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The pros of voice mail.

In the '60s gas was cheap and cars were big. In the '80s, of course, that all changed. Fuel efficiency became a priority and cars got smaller and lighter. Information is the fuel for organizations. Before the age of LBOs, corporate downsizing and the quality movement, information was cheap. Today that has changed. Organizations are beginning to recognize that there is a cost to generating, gathering, processing and disseminating information. And like any cost, it needs to be controlled. Any mechanism that promises to more efficiently manage information could provide an organization with a competitive advantage. Voice-mail systems make that promise and have that potential.

Historically, the telephone freed us from spatial constraints, but it did not free us from time constraints. Employees have traditionally used the phone for synchronous as opposed to asynchronous communication. The result: a frustrating little game workers aptly call telephone tag. A dozen yellow pieces of paper with a "while-you-were-out" title are exchanged before the contact is ever made. One study by AT&T found that only nine percent of calls were ever completed on the first attempt. Moreover, most phone calls are not planned in advance, so the recipient of the call may be unprepared for the discussion. One survey of more than 200 vice presidents indicated that unnecessary or unproductive telephone calls account for a needless loss of at least a month out of every executive's year.

While the telephone allowed communicators to bridge geographic or spatial constraints in an economical way, it has not traditionally been able to bridge time constraints. Voice mail bridges that gap. It provides a cost-effective and user-friendly method of oral communication across both spatial and temporal barriers. Voice mail represents the next major evolutionary step in the development of the telephone. Voice mail has a generally positive effect on both employees and the organization.

How does voice mail affect employees?

There are five personal benefits to employees.

1. Personal productivity -- Voice mail is one of the most efficient ways to respond to ordinary information requests. It allows employees to quickly reach others who are typically inaccessible because of travel schedules or meetings. Responding by voice takes less time than composing a memo.

2. Time management -- Voice mail can help employees manage their time more effectively. The principal initial selling point of most voice-mail systems is elimination of telephone tag. And when the systems are used properly this is exactly what happens. Using the telephone to confirm a meeting time is like using a paint brush to correct a typo; it works but it's a little sloppy. Voice mail is ideal for communicating routine day-to-day messages.

3. Confidentiality -- Voice mail typically increases employees' sense of privacy and security. Employer's Health Insurance (EHI), headquartered in Fort Wayne, Ind., uses the Audix system developed by AT&T. Mary Gagan, a corporate trainer at EHI, said the system provides a confidential way to communicate to people. "There are times when I have messages to pass on that I don't want secretaries or coworkers to see. And I like the security of knowing that no one else has read or heard any of the messages others have sent to me."

4. Personal management -- Many employees use voice mail as a personal management tool. Mary Gagan also reported that she makes use of the calendar function on the Audix system. At the beginning of each month she sends messages to herself about key appointments or even birthdays. When she calls in that day to get her messages, she will get a verbal reminder that her boss' birthday is coming up tomorrow.

Using voice mail in this manner is one method to institute the concept of JIT (just in time) information. The idea comes from manufacturing experts who argue for the creation of products "just in time" for use. In the same vein, employees can use the voice-mail box to provide information just when it's needed, not months in advance.

5. Communication effectiveness-Many employees prefer to process information in an auditory rather than textual mode. Voice mail gives those employees that opportunity and can increase their communicative effectiveness. One could argue that our culture is becoming more visually and auditory based with the ubiquity of television and radio. Text-based media like memos, bulletin boards, and newsletters have less importance in such a culture. Moreover, with estimates of illiteracy in the United States as high as 60 million citizens, the need to use auditory based media becomes more compelling. Since there is such a stigma attached to illiteracy, we may never know which of our colleagues has only marginal reading skills. Perhaps the only way to communicate with those workers is through a voice-mail system.

How does the organization benefit from voice mail?

There appear to be at least five major organizational benefits.

1. Decreases the need for meetings-- Meetings consume an enormous amount of managerial time. Unfortunately, most meeting time is spent inefficiently. If used correctly, voice mail can replace some meetings. In many meetings the staff spends much time reviewing announcements that could be easily, routinely and quickly disseminated via voice mail. Voice mail creates the opportunity to use a meeting to full potential. Using meetings to resolve conflicts, share perspectives, and make decisions is a far more productive use of time than routine information sharing.

2. Minimizes time/space constraints-- It is no secret that we live in a global economy. Communication devices have to keep pace with business demand. Voice mail provides a cost efficient way to stay in contact with suppliers or customers located around the globe in many different time zones. Employees who travel can effectively keep in contact with the home office even though they may be in a different time zone. Voice mail provides the crucial timely link that the traditional phone system never provided.

3. Improves decision making--

Most voice-mail systems provide a broadcast feature that allows the sender to pre-program distribution lists. Judy Siudzinski, a marketing manager at Schneider National, headquartered in Green Bay, Wis., says that the voicemail system has had a "huge impact." With a punch of a button she can request the opinion of 45 people on a decision that needs to be made within 24 hours. "There is no way I'd make 45 phone calls to solicit opinions, but with voice mail all these people can give their input if they want to."

4. Lowers costs -- Most companies that install voice-mail systems report rather dramatic decreases in telephone expenditures. Why? Employees make fewer calls because they don't have to play telephone tag. Those conversations also are shorter because there is less social chit-chat when sending a message to a voice mail box. In many cases secretarial responsibilities can be restructured so they do not have to be "chained to the desk" to answer phone calls.

5. Creates dynamic flexibility -- Organizations need tools to increase their responsiveness to customers. This means they need to use communicative practices that allow for flexible responses in a dynamic mode. AAL, a fraternal insurance company based in Appleton, Wis., has 2,000 sales representatives and 1,200 home office staff. If questions from sales representatives are going to be answered in a timely fashion, they need access to the home office at all times of the day. Voice mail is an integral part of the strategy to provide timely responses to the sales representatives. Leah Abrahams, the director of research and planning at AAL, when asked about the impact of voice mail said, "There is no other viable alternative to keep the business going."

Voice-mail systems are not perfect. More systems will begin to incorporate safety valve measures. Companies will need to conduct short training courses if the systems are to realize their full communicative potential. The old way we used telephones, however, will become as obsolete as gas guzzling cars of the '60s. Voice-mail systems provide one viable energy saving alternative for coping with the increasing costs of managing information.

Phillip G. Clampitt, Ph.D. is an associate professor of information and computing science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He recently completed the book, "Communicating for Managerial Effectiveness," Sage Publications, Newbury Park, Calif.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
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:Voice Mail: Pro & Con
Author:Clampitt, Phillip G.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Previous Article:Parlez-vous parlay? Or is it parley?
Next Article:Voice mail - the new rage and outrage.

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