High-tech has delivered a rival to the answering machine and the reluctant operator. But it will be too dear for everybody, reports Di Palframan.
The telephone answering machine has a high-technology rival. Messages once recorded on tape can now be digitally captured on a computer. The end result is voice mail.
In the United States voice mail is generating about $900 million a year for companies supplying the computer-based equipment that has to be attached to a private or public telephone exchange to provide the service. The market there is thriving. The assumption, among suppliers, is that Europe will now follow the US; that in four or five years' time the technology will be as acceptable as the answering machine of today.
For most European homeowners who want to pick up an occasional message while they are out, this is extremely unlikely. In the UK, for instance, sales of telephone answering machines (most of them for the home market) are still growing. Over half a million were sold last year and by the middle of the decade the number will be over one million.
Where voice mail is making an impact in Europe, in particular in the UK, is in medium-sized and large organisations. According to Mark Holden, a consultant with BIS Strategic Decisions, UK business is far ahead of the rest of Europe, with a total of 440 voice mail systems installed by the end of last year, over half of which (240, valued at $14 million) were bought during 1990. This equates to a total of 96,000 workers with voice mailboxes or 0.4% of the UK's working population - a tiny proportion, but one which Holden forecasts will increase rapidly. By the end of 1996, he says, there will be 1.55 million people with voice mailboxes, or 6.4% of the UK's working population.
Organisations that have already installed voice mail systems include BP, ICI, Conoco, Pfizer, Marks and Spencer, Cadbury Schweppes and the BBC. Their reasons for doing so are varied but fall into three broad categories. Some want to improve the quality of their communications with outside callers, some are more concerned about internal communications, while others believe that the technology puts them one up on the competition.
All want more than their existing telephone networks (and their users) can deliver and they are willing to invest heavily to get it. A voice mail system costs from £25,000 to £250,000. Most purchasers also insist that people are trained to use the system. An hour's session is sufficient but in a large company with many employees it takes several months to train everyone and get the system working fully.
For this amount of money and effort, companies are looking for features over and above those offered by tape-recording devices. Typically they want outside calls to be answered promptly. Both voice and tape machines can do the job but the computer-based system can tell the caller which numbers to press for a particular department, say. If the department extension is busy, the caller can leave a message or wait for further instructions or even a human operator.
The common problems of painfully slow switchboards, busy extension lines and unwilling message-takers should be overcome by voice mail. For some organisations these are important considerations. "In the US, businesses are looking at the telephone as a window to their organisations. They are concerned about the way they treat callers," says Paul Cheslaw, managing director of VMX (UK), a US-owned voice mail supplier. In the UK, he adds, this is rarely the case.
Voice mail in the UK is often installed for internal users as a time-saver. It can be used, for example, to send a message to one mailbox or to many simultaneously. This saves typing a memo or an electronic mail message. The message can also be sent without disturbing the recipient, which saves even more minutes. US surveys show that people spend half of their phone time making small talk; also, the information that they pass on is usually less important than the work that the call disturbed.
Voice mail can also be linked to a pager which will bleep when there are messages waiting. In this case voice mail is being sold as a means of keeping in touch with hard-to-contact sales and service people.
Elaborate calculations can show the amount of time that each employee can save by having a mailbox. "On average it is about half an hour per day whatever business the organisation is in," says Kevin Alderson, UK sales manager for VPS, the European subsidiary of US voice mail supplier Octel. Across an entire company of mailbox users the time adds up to whole jobs that, in theory, could be lost.
Organisations find this justification more digestible than Cheslaw's argument that they should see the "telephone system as a strategic tool for competitive advantage". The strategic advantage cry is frequently used by vendors of any technology system these days but is one which most companies find too intangible to heed. Cheslaw agrees but insists that it is "more honest" than selling systems to cut jobs. Most UK companies using voice mail are newcomers to the technology and still tracking progress. So, as they say, more later.
(Di Palframan is a freelance writer.)