BOSTON — `VOICE-MAIL jail" is how Gordon Matthews describes the experience of getting trapped in a telephone messaging system that refuses to give the caller a human being to talk to.
That is not what Mr. Mathews, the inventor of voice mail, had in mind when he first marketed the system in 1980.
"The real purpose of voice mail is to let people communicate with each other at their mutual convenience" from a touch-tone telephone, he says. "There's a lot of misuse of voice mail as I originally intended it."
The misuse, says the Texas-based entrepreneur, comes most often in the form of automated attendants, the computer-generated voice that tells you to "Press 1 if you want ticket information," for example, or "Press 2 if you want customer service." The menu can seem endless. In the worst cases the computer takes a half minute or more to recite its list. And too often the option to speak to a "live" operator is at the end, wasting time and money.
Customers get a bad taste about voice messaging systems and businesses that use them, says Communications Briefings, a business-communication newsletter in Blackwood, N.J.
Asking whether voice mail helps or hurts the bottom line is "like arguing whether [the fact that] people can write is a good thing or a bad thing," suggests Martyn Roetter, a vice president at Decision Resources in Boston. Voice mail is tremendously valuable if used sensibly, he says, and is as much a key to competitiveness as other basic business tools like computers.
The problem, telecommunications experts agree, is not voice mail itself but how companies deploy it.
To be competitive means knowing when to provide a real person at the end of the line. For Matthews, that means whenever there's an incoming call. "When anybody calls a business the phone call should be answered by a person that's very knowledgeable and very courteous."
In this age of cost cutting, however, support staff like telephonists and secretaries are often the first to go. If a $20,000-a-year operator can be trimmed from the bottom line and replaced by a 24-hour, highly efficient machine, management often does so.
But voice mail is not a substitute for service, warns Mr. Roetter. "It behooves businesses to look seriously at the kind of staffing levels they need to provide acceptable service."
Matthews's vision for voice mail was two-fold: It would largely replace costly, time-consuming internal company memos and letters; it would solve problems of telephone tag, different time zones, and busy lines.
Around 50 percent of all telephone calls are to convey information and don't require a two-way conversation, according to an AT&T study. Voice mail enables people to leave more detailed and confidential messages than a secretary could be expected to jot down.
New sophistication is being added in the form of automatic paging devices that alert an individual to urgent messages in his voice mail. Or electronic-mail messages of text that the computer reads into the voice mailbox. Or a link to the facsimile machine enabling people to call in to their voice mail to find out what faxes have arrived.
Interactive response systems, such as where you call up your bank's computer to find out account information, are some of the most lauded and efficient applications of voice response technology, with no human interaction at all.
Within the next five years new technology may also replace the long menus of automated attendants. Instead of listening to options callers will use a screen phone or "graphical user interface." AT&T Smartphone has a four-line display.
Still, Matthews is careful to distinguish between internal and external communications. All these gadgets don't obviate the need for "real-time interaction" (otherwise known as "conversations") with outside callers.
Although familiarity with the new technology is growing as voice mail and its derivatives become widespread, telecommunications surveys show that 30 percent of Americans still won't talk to machines.
Their reluctance may be compounded by poorly designed voice messaging systems. Matthews, who runs his own voice-mail servicing company in Austin, Texas, says some systems "miss the boat as far as human factors are concerned," offering callers minimal guidance and negligible human support. "You really have to want to leave a message," as he puts it.
To avoid such pitfalls he recommends that companies planning to set up a voice messaging system first write a mission statement: Who is going to use the system and why.
The next crucial step is to train employees in voice mail etiquette. Too often, Matthews says, employees let their voice mailbox take all the messages while they do something else. "I think it's just a matter of courtesy if somebody calls and your phone is ringing that you pick it up."
Etiquette or no, voice mail is here to stay. The market for voice processing equipment grew from $308 million in 1985 to $2.5 billion in 1991.
Even private residences in some parts of the country can rent voice mailboxes for a monthly charge of $10.