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Voice mail: enhancing communications.

When it's done right, voice mail can improve communication with your patrons.

Picture, if you will, a small public lilibrary in a town of twenty-five thousand. If you had just become the director, and you were assessing its basic office and automation capabilities, what elements would you review?

Number one, obviously, would be a telephone, and then a fax machine. Then you would consider a microcomputer, an option that would open up an array of possibilities including online database searching, word processing and budgeting, and access to electronic mail and bulletin board services. A CD-ROM drive attached to that PC would permit access to many reference databases and indexes. Eventually you might want to automate your catalog and circulation.

What's missing is voice mail, a not-so-obvious tool, one that many libraries could employ to great benefit. You also may have heard it referred to as automated answering or voice-messaging.

Everyone has been on the client end of voice mail at one time or another. You knOw the familiar pattern: a computer-generated voice asking if you have a touchtone Phone, then instructing you to "Press 1 for the order desk or 2 for technical support." port." few libraries have implemented voice-messaging systems, voice mail can be as basic to library service as a microcomputer and a fax machine.

A Basic Tool

The contention that voice mail is a primary library automation tool wouldn't hold much water if you had to be an American Express, Citicorp, or Westinghouse to afford iL What may be surprising is that lowcost, microcomputer-based voice messaging systems provide 90 percent of the functionality of larger, much more costly voice-messaging systems.

Further, they can be installed and configured by the buget; the services of a microcomputer/telecommunications guru are not required. They are designed to operate on a single telephone line and allow the librarian to generate different messages, provide mailboxes for callers, and even function as a replacement for a receptionist, if so desired. With voice mail you can get instant access to people and information and improve your library's productivity.

Thanks, but No Thanks

There is a certain segment of the population that loathes voice mail, and we should address their top concern before going any further. By all reports, the number one concern is that voice mail can distance a client from the library that set it up. "I want to speak to a human! I call and call, and that blasted computer records messages that are sent into an automated black hole."

The answer to this concern, quite simply, is that with the implementation of voice mail should come a commitment to frequently check the incoming message file, and to conscientiously return messages. There is nothing inherently faulty with the technology, just its application.

Voice Mail System Overview

Simple micro-based voice mail systems work on a single-line telephone and consist of a printed circuit board that plugs into a microcomputer and accompanying software. Messages are recorded by compressing and storing speech on the computer's hard disk. This compression is made possible through a technique called adaptive differential pulse code modulation.

Most voice mail systems permit you to play messages back in any order and allow you to decide interactively whether to keep or delete them. A time sharing function allows some voice mail systems to run in the background while users are working with other programs.

Voice-messaging systems go wen beyond simple tape recorder-based telephone answering machines by being able to route calls, branch inquiries, and dispense specialized information. Voice mail eliminates lost opportunities and wasted time by providing telephone management, message recording, and improved data communications. The result is a cost effective, easy-to-use method of gathering, managing, and distributing information.

System Requirements

There are two major contenders for PC-based voice mail: Watson arid The Complete Answering Machine (CAM). Me following system requirements apply to both: IBM or compatible microcomputer running MS-DOS 2.1 or later a minimum of 512K RAM; one free 8-bit full-length expansion slog hard disk: and an analog Touch-Tone phone line. Typically, you can record about one hour of messages on 10-12 megabytes of hard disk space.

Voice Mail Features

Phone Book Directories Voice mail's electronic "phone book" helps you to create and maintain a personal directory of names and phone numbers along with other data and addresses. The voice mail phone book works like a Rolodex card file. Records are presented on the screen, and you can scroll back and forth to other records.

Each record displays a personal or corporate name and address, a phone number (which is entered exactly as you would dial it manually), and an optional I.D. code for anyone to whom you may need to leave a personal message. Space is also reserved on each card for miscellaneous information. The most valuable directory time-saving features can be auto-dial, redial, and search.

Outgoing Messages

Voice mail allows you to create your own standard greeting or to leave outgoing messages, either personal or private, for specific individuals. You can create more than one standard outgoing message for different times of the day. Some voice mail systems allow people who call to interrupt the standard outgoing message and enter their I.D. code to see if they have any personal messages.

