10 tips to get the most from your voice mail Featured

10:04am EDT July 22, 2002
When North Carolina-based First Union National Bank installed companywide voice mail 10 years ago, the business community was aghast and some customers even canceled their accounts.

It wasn't customer-friendly, critics said. Voice mail isn't efficient, they whined. Callers want to leave a message with a person, not a machine, they insisted.

Today, those recollections are laughable.

While the majority of companies today have some sort of voice mail, many don't maximize their systems. Other companies are shopping for a system for the first time.

What should you look for and do with your voice-mail system? Here are 10 tips:

  • 1) If you're a service-based business, you should still have a receptionist and avoid having calls answered by an automatic attendant. "It can give someone a bad taste, like, 'Oh my gosh, is this how they treat their customers?' " says Rick Misanko, an account executive with Digital & Analog Design Corp., which is based in Brecksville and serves businesses across Northeast Ohio.

  • 2) If you do have an automatic attendant, make sure callers can "opt out" and reach a live person. The same goes for selecting an employee's voice mail. Companies should make sure a caller can always reach another extension or a live voice.

    "Any voice mail can put you in voice-mail jail if it's not set up right," says Chris McDonnell, sales trainer for Consolidated Communications Inc., a 19-year-old North Canton firm with 3,000 customers. "That's the reason many people resisted voice mail, because they fear that's how their callers would end up," she says. "It doesn't have to be that way, and shouldn't be that way."

  • 3) Realize you get the best deal by buying a system according to storage capacity, not according to the number of users. A system, for example, might have 100 hours of storage with unlimited users. "The voice mail is limited only by the number of digits at your extensions, say up to 999," says Misanko.

    If you're paying by the box, you're probably paying too much.

  • 4) Don't get conned into buying too many "ports" or entry lines to your voice mail. Unless the phones are answered by an automatic attendant, most businesses with fewer than 100 employees can get by with four to eight ports. An organization such as a law firm, with heavy users and callers who leave long messages, might need more.

    "Our normal is four ports," McDonnell says. "With 40 or 50 employees, four is more than adequate."

    Misanko points to a 600-employee Cleveland firm with only 24 ports-a number that adequately meets its needs.

    "If you go with more than you need, you're just wasting money," Misanko says.

  • 5) Most companies make an investment ranging from $4,000 to $15,000 for their voice mail. Make sure you can upgrade it.

  • 6) Buy your system from a knowledgeable provider. Misanko cautions businesses from buying voice mail from what are called "trunkers" in the industry, or firms that buy and resell switches but don't specialize in voice mail.

    "You should look for a team concept that's serving you. You don't want one person who is the salesman and the programmer and the customer service representative," he says.

    Also, you're wise to have your provider located within two hours of your office to guarantee prompt service.

  • 7) Voice-mail systems can offer upscale features that can be beneficial to many businesses. Features such as pager notification and forwarding messages to co-workers are standard. You can also buy software to allow e-mail and faxes to be played on your voice mail, which can be great for executives or salespeople who travel.

    "This is not Star Wars, this is here," Misanko says.

    Other features include a screening mechanism that lets employees receive calls or direct those into voice mail once the callers are identified.

    But the features can be pricey toys if they're not genuinely needed.

  • 8) Dedicate one of your existing phone lines as a "back door" line to allow employees to access their voice mail off-site.

  • 9) If you have an automatic attendant that allows callers to dial an extension by name, remember that callers might not know the spelling of an employee's last name. A good option, if your company isn't too large: program extensions by first name. McDonnell doesn't understand why more companies don't do this. "We're just creatures of habit," she says.

  • 10) Finally, a couple of points of voice-mail etiquette: If your individual voice mail contains a long greeting with your daily schedule or other information, immediately tell callers how they can bypass the greeting to leave a message, usually by pressing 1 or *.

    And when you're leaving a message, don't wait until the end of your message, which might be a minute or two, to leave your phone number. Remember that many people save their voice mails to return later and hate having to wade through the whole message again just to get your phone number.