At Baltimore-based Campus Concepts, a college marketing firm, salesmen don't take calls -- unless you know their private, direct-dial numbers, that is. Ditto for the company secretary, who has a private number that isn't handed out to just anybody.

The task of answering phones is left to the company's voice mail system, which could be described as extremely efficient -- or a voice mail hell.

Callers to the main switchboard can leave messages, but that's it. Don't try pretending you have a rotary phone and wait for an operator to come on the line -- it won't happen. And forget about trying to escape by hitting "0" -- that will just get you a stern reminder that you've executed an invalid command.

"We prefer to respond to calls, not take them," explains Ian Leopold, president of Campus Concepts, whose magazine, The Unofficial Student Guide, is the nation's third-largest campus publication. "Otherwise, we'd spend all day fielding phone calls."

Campus Concepts' voice mail system is an extreme example. The company's salesmen, it should be noted, travel constantly and aren't in the office to receive calls, anyway. Hence the need for a catchall message system.

Used properly, voice mail can be an enormous shot in the arm for businesses. Most companies say they can spend less time fussing with routine calls, which translates into measurable productivity gains elsewhere.

But the use of voice mail to supplant human contact is all too familiar, as consumers know. That's why voice mail, a technology that promises benefits for businesses and consumers, has gotten a black eye. "Voice mail systems need to be looked at not only from a technical and cost point of view, but from the customer point of view," says David Nevins of Nevins & Associates, a Baltimore-based management consultancy. "Unfortunately, that's the last piece of the puzzle that's usually looked at."

Take, for example, the case of a national product distributor in the Washington area. The company's business depends on national retailers calling in orders -- some worth several thousand of dollars each -- on a regular basis. Orders often require lengthy messages to detail delivery sites, stock numbers and other information.

But that didn't matter to the company's spanking-new voice mail system, which limited callers to less than 30 seconds per message. The upshot: Some customers had to call back two and three times to finish their orders. By the third call or so, Mr. Nevins says, callers were panicking, not sure when the 10-second countdown would begin again.

"They'd start calm, talking like they regularly would, but by the third call they were talking so fast you could hardly understand

them," says Mr. Nevins, whose company was called in to fix the problem. "We just cracked up when we listened to these messages. . . . But there was nothing funny about it. I mean, who's to say the dollar-volume lost in a system like that?"

Fortunately, most businesses are familiar enough with the dos and don'ts of voice mail to avoid electronic traps like that. Helped along by voice mail vendors, who have a financial stake in making sure the public likes dealing with voice mail, businesses are working harder to make their systems user-friendly.

"If they do it right, most businesses recognize they can provide better service to customers in addition to gaining cost-savings," says Dave Ladd, executive vice president of product development for California-based VMX Inc., a leading maker of voice-processing equipment.

According to Mr. Ladd, one of the most common mistakes fTC businesses make is failing to instruct employees on using -- and not abusing -- voice mail's power.

Some voice mail tips:

* Leave a personal greeting that offers callers timely, relevant information, such as your name, date, whereabouts and information on when calls might be returned. Change greetings as often as necessary. "Ask yourself, 'What would the best secretary tell callers?' and include that information in your personal greeting," Mr. Ladd suggests.

* Offer an escape. Systems should be set up to offer callers a way to talk to a real, live human being at any time. Personal greetings should tell callers how to reach a person. To avoid locking callers in voice mail jail -- the bane of consumers and voice mail providers alike -- calls should not be forwarded to another voice mailbox.

* Check mailboxes often and return calls promptly -- the cardinal rules of voice mail. According to Mr. Ladd, callers often blame voice mail "for what used to happen anyhow -- you get the message but throw it in the trash can without answering it."

OC * Don't use voice mail to screen calls, to hide from callers or

to avoid answering the phone. "The way some companies implement voice mail, you get the impression nobody works there but a machine," Mr. Ladd says.

GEICO, the national insurance company, has found other uses for its voice mail system.

GEICO, based in Chevy Chase, uses voice mail to take information from applicants responding to newspaper want ads. Applicants are automatically connected to a voice mailbox, where they are instructed to leave their name, number and pertinent data.

"It's worthwhile because it frees up recruiters to do other things, and the community is able to get into the system where maybe they were getting a busy signal in the past," says Jess Reed, a GEICO assistant vice president.

Likewise, North Arundel Hospital in Glen Burnie installed a voice processing system earlier this month to help callers reach the proper department more quickly.

A "vast majority" of the 1,000 calls that come into the hospital each day are routinely routed to other departments, says Karen Olscamp, vice president of operations. The sheer volume of calls left people with important inquiries hanging on the line "for a long amount of time, in some cases," she said.

Under the new phone system, callers can go directly to the hospital's information desk, obtain the room number of a patient or reach the appointment desk to schedule an X-ray. Such calls used to require people to complete.

Voice mail systems of all stripes are becoming as much a part of the electronic landscape as personal computers and answering machines, notes Warren Blanding, chairman of the Customer Service Institute, a management consultancy based in Silver Spring.

Sales of voice mail systems tell the story.

The industry racked up $5 million in sales in 1981. By 1989, sales had mushroomed to a breathtaking $635 million, making voice mail a bona fide "1980s phenomenon," according to Probe Research Inc., which tracks the market.

Such systems are common throughout the business community. And they're even moving into homes, thanks to the sale of voice mail services by the regional phone companies.

Still, the technology hasn't gained widespread acceptance among consumers.

That day is coming fast. According to Mr. Blanding, companies are becoming more attuned to what to do -- and what not to do -- when it comes to voice mail. Meanwhile, consumers are discovering that voice mail really can make their life easier, not harder.

And in the final analysis, Mr. Blanding says, that's all most consumers care about.

"People constantly complain about voice mail the same way they complained about answering machines when they first came out," he says. "But by 1994, when most of the systems out there have been debugged, voice mail will be acceptable to people. Because, in truth, voice mail is superior to human beings answering the phones -- and people are beginning to find that out."


Think of the caller first, consultant David Nevins advises, and how voice mail will be used to give the customer better service.

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