BARBARA Nadler knows what it's like to be tormented by a high-tech telephone answering system.
She seethes when she calls a business equipped with a "voice mail" system that prevents her from talking to a real operator and instead bounces her from one set of electronic telephone options ("press one for service, press two for sales . . .") to another.
The technology can be frustrating when Nadler is on the job as a radio advertising salesperson, spending much of her workday making cold calls to potential clients. A lot of those calls, she said, are swallowed by voice mail and never returned.
Persuaded that modern telephone technology can yield big labor savings, most of America's major employers -- by one estimate, nearly 2 million employers in all -- have installed voice mail systems to handle incoming calls. As more employers buy systems every year, the technology is winning many fans, including people who like voice mail at the office for much the same reason they like having telephone answering machines at home.
But many American consumers resent being routed through electronic answering systems when they call businesses or government agencies. Elderly people and others who simply like a human touch in their business dealings also are turned off by voice mail.
For the most part, businesses and government agencies are responding by doing such things as simplifying their systems and making it easier for callers to reach real operators. But in isolated cases, they are scaling back or scrapping their office answering systems.
Earlier this month, for example, the head of First Union Corp., of Charlotte, N.C., one of the nation's biggest bank companies, ordered his employees to unplug all of their office answering machines. Although the company wasn't actually using voice mail technology, the move drew hundreds of congratulatory letters and calls from consumers frustrated with businesses that use all kinds of electronic answering systems.
There is no authoritative study on the approval rate for office answering systems. Various experts, however, say that there still appear to be more detractors than supporters of the technology but that acceptance is growing -- much the way it did with home answering machines.
In general, the technology cuts two ways. It can be both a way to dodge unwanted callers and, for people such as Nadler, an electronic wall denying access to those you want to reach. Voice mail also makes it easier to leave accurate, precise messages but more difficult to get away with maintaining that you never got the message.
Much of the resistance to voice mail, however, is a result of poor designs that make systems cumbersome for callers. A common flaw is the failure to give callers who want to talk to an operator a way of reaching one.
Or, a recording listing a menu of telephone choices might list a frequently used option, say, seventh when it should be mentioned first, to save time for callers.