Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 143 / AUGUST 1992 / PAGE 73

Press one for Gregg. (voice mail for home offices)
by Gregg Keizer


"Hello. Welcome to Wordcraft's automated voice-mail system. If you know the extension of the party you wish to reach, enter that number now on your touch-tone telephone. If you would like to leave a message for the Editorial Services Group, press 1. For Research, press 2. For Marketing and Public Relations, press 3. Press 4 if you'd like to send a fax. If you wish to speak with an attendant, press 0 now. If you have a rotary-dial phone, stay on the line, and an attendant will pick up shortly. Thank you, and have a nice day."

Callers to large companies--particularly in the world of electronics--hear messages like that all the time. Byzantine in their layers, obscure in their operation, voice-mail systems have captured the imagination of corporate America and the attention of cost-cutters. It's hard not to run into such automated phone services.

Now you can have your own voice mail, making incoming callers think your operation is huge, though it may be only you and your computer. By adding voice mail with its around-the-clock efficiency, your business can benefit from multitudes of options and appear to be as large as any downtown corporation.

All you need is a PC with an empty slot in the expansion bus.

The Silicon Receptionist

No question about it--voice mail can be impersonal. And it can be frustrating to navigate, if it's improperly designed. But if you keep voice mail courteous and succinct, it can actually draw in business, not turn off potential customers. Its potential payoffs for the small business or home office can be dramatic.

Answering machines, the low-tech solution to catching calls, may spout a message, record incoming calls, and even mark calls with the time and date, but they're limited. An answering machine can play only one outgoing message at any given time; it can't organize incoming calls; and if you don't work alone, its replay isn't private. A voice-mail system, however, lets you compose multiple messages, direct calls to specific mailboxlike destinations, and route calls to other extensions; it can even serve as an automated telemarketer.

While your answering machine has a single personality, a voice-mail system is a veritable Proteus, ready to take on any number of personae. If, for instance, part of your home office time is spent providing desktop publishing services and another part is spent in organizing motivational seminars, a PC-based voice-mail system can assume a different personality for each business activity you engage in.

Hello, This Is the Home Office

Most voice-mail systems try to do two things: replace an answering machine with a feature-packed digital substitute and distribute voice messages within a company.

It's unlikely that you'll need the latter within a home office. Even in a small business, such voice memos may be overkill. Concentrate, then, on the answering machine--like qualities of a voice-mail board.

You have to factor other considerations into the voice-mail equation, too. Some boards require a dedicated computer as a robotic receptionist while others work in the background on your primary PC. If you have only one system in the office, your decision is simple. But if you've recently upgraded to a more powerful PC and have an older model gathering dust, you can opt for a dedicated voice-mail system. What better way to put that lazy computer to work?

Does your home office rely on more than one phone line? Because the most affordable voice-mail boards are single-line devices, you'll have to limit incoming calls to one number if you want things to work.

And though you can set up a voice-mail system to transfer fax calls, don't expect it to automatically route faxes directly to the machine. You may have to eschew automatic fax reception if you don't have a separate telephone line committed to the fax. This might be preferable anyway, since people tend to become confused when you list the same number for telephone and fax.

Can I Take a Message?

Among the voice-mail systems that make sense for the home office, three stand out: Natural MicroSystems' Watson, Talking Technology's BigMouth, and The Complete PC's The Complete Answering Machine. Ranging in price from $249 to $399, these three single-line voice-mail cards snap into your PC and turn it into a telephone assistant without peer.

Watson, the least expensive voice-mail board, works in the background, a boon to single-PC offices. Based on a card-file system, Watson's software not only plays outgoing messages and records incoming messages but also offers a phone book for autodialing, a dictation file for recording voice memos, and an appointment calendar.

You can set up as many as 750 mailboxes for people calling in, each with its own ID code and message. You give potential callers the codes you've assigned, they call and enter their codes, and they're immediately transferred to their mailboxes. Incoming calls are recorded to your PC's hard drive (Watson can store about an hour of messages in 10MB) and then displayed in chronological order when you later retrieve them. If you want, Watson will even switch the outgoing message based on the current time according to the PC's internal clock.

Watson's card-style interface makes it easy to set up and use as either a single-mailbox answering machine or a multimailbox voice-retrieval system.

BigMouth may cost a bit more than Watson, but it provides far more voice-mail flexibility. It easily handles the basics--setting up a single-user answering system with several personal mailboxes is a snap--but the card really struts its stuff when you begin exploring its more advanced features. Want to create an automated telemarketer? Simple. You can configure BigMouth to ask your callers questions and then record their answers, a godsend if you want the computer to take orders for the products you sell. Want to set up an outbound calling system to contact your clients periodically and send them a personalized spiel about your new services? You can do that with BigMouth, too.

BigMouth's biggest home office problem is that it demands the full attention of a PC. You can't run voice mail and work with the computer at the same time. That effectively adds the price of a PC to the cost of setting up voice mail.

