CHICAGO TRIBUNE, Editorial Page, July 27, 1991
Voice of the People Column

Voice Mail Needs Human Attention

By Mitchell Lieber

In "Doing hard-time in voice-mail jail" (Business, July 14), financial columnist John McCarron raises some good questions and criticisms of how automated voice systems are designed and used in business today.

Frustrated with some such systems, he implies that all uses of automated voice equipment should be condemned. This conclusion is far too extreme to be practical, but is a good measure of the irritation that systems with design or management glitches cause.

The solution is not to dismiss the recorded voice as quickly as some companies did the receptionist. Both have their places, today and in the future. Instead, companies and their vendors should exercise more care in the decisions they make about the use, design and management of automated voice.

I agree with Mr. McCarron that there is an enormous business benefit to employing a receptionist to greet customers when a high price, high-profit product is involved. In these cases, use of an "automated (switchboard) attendant" to greet callers and cut costs is usually shortsighted. The reduction in personal service may lower sales, resulting in losses rather than savings.

However, when consumers want a product or service at a low price with a low margin, the situation is different. An auto-attendant can help keep prices down and service speedy. Customers for such services or products usually number in the thousands, or hundreds of thousands. Extreme peaks in call volume during busy times of the day may be handled more easily and promptly by an "automated attendant."

A problem some encounter is that many "press 1 for . . ." systems are not as "user-friendly" as they can be, and make personal service difficult to obtain. These deficient systems usually require more human attention to design or management than they have received.

Appropriate use of automated voice requires real thought and work, and some installations simply do not receive the attention required. These companies may have problems from the start, but are not aware of them or ignore them.

Additionally, any business system must be properly managed over time. If a system helps the company communicate with customers, management must be frequent and attentive. Unfortunately, automated systems are sometimes installed and forgotten. This problem of under-managed technology is pervasive in our society.

At many firms, an automated attendant may help increase receptionist attention to customers by handling employee and vendor calls on a separate telephone number. Voice mailboxes allow us to short-cut phone tag with messages that are both accurate and detailed, improving access. The results can include faster service, less job stress, better productivity and lower costs. Interactive voice-response (retrieval or entry of computer data by touchtone) enable many to bank at their convenience, rather than the bank's.

Like most tools, automated voice systems are not inherently evil or good, stupid or smart. These characteristics are attributable only to those of us who decide how they are used.