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Voice mail - the new rage and outrage.

I had called him 12 times over five weeks, each time leaving a voice-mail message. I never heard back. The calls were a follow-up to a request this person had made for information on the project that we were about to start. Not having heard from him after 12 long distance calls, what could I conclude? Had he died? Was he out of the country and did he not know how to change his voice-mail message? Is he a rude lout? Is he insensitive to current good business practices? Does he work in a shabby operation, and does his behavior reflect that? Who knows? I was never able to reestablish contact. I did, however, through an independent channel, establish that he is breathing and still employed at the company.

How can such a situation occur? It occurs as part of a more general phenomenon. Every new technology gets pushed to its limits and often abused, until users evolve an etiquette appropriate for its use. Remember, not too many years ago, when credit cards came into general use, the companies tried to hang the bills for stolen cards onto the customers?

We finally had to settle that one in legislation, limiting cardholder responsibility. We are witnessing the evolution of an abusive situation with automated phone calls. People are driven nuts by idiot machines calling them at all times of the day and night. We are all too slowly evolving a mandated limitation on those rude, mindless intrusions. Voice mail is hardly likely to have its rules mandated by legislation, but the principle is the same. Effective social control is painfully slow in coming.

The abuse of voice mail comes from the interaction of three negative forces: ignorance, rudeness and stupidity, or if you prefer the weaker phrase, thoughtlessness. Those three dark forces in turn come into significant play because people in charge of the organization's management operation are either so focused on saving a penny that they are willing to incur wrath, annoyance or a bad reputation, or so concentrated on the narrow criterion of efficiency that they have not yet acquired the new awareness that it's the customer who counts. Or they operate with an oldline managerial model that once the boss has spoken and the program is implemented there is no reason to check it out. The absence of corrective feedback is a failure of quality.

The other side of it is that voice mail is, to a large extent, an efficiency tool welcomed by individuals. But it is also a cost-cutting tool welcomed by the organization, and as a cost-cutting tool the cost-cutters have a natural tendency to overdo it. The person in the financial office or the procurement office is likely to have few direct contacts with outsiders who will be using the voice-mail system and often lacks the smarts to figure out what is the best system for their own organization.

Just the other day, I was at a meeting with a man who had two pages of closely written voice-mail messages he had taken down. I estimate 50 messages. He was in and out of our meeting throughout the day catching up with his voice mail. Obviously, it was an effective tool for him.

One problem lies in people's insensitivity or unwillingness to think through how the system will be used by a variety of different callers. For example, one of the standard messages, "I am out of my office or unavailable to answer your call. I will reply as soon as practical." That does not tell you if the person is out of the office for 20 minutes or out of the office for a three-week trip to Eastern Europe.

The reciprocal problem is that many people are still unfamiliar with, and hence a little awkward and uncomfortable in responding to a recorded message. Consequently, they often leave messages which undercut the efficiency of the system, Suppose, for example, I am calling Charlie Smith to request a copy of the paper I know he had just written on new approaches to avalanche control. Instead of leaving a straightforward message, "Mr. Smith, I would welcome receiving a copy of your paper on avalanche control. My name and address are ...," the innocent caller is likely to say, "1 am interested in avalanche control. Please call me," introducing an unnecessary round of feedback. Furthermore, if Smith does not know who you are, there is a fair chance that he will not call.

We all know the voice-marl virtuosos who welcome eight-or 10-minute messages and have no difficulty in leaving five- to 15-minute responses. Unfortunately most of us do not work in environments with associates, customers and clients where that kind of virtuosity is anything more than an aspiration.

One other effect of leaving the bean counters and the narrow gauge engineers in charge of laying out voice-mail systems is the related outrage of phone call routing that so often accompanies these systems. The absolute depths of routing is the system at the National Library of Medicine in Washington, D.C. After a tediously long set of instructions, half the time you cannot find the person or the information that you are seeking. You finally end up being routed back to start. This is a system put in by cost cutting efficiency experts who have never sampled the kinds of calls the National Library of Medicine receives.

For example, another common problem is that you call the same person at the same organization with some frequency, and you have to go through the whole introductory message. Furthermore, systems vary enough that there needs to be a mechanism whereby you can cut right through the initial message. Something like, "If you are familiar with our system, proceed. If you need instructions, wait three seconds."

On the other hand, there is no standardization in the technology of routing. It would be in the long-term interest of everyone to set those standards quickly. What does the pound (#) button mean? What does the asterisk (*) mean? These questions should quickly become obsolete. We are still at the early stage of the technology evolution when innovation, variation, and trial and error in the design of the systems dominate as each vendor seeks an edge.

Etiquette is the key to a successful future for voice mail. From the point of view of the caller, the key problem is not knowing whether your message has been received. Internal voice-mail systems have dealt with that well. But external voice-mail systems leave you up in the air.

What does the future hold? Surely the system will settle down and work to the overwhelming satisfaction of almost everyone. The real issue is whether we can accelerate the inevitable and get over these rough spots quickly. Instructions on voice mail that are realistic and provide people buying voice-mail systems with information on how to think through the use, how to test the system, and how to make believe you are a user or a caller, need to be put in place to make the system hum. It is critical that we learn to do this because each new wave of telephone technology carries us through a similar round of difficulties unless we learn early how to make the system hum rather than clatter and bang.

[The editor welcomes brief comments from the readers on specific points of etiquette. Let's see if we can create our own Amy Vanderbilt-style guide to the telephonic age, building on ideas such as:] For the recipient of voice mail

* Always leave a clear message about when you will be able to respond to all voice-mail messages, either personally or through a secretary or assistant.

For the caller:.

* Make your messages brief and clear. Try to minimize the need for a call back.

* Speak slowly and clearly. For the systems operator:.

* I/O some research before you set up your system.

* Monitor the system, Make believe you are a caller with a variety of different purposes and knowledge of the organization.

* Test out the system -- this is not a question of spying, but of learning what is working well and less well,

* Provide dear and useful instructions for employees.

* Provide an audio or video set of instructions illustrating how to use the system and how it may be frustrating or thwarting to insider and outsider.

* Think always of two things -- your customer and your reputation. Now let us hear from you.

Joseph Coates is president of J.F. Coates, Inc., a futures research firm in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is "Future Work," published by Jossey-Bass.
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:Coates, Joseph F.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Previous Article:The pros of voice mail.
Next Article:Putting the employee newsletter on-line.

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