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March 1991

Making voicemail a success.

by Fuglister, Jayne

    Abstract- Organizations can obtain more efficient communications while reducing costs by implementing a voice mail system. Voicemail systems can help reduce telephone costs, which are approximately $20 for completing a telephone message if the intended party is not available. A voice mail system can be implemented for $10,000 to $500,000, and voice mail files can be rented for $10 to $35 per month. The cost of a system is offset by improvements in productivity and efficiency. The acceptance of a voice mail system depends on the availability of appropriate training materials, user-friendly documentation, and a help function.

Nearly 70% of all business telephone calls fail to reach the intended party. The line is busy, the party is not in the office or the call is taken by a secretary, resulting in a cost of approximately $20 to complete one telephone message.(1) Many companies are responding to this situation by installing voicemail systems.


Voicemail is a computer system tied into a company's telephone network. The system is accessed through touch-tone telephones and is used to receive, send, and record voice messages.

The basic system operates like a telephone answering machine. If a message is sent to a user that is not in the office, voicemail can be programmed to answer and ask the sender to leave a message. The messages received by the system are converted into computei-storable digital messages that are stored in the user's the addressee's) voicemail file, which accumulates recordings of all incoming messages to the extent of its capacity. The file is an electronic storage location typically situated on a magnetic disk. Messages, encoded by the system and residing on the system hardware can be accessed by the user (the addressee) at any time, from any place, by dialing into the system.

In addition to taking messages, the system enables a caller to choose between leaving a message for the addressee or speaking to a secretary. or operator. These options are communicated using an oral menu. For example, the caller may be asked to "Leave a message after the tone or press the star key if you wish to speak to the operator."

Another basic feature is voice messaging, which is the sending of voice communications to other parties on the system. Any individual who has been assigned a voicemail file on the system can send and receive voice messages.

A user (the sender) transmits voice messages by dialing into the system. once the system answers, the user enters his or her extension number to identify his or her file, and a password to identify the sender as an authorized system user. The system then responds with an oral menu of' activities. By keying a selection into the telephone, the user can either send messages to other parties on the system or listen to messages that have been stored. To send a message to another party, the user dictates the message into the telephone and sends it using the extension of the addressee. Occasionally, if a user wants to review a message for content, he or she may, using a touch-tone telephone, instruct the system to replay the message that was dictated. if the user chooses not to send the message in its current form, the message may be deleted and re-recorded.

Voicemail can result in eliminating some of the overhead associated with writing traditional memos. Instead of a user dictating or handwriting a memo and having it transcribed by a secretary, he or she can now speak directly into a telephone and review the messages until satisfied. No longer does the memo sit in a mailroom waiting for delivery, and a secretary does not have to deliver it personally. Voicemail communications are almost immediate, and a sender may check on the status at any time; that is, if the message has been received and heard by an authorized addressee. If an addressee wants to save a memo for future reference, it can be transferred to a voicemail file cabinet, another section of the computer's magnetic disk. This file operates like a traditional file cabinet, providing storage for recordings of messages sent and received.

Voice messages received by an addressee are stored on the voicemail file; they are recordings of the oral communications received. They are accompanied by a header message that identifies the sender and the time and date of the message. An addressee can scan incoming messages by listening to these headers, as though looking at return addresses when browsing through regular mail. Messages that an addressee wants to receive can be listened to.

Once the message has been received, the addressee can erase the message or transfer it to a voicemail file cabinet. if the addressee wishes to respond, he or she can dictate the response using the telephone. Many systems are able to automatically attach the voicemail return address to the response. The addressee also has the option of appending a voice copy of the original message to the response, or the response may be sent separately. in addition, he or she can transmit messages received to other parties using the system.


In the traditional office environment, voicemail can speed up communications, extend the boundaries of the office and the workday, and may result in cost savings (see Exhibit 1). These benefits can result from more efficient delivery of telephone messages and interoffice memos.

Whether the direct cost savings find their way to the bottom line depends on a variety of factors. Most companies do not cut back staff immediately after installing a system. In fact, some companies must hire additional technical specialists to support and maintain the new system. Savings are not usually realized through census reductions, but generally derive from increases in productivity. Duties of receptionists and secretaries are often expanded to make better use of their time. Management no longer plays telephone tag or waits for important calls.

The cost of a system is largely dependent upon size and services provided. Size is a function of the number of users, and the length of a message that can be sent or received. Services include design features that characterize the voicemail application. The cost of establishing a system can range from under $10,000 to nearly $500,000. Voicemail service bureaus have also begun to appear; these service bureaus will rent a single voicemail file accessible to the user's system for a monthly fee of $10 to $35.


The initial cost of a voicemail system can be offset by productivity and efficiency gains. The degree to which these potential gains are realized is largely determined by system features that influence acceptance and use of the system by management and staff. Exhibit 2 defines and summarizes these voicemail systems features; Exhibit 3 identifies features of software products to be considered when evaluating a system.


Critical determinants of voicemail system acceptance are the availability of good quality training materials, user-oriented documentation and a help function. Training materials include instructional videos, basic and advanced tutorials, and classroom instruction. Prior to using the system, it is vital that all users receive training. CONCLUSION A carefully designed and implemented voicemail system can result in significant benefits that will more than justify the cost of a new system. Administrative savings can be achieved by reducing the number of written memos and message slips and the time spent playing telephone tag. Users benefit by more rapid access to information.

To achieve these benefits, careful attention should be paid to the selection of system features. Acquisition of a "bare bones" system, that does not adequately support organizational communication, may result in its rejection. To be accepted, the system should have sufficient capacity regarding the number of users it can support, mailbox size, message size and file size, and so on. With careful design, selection and implementation, a voicemail system can be a significant corporate asset. Without these, it could become the company's "white elephant."

Ronald Q. Brown, "The Growing Acceptance of Voice Processing," TPT/Network Management, December 1988.

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