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On Voice Mail, Message Is Clear: Many Don’t Like It : Communications: Computer technology can save costs. But customers often resent electronic labyrinths.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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. At times, she complained recently, “it takes like 10 minutes to leave a stupid message.”

The technology can be just as 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 a voice mail recorder and never returned.

Convinced that modern telephone technology can yield big labor savings, most of America’s major employers--by one estimate, nearly 2 million firms--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.

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But many American consumers resent being routed through electronic answering systems when they call businesses or government agencies--especially, it seems, when they are customers of the outfits that intercept their calls with automated operators. 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 one of the nation’s biggest banks 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.

“What is going on out there is that people don’t like it. The electronics thing has taken over like Frankenstein. It’s out of control,” said Edward E. Crutchfield Jr., chairman of First Union Corp. in Charlotte, N. C., and the budding folk hero who issued the edict against answering machines in the office.

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Consumers “feel it’s dehumanizing. They feel cheated,” he added.

When a business has an electronic answering system, Crutchfield said, “what you’re saying is your time is worth more than their (consumers’) time.”

Like other major airlines, Delta sometimes uses an answering system to handle customers calling for flight information. But the Atlanta-based carrier pulled voice mail out of such departments as purchasing and public relations two years ago after trying it out for a few months.

“It created the wrong first impression for a company so known for its service,” Delta spokeswoman Jackie Pate said.

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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 someone else left for you.

Some of the widespread ambivalence is reflected by Kenneth G. Docter, the Los Angeles-based vice chairman of the Price Waterhouse accounting firm. During normal business hours, Docter finds it aggravating to call someone only to reach a voice mail system.

“You don’t know whether somebody is in or out of the office, or whether you can expect a call back in five minutes or five days,” he said.

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On the other hand, Docter likes leaving overnight voice mail messages for Price Waterhouse colleagues who work in other time zones. For one thing, it’s easy to do. Also, Docter said, the person hearing his voice can tell “the tone of what you’re trying to say.”

Corporate chiefs almost universally have their calls taken by secretaries rather than by voice mail, but many still use the technology to send messages to subordinates. Sometimes, in fact, chief executives will record one message and then punch in a code number to send it to dozens of people at once, a practice known in some circles as “blasting.”

Sociologist James E. Katz, who studies the social impact of telecommunications technology, said that certain personality types tend to dislike voice mail. Most of the resistance, he said, comes from “feeling people” who place a higher value on emotional relationships than on abstract concepts.

Katz also noted that people above the age of 50, who tend to adapt more slowly to technological change, often are uncomfortable with voice mail. But perfectionists of various ages generally like the technology because it eases their concerns that their messages will get jumbled--in fact, they sometimes leave long messages that are a nuisance to the people who have to listen to them.

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Much of the frustration with electronic answering systems, Katz said, may stem from how infrequently callers actually reach the people they want. A survey of 1,500 telephone users that Katz conducted two years ago found that only 18% of their calls had gone where they were intended to go. The other 82% landed on answering machines or voice mail systems or were answered by someone other than the person to whom the call was made.

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.

Katz said that his worst experience with voice mail came when he called a big consumer electronics manufacturing company. After calling and reaching an automated operator, he listened restlessly as about eight or nine options were listed. Then, after making his choice, he was put through the same process again--three more times.

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Finally, he got a live voice, but was soon told that the office he reached couldn’t answer his question.

“I was ready to throw the phone through the window,” the ordinarily soft-spoken Katz said.

There are other, far more serious problems linked to voice mail. For instance, computer hackers have secretly slipped into some systems.

In one such case, Certified Grocers of California, a food wholesaler, four years ago reportedly found that hackers invaded its voice mail system to run prostitution rings and sell drugs. The company declined to return phone calls seeking comment.

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Voice mail also has been used for sexual and racial harassment.

Peyton B. Schur, president of a private investigation firm named Confidential Management Services, said that his company recently cracked a case involving a white male employee who left anonymous voice mail messages threatening a black woman co-worker with rape or murder if she didn’t quit her job. The man, who confessed and left the firm after being confronted with the evidence, apparently didn’t realize that the company’s phone records would narrow the list of suspects.

Two or three times a year, Schur said, his San Dimas-based firm is called in on similar cases.

Still, Schur said, his own firm uses a sophisticated voice mail-beeper service that both takes voice mail messages and beeps managers when the calls arrive. Schur said that he and his managers need the system because they are on call 24 hours a day.

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“The nicest thing,” Schur said, " . . . is that you’re getting the person’s exact message and you can store it and keep it as long as you like.

“So, we like it and use it, we just don’t put a lot of confidential stuff on it,” he said, referring to the problems with hackers.

Occasionally, clients grouse about the impersonal aspects of voice mail but “the advantage of always being able to reach us far outweighs having to leave messages on a recording machine,” Schur said.

Even sometime critics of voice mail and related technologies concede that there is a legitimate place for them. For instance, Nadler, the radio advertising saleswoman, finds plenty of use for voice mail in her personal life.

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In fact, when she goes out, she forwards her calls to a personal voice mailbox instead of using an answering machine at home. When she wants to check for messages, she calls her personal voice mailbox to retrieve them.

Among the advantages of having a personal voice mail service, she said, are that she does not have to keep an unattractive answering machine in her Encino condo and that visitors cannot overhear her messages when she plays them back. Also, she does not have to give out her home phone number to people who want to reach her away from work--instead, she gives them her separate voice mail phone number, which does not ring in her home.

First Union’s Crutchfield, for his part, said that his company still will allow customers to call in and electronically retrieve information about their account balances, a service they can use when the bank is closed.

“When people voluntarily want to talk to a computer, I’ve got no problem with that,” he said.

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Crutchfield confessed that he uses an answering machine at his North Carolina home. It’s there, he said, mainly because his wife and two children want it. On top of that, he said, “I’m not serving the public at home. Nobody’s paying me to give them a service.”

But even if it means hiring more operators and receptionists at First Union, Crutchfield said, having real people answer the phone at work is worth the extra cost. “So what if you charge another penny for a checking account?” he said. “I think people are willing to pay to not get lost in voice mail.”


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