchase of a voice mail system is indeed a major investment--but for ASTD it has paid off immeasurably in increasing staff productivity and efficiency, and in greatly improved service to our members.

Kathleen H. Berry, CAE, who chairs ASAE's Finance and Administration Section Council, is controller of the American Society for Training and Development, Inc., Alexandria, Virginia. For more information about related topics or ASAE's Finance and Administration Section, call Wayne Miller, (202) 626-2781.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on choosing the right system
Author:Berry, Kathleen H.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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