Voicemail hell - A system that ranks and filters telephone calls should be useful to most offices. But nearly half are quickly shut down as angry callers hang up rather than be cast into its depths, reports Matthew Gwyther.
Imagine you want to buy a widget - by phone. Your call is answered electronically and you have entered the maze of an 'interactive recognition' system that offers you a choice of touch tones in order to proceed.
After listening intently and pushing four buttons to eliminate customer service, accounts, marketing and information technology, you get to sales.
'This is sales,' a disembodied voice informs you. 'Sorry we're away from our desks at the moment. Leave a message. Bye!'
It would be good to talk, but there's no human to converse with. Welcome to the land of eternally tormented souls - fiery, sulphurous voicemail hell. And there's no exit except to hang up.
For a bit of technology that was to be a cost-cutting life-saver, voicemail has been getting a rough press recently. An NOP study showed that, after the twin demons of traffic wardens and junk mail, voicemail ranked third among the most hated things in business life.
Another poll, reported by the Daily Telegraph, uncovered the overwhelming opinion that voicemail was 'the most useless communications technology'.
It was condemned as 'robotic and confusing' with one sceptical chief executive commenting: 'As far as I'm concerned, you can take the voicemail system out into the car park and shoot it.'
This boss was clearly not alone in his antipathy - apparently 45% of voicemail systems are switched off within a year of being installed. What has gone wrong here?
When it comes to the bottom line, voicemail should make an awful lot of sense. In one fell swoop it does away with the need to employ secretaries or PAs, their foibles and National Insurance contributions. Fellow employees are not disturbed from their tasks by the need to answer the phone of Jones from accounts when he's 'away from his desk' powdering his nose. It's sensible, logical and efficient.
But secretaries and PAs are human and we still largely prefer humans to machines. Eighty years ago, in many UK towns and villages, if you tried to make a telephone call to someone it may have gone like this: You lift the receiver, crank the machine and are put through to the local operator, who is, most likely, in the post office. 'I'd like to speak to Joanna Bloggs, please,' you say.
'Ah, I know for a fact she's not at home at the moment,' replies the operator helpfully, 'because she's just been in here to buy stamps. Then she was off to the ironmonger's for some fencing nails so she will probably be home in half an hour. By the way, she's recovered from that terrible cold that's going round.'
You may not have wanted or needed it, but when was the last time a voicemail system gave you that much information after a failure to link up with the individual with whom you wished to talk? The central paradox of late 1990s telephony has been that, as it comes up with more cunning and sophisticated devices, striving ever harder to bring people together and help them communicate, it sometimes ends up causing divisions and frustration, and doing precisely the opposite. It's not the machine's fault. It's the fault of those who use it - and voicemail is abused all the time.
Alistair Henderson is familiar with all the short-comings of voicemail and people moaning about it. He may be the head of technology at Energis, the communications consultancy, but his mum will never leave a message on his voicemail if she rings up and he's not available. She just does not feel at ease with it (and she is not alone in this: a BT survey showed a staggering seven out of 10 callers hang up without opening their lips when confronted by a voicemail message).
'Some people love it and some people hate it,' Henderson says. 'But it is useful and there are some very valuable things you can do with advanced systems.' He mentions the 'broadcast facility' that some products offer.
This is a nifty idea, whereby you can divide your organisation into groups and leave the same message for all the members of one group just by reading it in once. He's also keen on the latest 'unified message platforms' - highly sophisticated information banks in which individuals can access their voicemail, e-mail, mobile phone and pager messages and even their faxes from a central source. These message platforms can even grade the quality of your incoming messages. In other words, when the chairman comes on your line - which is detected and flagged by his incoming number - his message is immediately placed at the top of the 'white list' and can, for example, be automatically patched through to your mobile.
Meanwhile, the guy who's phoned 35 times trying to sell you life insurance gets dumped right to the bottom of the 'black list'. (It's perpetual voicemail hell for him.)
This is clearly highly useful because in the late 90s, when we are bombarded with communications of every sort, it's important that we are allowed some peace actually to get on with some work. Too much ungraded communication can make people inefficient. There has been a growing backlash against the expectation that employees should be within constant and easy reach of everybody. This is exacerbated by individuals who are frustrated at not getting responses to communications using a multitude of methods to be heard. How many times have you phoned to check somebody has an e-mail?
Nobody knows the need to hide better than us hacks. Since starting to write this, the phone has gone about 12 times with a variety of eager public relations people, colleagues, friends, a child's school and the car insurance company on the line. (Call waiting? I'm their best customer.)
Even the editor has been on, wanting to know where on earth this article is because the author has been indulging in what's known in the trade as 'deadline surfing'.
Much to everyone's surprise recently, one of our leading daily newspapers bought a voicemail system. At some considerable expense, it was installed, tested and went live. It was operational for a matter of days before the managing editor withdrew it and would reissue it to individual specialist reporters only after they fell on their knees and produced rock hard reasons why they had to have it or they'd lose their minds.
So why did this happen? The loss of immediacy is the answer. A problem with voicemail is that operatives can hide behind them and not answer the phone when they have no good reason for not doing so. This managing editor, understandably, feared for the one in every 300 unsolicited calls that produces real news - that the call saying that the Prince of Wales was currently walking down Regent Street arm in arm with Camilla Parker-Bowles would be met by one of those automated 'not at my desk right now' replies. And scoops wait for no man.
SOME TIPS ON ETIQUETTE
Update your greeting message regularly. It shows you're alive and interacting with your system. Going away on holiday for two weeks and leaving a 'just away from my desk' message is the worst abuse possible.
Ensure that your message says who you are and what your position is. If it's a wrong number - all too common, given national levels of innumeracy - you won't get someone else's message, which may be incomprehensible.
Keep it brief and brisk. Don't dawdle when you record your message but don't gabble either. Speak slowly when leaving any numbers as it takes time to write them down. And don't waste time with 'have a nice day' wishes, a weather commentary or where you're going to lunch.
If you're ringing in, don't be afraid to start a dialogue. Think of it as an e-mail. Voicemail is an 'asynchronous conversation'.
Make that beep occur immediately after your message is finished. Few things are more irritating than lengthy pauses - that's dead time. In case a caller urgently needs to speak to a human, try to leave the number of a co-worker - and make sure the co-worker will be around or you will further stoke the coals of voicemail hell.