10 Steps to Better Voice Mail

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted June 01, 2000
by Joe Rudich

Warning signs and tips for better communication with customersE-commerce is currently the hottest way to get new customers, but how does a business keep those customers for the long-term? The answer, usually, is by providing great service, and that goes beyond the Web site.

Customers ultimately need to interact more directly, and the most common method is via telephone.

Unfortunately, someone isn't always around to take calls, and many times callers wind up listening to pre-recorded messages. A voice-mail system can be an effective welcome to a company if it is managed well. If not, it may not only deter customers from leaving a message or calling back, but it can downright infuriate some people.

"In this age of dot-com businesses and Internet sales, some people overlook the fact that dissatisfied customers tend to pick up the phone. And, if they're sent to 'voice-mail jail' or are otherwise treated badly, their perception of a company will quickly go from bad to worse," says Nancy Friedman, the founder of Telephone Doctor, a consulting company that specializes in improving organizations' use of voice communication.

What Goes Wrong
The areas where voice-mail systems can suffer fall into three general areas: greetings and usage, system configuration, and system security.

Greetings are the easiest part of voice mail to improve. It's important to make sure they are professional, but it is even more crucial to ensure they are welcoming and informative. "A voice-mail greeting may be a customer's first contact with a company, so the person who records it has to bear in mind that they are welcoming a guest," suggests Friedman.

Talking to someone else is supposed to be a caller's way out, but is many times a dead end. System administrators, not individual users, often configure a mailbox's referral extension, the number to which a caller is transferred if they press zero. According to Elaine Cascio, an analyst for the Multi Messaging Educational Committee (www.mmec.org), misconfiguration of caller forwarding is one of the chief sources of voice-mail frustration. "A typical default forwarding number for many systems is the company receptionist, or the main number, which may not even be staffed by a receptionist," Cascio says. "The trouble is, few people know each area well enough to provide any help or even transfer a call knowledgeably. A better approach is to have each employee's number forwarded to an appropriate co-worker, a backup for their own function in the company."

Security also falls under the responsibility of system administration. Most organizations go to some length to ensure the security of data and resources within computer networks, but many fail to apply the same standards to their voice-mail systems ­ even though MMEC statistics show a steady rise in hacking of voice-mail systems. Security features are built into all voice-mail systems, and simple things like regularly enforcing passwords and monitoring employees' systems can go a long way.

Another cause of frustration arises when a caller tries to reach someone and only gets an electronic voice. In Friedman's experience, this "human-free" condition provokes the highest level of irritation in customers. We hear more anger regarding automated attendants than any aspect of normal voice mail."

Ways To Alleviate Caller Frustration
The key to improving the image that a company's voice-mail system presents to customers does not lie in adding a new peripheral or upgrading management software. "Fixing" a voice-mail system usually means training, encouraging, begging, and/or forcing employees to use their systems properly. "The power is built into any decent voice-mail system," says MMEC's Cascio, "but many people don't or won't use it."

In talking to consultants who regularly deal with voicemail issues, ten guidelines for improvement emerged.

1. Ask before transferring a caller to voice mail.
This may seem like common sense, but it's one of the most frequently violated of these rules, and probably the most irritating.

2. Configure mailboxes for useful call forwarding.
Telling a caller they can press zero to speak to someone immediately isn't very useful if the person they speak to can't help them. The experts suggest having a voice-mail administrator print a list of the forwarding configuration for all lines, distributing it to employees, and then asking them what extension is the most appropriate.

3. Provide an escape valve for all callers.
Voice-mail greetings should tell people how they can be transferred to a live person (see above), but this rule is especially critical for automated attendants-voicemail systems that answer all incoming calls in lieu of a receptionist. "To speak to an operator, press..." should be at the beginning of all automated systems' greeting messages.

4. Make people record their own greetings.
Too many people have an assistant record their greeting, which is especially confusing if a man records a greeting for a woman, or vice-versa. More importantly, a caller won't feel very important when they realize someone can't be bothered to record their own greeting, and they may doubt whether someone will actually listen to their message.

5. Create a professional greeting.
Greetings should be cheerful, but callers become irritated with "joke of the day" messages or impersonations of Bill Clinton.

6. Provide useful information in a greeting.
A good rule is to record a new greeting every day, but most importantly when leaving the office for an extended period. In addition to where you are and when you will return, let callers know if you will be checking messages while away from the office, whether you can be reached (by pager or cell phone) for critical issues, and who they can call for help in your absence.

One piece of information to leave out: the words, "Your call is very important to me." According to Friedman, "This statement is actually an irritation to many callers. If it's that important then where the heck are you?"

7. Remember, it's a greeting.
When callers hear a bored voice, they tend to hang up, press a key to skip the message, or ignore it and wait for the tone. If they do that, all the useful information in a greeting is missed. It may sound silly, but voice-mail users get better results if they smile while recording their greetings.

8. Apply data security guidelines to voice-mail systems.
Hackers break into voicemail systems for a number of reasons: for fun, to listen to confidential messages, to create accounts they can use to conduct illegal activities, or to make long distance calls through a company's phone lines. Many of these can be very costly to a victim. However, good security features are available and most are built directly into systems. Enforce regular password changes, restrict the number of administrative accounts, conduct regular backups, and monitor system activity with reports.

9. Conduct a self-audit.
If you suspect voice-mail problems or have had negative reports from customers, spot-check employees to see how common poor greetings or useless call forwarding really are. "Voice mail has been around so long that we assume everyone knows the dos and don'ts, but there are still a lot of people with messages that don't help their callers, and systems that are not configured properly," says Cascio.

10. Train employees.
A bit of renewed awareness, perhaps in the form of a refresher course or an updated manual can go a long way in getting voice mail back in top form.

The fact that it is such a mature form of information networking can be a curse as well as a blessing. Because it is so widespread, it's easy to overlook. Most voice-mail "problems," fortunately, can be handled with a commitment to renew attention to reoccurring problems, and a reminder that a poorly-managed voice-mail system will be noticed by customers.

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