What the fax machine did for slow-moving documents, voice mail has done for telephone tag. But with all their technological superiority, automated telephone features are sometimes more cumbersome for customers to use than the old switchboard.
In fact, some customers have learned that they get better results if they bypass the newfangled phone features and wait for an operator.
"Far too many phone systems are employee-friendly but not customer-friendly," says David Nevins, president of Nevins and Associates, a customer relations consulting firm in Owings Mills. "The technology is supposed to speed up the way calls are answered and to make the customer's life easier. But a lot of businesses have a long way to go."
Many people refer to all electronic phone features by the catchall phrase "voice mail." But there are differences among the features.
Pat Fisher, a product manager with Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., explains the differences. "Voice mail answers the phone in the subscriber's own voice and lets callers leave messages. It also lets subscribers send information to a lot of other people in the voice mail system.
"Automated attendant is a routing function," the feature that answers the phone with the recording, "If you want sales, press 1, if you want service, press 2," and so on.
"Bulletin board" is another phone feature customers might hear while they are on hold or being transferred. "With this you can record information for customers, give your business hours, days of operation and special programs," Ms. Fisher says.
But all that technology goes to waste if customers can't use it.
Consider the caller who encounters an auto attendant recording with a menu of 10 options, each with submenus. He spends several frustrating minutes trying to locate a human being who can deal with his problem.
What about the customer who transfers into a voice mailbox that doesn't identify its owner by name? She can only hope that she's reached the right extension and that her detailed message will be heard.
Glitches like these are easy to detect and fix, says Mr. Nevins.
"Call your own phone system and try all the different options, see if it makes sense," he suggests. Most executives who hear what their customers hear will want to have the phone system reprogrammed, he says.
Comcast Cablevision in Baltimore County recently revamped its telephone system to better handle the volume of calls from the 160,000 families it serves. Comcast now uses an automated attendant feature to answer routine customer questions electronically.
By electronically handling simple customer calls, Comcast can focus more time on detailed customer problems, says Stephen Burch, Comcast vice president and general manager for the Baltimore area.
"We find 22 percent of our calls do not need human contact," says Mr. Burch. Such calls might be about an account balance, upcoming movies or a problem with reception.
"By taking care of their concerns right away, the other 78 percent of calls coming in will get their questions answered much quicker with a live attendant. About 9 percent of our calls are answered within 30 seconds after they've gotten where they needed to go into the system," he says.
Comcast spent more than $200,000 on the new phone system and its features, he says. But small companies that don't have thousands of dollars to invest in sophisticated systems can still reap the benefits of telephone technology.
Scott Pontiac Inc. in Bel Air spent about $3,500 on a simple auto attendant feature. One objective: to make sure customers would not get lost in the menu of options.
"The customer only has to stay on the line for a few seconds unattended before the system rings back to a live person," Scott Pontiac General Manager Barry Scott says.
Even if an auto attendant feature is elegantly simple, a company can still alienate customers with an unfriendly electronic mailbox system. There are no rules of etiquette for voice mail, says C&P's Ms. Fisher. She admits, however, "that's something that needs to happen.
"Some people are a little leery of voice mail," she says. "Their company has told them they should create a personal greeting, but they let the generic greeting do it. What you get is, 'You've reached the person on extension 4567,' and you don't even know who it is."
She says the purpose of a personal recorded greeting is, "to give the caller some expectation that you'll get their message and you'll call them back.
"I change my own greeting every day," Ms. Fisher says. "I might say, 'Today is the ninth. I'm in an all-day meeting in Virginia. I'll check my messages this afternoon and return your call on Tuesday.' "
And while the recording doesn't have to sound bubbly, Ms. Fisher and other telephone consultants suggest it just might ease customer tension if it is pleasant.
"We always tell our customers to greet your caller with as much enthusiasm as possible," says Bill Golden, president of WFG Communications Contractors. "Make the greeting short and to the point, but friendly. In turn the caller won't feel so bad about hitting those buttons."
Mr. Nevins says respect for the customer's time will help solve most electronic telephone troubles.
"Just put yourself in the position of the customer," he suggests. "If your electronic system takes someone's message, they've done what they needed to do to let you know about their problem. Then you'd better make sure someone takes care of the problem as quickly as if a live person had answered the call."
Adriane Miller is a free-lance writer who often covers business issues for The Sun.