Despite some reservations voice mail is catching on in the UK.
How is voice mail to be judged? Is it an indispensable feature of the modern office which, by answering calls while the line is actually engaged, minimises those time-consuming games of telephone tag - and reduces the number of ancillary workers like secretaries. Or is it just a nattily packaged and much hyped extension of commonplace technology? More to the point, is it valued as an aid by staff and customers, or does it irritate more people than it assists?
As UK general manager and European director of Octel, which dominates the voice messaging hardware market worldwide, George Kendall might be expected to be positive on such issues. Most systems pay for themselves within two years, he insists. 'When I joined the industry three years ago one was still having to do a lot of missionary work. We really don't meet that any more.' His point is borne out at Courtaulds, which acquired its system four years ago. 'We recouped the costs more or less straight away,' reports communications manager Paul Ash. The investment may not have cut staff directly, but the company has reduced the ratio of secretaries to senior managers from 1:1 to 1:3.
But if the aim is to soothe and keep happy large numbers of customers, might the introduction of a recorded voice be (in every sense) the wrong answer? At PPP Healthcare they clearly think so. Last October the health insurer conducted a major relaunch of the brand. One of the 'core values' that it currently wants to convey, a spokesman explains, is personal service.
'The upshot is that when a customer phones us they are going to talk to a real live person. With a bit of luck on the day it will be their own named personal adviser.' PPP continues to use voice mail internally, but for contact with the outside world, 'by and large, the preference within the company is always to have live cover'.
Managements may have other grounds for reservation about voice mail.
It's always possible that employees will be slow to return calls, that they will not update messages to let callers know of their availability, and they may use the system as a 'call monitor'. The image of the company or of the department could be damaged in consequence; indeed, the system could even fall into disuse. The market research firm Dataquest puts a lot of effort into tracking the growth of voice mail. Nevertheless, according to one of its analysts Diane Trivett, 'When we first tried to get voice mail approved here, the management weren't going to allow it. They thought that, as analysts, we could hide behind it and lose clients by "not being there".'Trivett also points out that substandard systems, implemented in the early days, often left calls in a 'voice mail jail', an endless loop of interconnected recordings. Pitfalls can be avoided, however, if the driving force behind its intro comes from board level, and staff are trained in its use.
Many British companies still use voice mail as an answering machine, points out Jack Griffin, a product manager with Siemens (which, like Octel, provides its service via Mercury). There are more imaginative uses, as when managers send a daily 'pep talk' to all sales staff whatever their location, or when after-hours calls are re-routed to an on-duty manager at home. But whatever the deficiencies of existing systems, the proponents of voice mail seem to be winning the argument. 'Virtually all the Footsie 100 have voice mail by now,' says Griffin. Dataquest reveals that the UK spent £80 million on messaging systems last year, making it the 'most advanced' market in Europe. And Kendall reckons that the British business is just three years behind the Americans who 'have become absolutely reliant on voice mail as a means of internal communication'.