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I love voice mail systems, provided they are working properly, programmed efficiently and give callers the option of speaking to someone directly during normal business hours.
I found out last week, however, that I am in the minority, at least among those attending the 85th annual meeting at The Greenbrier of leaders of the commercial property/casualty insurance business.
Only about 30% of the audience raised their hands when asked by a speaker, First Union Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Edward E. Crutchfield, if they liked voice mail. He doesn't, and he made the point that "computers should not replace human contact."
Certainly, I must agree with that assertion in general, but there are circumstances under which I and, I suspect, many customers, prefer computers to human contact.
As an occasional movie-goer, for example, I find the voice mail system for purchasing movie tickets very efficient. It quickly tells me where the movie I want to see is playing. Or, if I prefer, I can punch in my ZIP code and learn what movies are available in my neighborhood when the daily paper isn't handy. And I can purchase the tickets early in the day that I want to go to the movies instead of having to arrive at the theater far in advance of show time to be sure of getting a seat. I happily pay the surcharge for this service.
I also was able to renew my Illinois drivers license this year by simply keying in answers as directed by a new automated telephone renewal system available to qualified drivers. I do not need the human contact of making a trip to a driver services office and standing in long lines.
When I am calling someone, whether for business or social reasons, I am not offended to hear a voice mail message, and I always say "yes" if I am asked if I would like the voice mail of someone who otherwise is not available. I feel comfortable that the person I am trying to reach will receive my entire message, in my own words.
I also like the convenience of returning phone calls after business hours to people who need only a quick answer to a simple question.
But I think I know why so few people responded positively to Mr. Crutchfield's question. Too often, the systems are not working properly, they are programmed inefficiently and, worst of all, people are hiding behind them.
In my own office a few weeks ago, I was horrified to receive an e-mail when I logged on to my computer in the morning from someone who said she had tried to leave me a voice mail message but the system said the mailbox was full. I had only six saved messages at the time. It turns out that the voice mail system for the company that publishes BI was full at the time because employees had overloaded the system with too many saved messages. That will have been remedied by a system change by the time you read this.
I was also a bit miffed recently when I called to activate my new American Express card and had to hold for a customer representative when my Social Security number, as keyed into my telephone pad, was not accepted by the system. It wasn't too long a wait, but more than I had bargained for.
Some instructions on using an automated system are too complicated, such as when they offer too many options to callers. When I hear a message to the effect of, "We have upgraded our voice mail system to better serve you," I know this is going to be a case when I would prefer human contact.
Some people record long-winded voice mail greetings. A friend of mine opens her greeting by saying, "To skip this message, press the pound sign." I'm going to follow her good example when I record a new message this evening.
Worst of all, I think, is when a caller is bounced around from one voice mail greeting to another in a company during regular business hours. Are all those people really busy, or are some of them programming their phones to voice mail so they don't have to answer their phones? The ideal voice mail system would allow forwarding to voice mail only after regular business hours.
But given the choice between conducting simple transactions over the phone with an automated system or standing in lines, or the choice between dictating a truncated message to a harried assistant or leaving a complete voice mail, I'll take the computer over human contact.
Publisher and Editorial Director Kathryn J. McIntyre and Editor Paul D. Winston publish columns on alternate weeks.