The Complete Answering Machine may, as its name implies, be only a replacement for your telephone's answering machine, but its ease of use--especially to people calling in for messages--marks it as an ideal home office add-on. Like Watson, The Complete Answering Machine (CAM) operates behind the scenes, letting you keep to one PC. In fact, CAM can set a limit on the amount of hard drive space it uses for messages so that you won't return from a trip and find a packed drive with no room for other applications.

Out of the box, CAM works as a single-mailbox answering system, complete with a prerecorded greeting and voice prompts. You can, of course, add more mailboxes--up to 999--as you grow into the system.

One of CAM's most impressive features is its voice prompting, which greets mailbox owners and steps them through such things as remote message retrieval and recording. It sure beats memorizing commands. Something else to note is CAM's connection to The Complete Fax, a fax board sold by the same company. Assign The Complete Fax its own mailbox, and callers can send faxes through CAM to the board, so you get double use from a single phone line.

Voice-Mail Etiquette

Whatever voice-mail system you choose, you'll want to make it friendly. One of the most important attributes of voice mail--its professional distance--is also its principal weakness. Here are some ways to avoid making your answering system into voice-mail hell for your callers.

* Personalize messages whenever possible. Although voice-mail boards generally come equipped with prerecorded messages, personalize them whenever you can. It adds your personality to an inherently impersonal technology.

* Keep menu choices to a minimum. You'll lose callers (and prospective clients) if they have to listen to long lists of possible choices. Pare the possibilities to the minimum.

* Don't hide behind voice mail. Callers should still be able to get through to you, either by pressing a button on their touch-tone phones or by briefly waiting. If you're out, make sure that your own mailbox is ready to take messages.

* Return calls. There's nothing more infuriating to a caller or potential customer than an unreturned call.

* Keep your messages up-to-date. It's rude to make people listen to out-of-date messages. If you're pushing a seasonal sale in an informational mailbox, change or delete the message as soon as the sale's over.

Avoid Voice-Mail Pitfalls

Moving to voice mail is a big change, almost like hiring a new employee. And like any foray into the unknown, using voice mail presents its share of risks. Here are some ideas that will make voice mail simpler and more practical.

* Get a big hard drive. Digitizing incoming and outgoing messages takes a lot of disk space. If your PC has a hard drive with less than 60MB, voice mail will cramp your regular work.

* Don't try too much too soon. Set up a simple voice-mail system at first--a standard greeting and perhaps a couple of personalized mailboxes. As you become familiar with the voice-mail system, gradually expand its capabilities.

* Try out any changes. Whenever you change the voice-mail prompts or the paths that lead to new mailboxes, try them out yourself. See if there are any dead ends and ensure that all calls will be captured.

* Erase old messages. Although voice mail makes it easy to store the messages you've received, those messages will quickly eat hard drive space. If you want to keep old messages, get a tape recorder. Cassette storage is much less expensive than hard disk storage.

* Consider a dedicated voice-mail machine if calls pour in. The typical home office may be able to get by with The Complete Answering Machine or Watson running in the background, but set aside a PC for voice mail if the call volume starts affecting your ability to get work done on the computer. Frequent background voice-mail activity will slow down your PC and your work.

Putting It to Work

As with every technological advance, the users of voice mail have shown themselves to be more creative than the developers, putting it to work in unexpected ways. For example, voice mail eliminates telephone tag if properly used. When you contact someone, you can leave much more than your name and number. Many software companies accept beta test results via voice mail. Contracts have been negotiated this way, too, with representatives from both sides leaving messages on each other's voice mail to indicate unacceptable language and to make changes.

Writing in COMPUTE, Daniel Janal quotes Terry Kalil, public relations manager of Great Plains Software, observing that voice mail can be an important adjunct to communications. When it comes to adoption of technology and the changes it causes in the corporate structure, "a lot depends on corporate culture. The company must be flexible and informal." Kalil's supervisor even conducted her performance review through voice mail. "It was not uncomfortable because our communication skills have adapted. It feels like we are talking face to face."

As it grows ever harder to catch a person at the right time and place to talk on the telephone, voice mail can take up the slack. It allows the parties to think things through before replying, more like the process of actual letter writing, but conducted over telephone lines, and with the added value of your being able to hear the speaker's inflection, which can be as important as the words themselves.

Hold On

Which voice-mail system is the best one for you and your home office?

For single-PC home offices that receive relatively few calls, The Complete Answering Machine is the best choice. It works in the background, sets up simply, and has advanced options to cover everything but telemarketing tasks. It may carry the highest list price, but you can buy it by mail for roughly the same price as the others--$235-$245.

Once the number of calls climbs, though, you're going to hate The Complete Answering Machine. It steals RAM (about 80K is needed for the memory-resident answering module) and drive time as it answers calls and processes messages. You'll want a dedicated system on a separate PC.

If that's the case, then BigMouth is your voice-mail maven. Any of these three programs can work as a dedicated voice-mail system, of course, but BigMouth's extraordinary flexibility guarantees that you can accomplish any voice-mail task. It's especially attractive if you want an inbound or outbound automated telemarketer to take and (if you're really audacious) make calls.

No matter what voice-mail system you decide to add, you'll boost the image of your home office in the world outside. No one will ever suspect that you're running the next highflying multinational corporation from the back corner of the downstairs bedroom.