The next vox pop

Voice mail can only succeed for an organisation if it achieves the vital aim that it has in common with all other means of communication; it must enhance the operation of the business.

The only way to achieve this success is to establish and adhere to a voice mail strategy. This is in two distinct phases both of which are of equal importance in establishing a voice mail system that will benefit the firm and its business.

The selection phase begins with a variety of questions. Examples of these questions are:

* Who will use it? Internal users, external callers or both?

* How will the voice mail system be used? Purely as a messaging system, in isolation or in conjunction with other messaging systems?

* Will it be used for telephone answering?

* Will it be networked to other offices, possibly abroad?

* How much time will be allocated to each voice mail box and how long will users be allowed to archive messages for?

Failure to answer all these questions will generate a high risk of buying the wrong voice mail system altogether or an appropriate system which turns out to be the wrong size.

Calculating the size of the voice mail system and taking into account the functionality required will indicate the platform upon which the chosen system will sit.

In our case it was evident that PC-based systems were not appropriate and a purpose built voice mail system from Octel, the VPS 300, was selected.

The implementation phase is all about training members of the firm to use the voice mail system in a way that will help both them and clients alike. The full support of the partnership management is therefore essential. In addition, everybody in the firm who wishes to become a user on the voice mail system must attend an in-house training session. These last around 40 minutes and start with a description of voice mail.

This helps to dispel misconceptions of voice mail, usually a result of badly implemented systems. The most popular misconceptions are that it's a glorified answering machine and that you only get to talk to a machine, never a person.

In fact, a voice mail system is not an answering machine at all; it is a complete messaging system to which you can divert your telephone if you so wish.

A good voice mail system is always easier to get out of than it is to get into. Clients are asked whether they would like to be connected to a lawyer's voice mail box and if they say 'yes', they hear a system prompt, making it simple for them to get back to an operator.

To date, voice mail has attracted a great deal of unfair comment because it has often been confused with automated call handling systems where the caller hears endless system prompts such as key one for this, key two for that, key three for something else. These systems are aimed at replacing people and are totally unsuitable for use in an organisation such as Clifford Chance. Describing voice mail as audible email seems to start people thinking in the right way about how they can use it.

Voice mail has all the advantages of real time communication, such as tone of voice, without the intrusive demands of a telephone call. Users should be encouraged to send a voice mail message where they would previously have sent an email or written memo.

The bottom line about voice mail is that to work for the firm it has to work for the clients and the only way to achieve this is through a quality implementation programme.

Tony Adams is communications manager at Clifford Chance.