Voice mail

Feb 27, 1995

I called a friend the other day, the CFO of a 400-plus person engineering, planning, and environmental firm, and the receptionist answered the phone, “ABC Associates.” I asked to speak with “Bob Smith.” The next thing I knew, I was listening to a voice mail message: “This is Sally Johnson. I’m not at my desk right now, but if you’ll leave your name and number, I’ll call you back.” I knew that Sally was Bob’s secretary, but she isn’t who I wanted to talk to. I wanted Bob. I didn’t like the way my call was handled— imagine if I were a client. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me when I’ve called an A/E or environmental consulting firm. While I am a big believer in the benefits of voice mail, I think there is a lot of room for improvement in how we deal with incoming callers and how we use our voice mail systems. First, lets look at what’s good about voice mail systems and why every firm should have one:
  • It allows a caller to leave a longer, more detailed message than he or she ever could leave with a switchboard operator. Some messages, like verbal instructions on how to get somewhere or where to meet someone, are best left on voice mail. It’s too much to ask an operator to take a long message while the switchboard is ringing like crazy in the background.
  • The caller can have confidence that no part of the message will be garbled by the switchboard operator. I’ll admit it— I don’t trust most operators to get a long message right. I know messages are garbled constantly because I get calls every day from people “returning my call,” yet I never called them. The switchboard operator simply got confused when somebody else from my firm called, and he or she wrote down “Mark Zweig” called on the message. Voice mail allows you to get your exact message to the receiver.
  • It allows you to call in and retrieve your messages at any time, day or night. I often think back to a time shortly after we got our first voice mail system. Arriving to Logan Airport in Boston late one night, I got stuck in a traffic jam on the Central Artery. I called into my voice mail from my car and retrieved a message from one of our clients in California who wanted me to call him at home as long as it was before 9:00 p.m. his time. I ended up having a billable hour between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. while stuck in a traffic jam!
  • It allows you to direct certain messages to others in the firm. When I get those messages from people I haven’t called, or when I can’t deal with a certain request, I’ll often send it to someone else in the firm through the voice mail system. I can even append it with my instructions. This allows the firm to be more responsive.
Now, let’s examine how firms use these systems improperly, and what they can do about it:
  • Switchboard operators dump calls directly into the employee’s voice mail. This is one of my biggest gripes. Switchboard operators must know the person isn’t there when they transfer the call— at least that’s the way it seems to me. In these cases, callers should be told that “Smithers” isn’t in and be given a choice of leaving a message with the switchboard operator or on Smithers’ voice mail.
  • Switchboard operators dump calls directly into the employee’s secretary’s or assistant’s voice mail. This really ticks me off. Big firms are the worst offenders. A couple of weeks ago, I called a big-firm client, and got dumped into the voice mail of his secretary’s secretary! I left a message, and our switchboard operator heard back from the secretary’s secretary, who told her that the secretary was out ill. The problem was, I didn’t call the secretary!
  • Switchboard operators can’t tell when (or don’t care that) the caller punched zero for the operator, so they answer the phone “XYZ Associates” all over again. This is a waste of time and annoying, too, especially in companies with names that seem to include every employee in the firm. It’s even more of a problem when you ask to speak to so-and-so without telling the switchboard operator that you already had his voice mail. Then you get to do it all over again— just like in a bad Bill Murray movie!
  • Employees don’t check their voice mail. The best phone systems have a light to indicate a message is waiting. But even with that helpful feature, some folks won’t check the system to retrieve their messages. Voice mail fails miserably if people don’t check it. Those who travel or who are out of the office routinely should call in periodically to retrieve their messages. And top management people have to use the system themselves and force other people to use it.
  • Employees don’t clean out their messages. Most voice mail systems I’ve been exposed to have some maximum limit on how many minutes of messages can be left in any one box, or in the system overall. Some systems even disconnect incoming callers with no explanation when the maximum is reached! Employees need to routinely delete old messages, or the system may not accept any new ones. Any firm that has a voice mail system should have an administrator who solves problems and makes sure things are being done right.
The bottom line: You need voice mail, even if you are a small firm. But spend the time necessary to make sure you are using the system properly and that all who interact with it doing what they should to make it work. You don’t want your clients and others who call the firm to curse your name because of problems with your phone system! Originally published 2/27/1995

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.