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Press 1 If You're Frustrated With Phone Systems

The channel has discovered big money in providing voice and telephony products and services. The maturation of VoIP and falling hardware prices have made telephony systems affordable for nearly every size business. What kills me is that we're still dealing with a lack of standards.

The channel has discovered big money in providing voice and telephony products and services. The maturation of VoIP and falling hardware prices have made telephony systems affordable for nearly every size business. What kills me is that we're still dealing with a lack of standards. I'm not talking about SIP or H.323, but rather common formatting and navigation for those annoying auto-attendants.

OK, fasten your seatbelts because I'm about to go off on a rant. Everyone is busy, and it's no wonder that nine times out of 10, we'll go into someone's voicemail. But do we need "...listen to all the options, as some may have changed..." every time we touch the dial?

I personally made more than 500 phone calls leading up to the annual VARBusiness 500 Conference and Awards, extending personal invites to solution-provider executives and key industry leaders. My contact list, like most people's, falls out of date quickly, and I didn't have everyone's extensions or direct lines. As a result, I had to navigate a serpentine of options just to leave a message. Most maddening was the fact that the serpentine changed with each call.

I can't tell you how many times I was told to "press # for a company directory," only to be told to take an intermediary step in my quest for a connection. To dial by name, I was told to press #, *, 1, 2, 8, 9, 44, 38, 411, and countless more options. Worse, in some cases, I would then be given the option of searching by first or last name.

My own phone system is equally frustrating. After accessing my mailbox to retrieve messages, I have to hit 5 to start playing messages. Then I have the option of hitting 3 to erase them. However, hitting 3 once won't purge the message; I have to press 3 again. Even then, I have to hang up, which resets the mailbox before the message is really gone.

I relayed this experience to Mike Plumer, vice president of sales at AltiGen Communications, a budding VoIP and voice vendor. He wasn't surprised. It isn't a technical problem, he said. It's about the user experience and how vendors and solution providers aren't tailoring voice systems with the user in mind.

I happen to believe the problem is more pervasive. Vendors and solution providers often speak of competitive differentiation. It's hard to improve on telephony basics; you pick up the receiver, listen for a dial tone, place a call and talk--simple! Everything after that is value add; that's how you differentiate yourself from your competitors' similar features. It seems as though the designers of these systems are thinking more of themselves than their customers.

The problem is so acute that many consumer advocacy groups are now saying complicated auto-attendants that place callers into a continuous loop are raising frustration levels and decreasing satisfaction in customer service. In fact, Web sites are popping up with instructions for how to circumvent automated phone systems at banks, airlines, utilities and, ironically, telecom companies.

Telephony is a perfect opportunity for the channel to use existing technology for everyone's benefit. For the user's sake, please standardize the navigation of auto-attendants and phone systems. I'm willing to bet that users will be far more satisfied with their primary communication tool and, consequently, the owners of those systems will see a rise in customer satisfaction.

What do you think about phone systems and auto-attendants? E-mail me your "voicemail hell" stories.

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