Incoming Messages

The incoming message file records incoming calls. Voice-messaging systems insert a separate message card for each new message while noting the time and date the call was received and listing them chronologically. Default maximum times for the recording of messages typically run around sixty seconds, but the time limit can be changed to any length you want.

Incoming messages can be listened to in the order in which they were received, or you can skip to a new one in a search for priority calls.

One of voice mail's best features is the ability, using your owner's I.D., to listen to your messages from any TouchTone phone. This makes voice mail very attractive to librarians who travel constantly as a part of their work.

Remote Control

You can call your voice-messaging system and enter your owner I.D. code (password protected) to log in as a remote user. Some voice mail systems also allow you to transfer files or access data on another computer from your remote terminal. They accomplish this by switching from voice mail to special remote communication software and then using the voice mail board's accompanying modem circuitry. (Not all PC-based units offer this feature.)

Expanded Voice Mail Capabilities

If you want to go beyond the basic call-processing capabilities of voice mail, these PC-based systems can handle (using an English-like command language) custom configurations that alter message sequences during a phone call based on tones received in response to recorded questions or statements.

For example, you could instruct callers to press I if they want the circulation desk, or 2 if they want the reference desk. The voice-messaging system then selects the proper message sequence based on the response.

Voice mail units can dial a single phone number or a long list of phone numbers and deliver a simple or complex message sequence. The message sequence can consist of one message or a series of messages with branching based on responses received. The telephone numbers to be called can be extracted from the voice mail's own mailbox directory or some other ASCH file stored on disk.

Examples of Branching

Examples are the best way to understand what call branching allows a voice mail user to do. The voice mail manuals for Watson and CAM cite working examples of popular applications, including message forwarding, an after-hours answering system, forwarding to a beeper, and emergency notification.

Consider this hypothetical situation. Terry Schultz, a library director, believes she can increase her library's responsiveness by providing an after-hours answering service. By utilizing a voice mail system, she can better discover what each client's specific needs are, and she can tell each individual what service the library offers to meet those needs.

Terry has a personal computer with a voice mail unit so she intends to let the PC run the answering service for her. Experience has taught Terry that the best way to get started in developing a call branching application is to map out flow chart) the desired phone conversation. The result of Terry's work is illustrated in the following conversation.

LIBRARY: Hello, this the Conestoga Trails Public Library. We are closed now, but we are still interested in your call. If you have a Touch-Tone phone, press I now. If you do not have a TouchTone phone, wait for the tone, then state your name, phone number, and brief message or question.

CLIENT: Touch-Tone 1

LIBRARY: Thank you. If you have a reference question, press 1. If you wish to place an interlibrary loan request or check on the status of an interlibrary loan request, press 2. If you wish to place a reserve on a library book, press 3. If you have a suggesdon for improving our service, press 4.

CLIENT: Touch-Tone 3

LIBRARY: Now recording (TONE)...

Key to Implementation

The key to making this process acceptable to users is to control your enthusiasm for the technology and to make your recorded message brief. Most of all, don't ask any unnecessary questions. People are put off when they are asked four or five questions to branch them to the eventual service or person desired. Don't force them to complete a multiple-choice quiz just to get a simple answer.


As mentioned earlier, there are two main competitors for PC-based voice mail units. Watson, and its separate programmable module, VIS, are available from Natural MicroSystems Corporation, 8 Erie Drive, Natick, MA 01760-1313 (508-650-1300 or fax 508-650-1352).

The Complete Answering Machine is available from The Complete PC, 1983 Concourse Drive, San Jose, CA 95131 (408-434-0145 or fax 408-434-1048).

A fully configured voice mail unit retails for approximately $550. At this cost, many libraries can afford to experiment with die technology to see how it can be used to extend library service.

Summary of Voice Mail Features

* automatically answers telephone

with high voice quality

* personalized, confidential messages

with personal I.D. code

* electronic phone book with auto - dialer

* forward messages to another

phone number or pager

* background operation

Summary of Voice Mail Benefits

prevents missed calls

eliminates telephone tag

improves outbound


improves time management

Voice mail will turn your computer into a sophisticated answering machine. With proper motivation and training, your staff can successfully integrate voice mail into your library's service strategy and win new friends among your diverse clientele.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Information Today, Inc.
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Author:Flanders, Bruce
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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