CHICAGO -- "Seasons Greetings from XYZ. If you're calling from a Touch Tone phone and want to bypass the store operator, press 1 now, or 0 anytime for operator assistance. If you have a rotary phone, remain on the line for operator assistance ... "
You are in the first stages of having your call "processed." You have a chance to get out of the computer loop, as some analysts call it, or continue. Press 1, and the message rolls on, unfailingly polite, and careful to provide an immediate escape hatch to a human operator.
"Thank you. If you know the extension you want, dial it now, or dial the operator anytime. Or, listen for the department you want, and press that number anytime during this message. If you want automotive parts, press 1; catalog, press 2; furniture or major appliances, press 3 ... "
That's your category, so to get another directory for furniture and appliances, you press 3.
"Thank you. If you want furniture, press 1; TVs, VCRs or stereos, press 2; sewing machines or vacuums, press 3; refrigeration or laundry equipment, press 4; ranges, microwaves or dishwashers, press 5."
About 1.2 million calls in the United States are answered each day by a computerized message that is some variation of the above.
Some users are offended, some are confused, but proponents of the automated devices say that most eventually become comfortable with the systems. A few users even learn to love them, they say.
The latest technology in call handling is a combination of three separate features that are gradually being integrated into one system that includes automatic answering, voice messaging and voice response.
An example of automatic answering is the above suburban retail store, where a call is answered and routed to the correct department by offering the caller a series of options.
A voice-messaging system allows a caller to leave a spoken message in a "voice mail box" that can then be reached via a phone call and manipulated in a number of ways: It can be duplicated, forwarded or returned with a response to others within the system.
A voice-response system allows a caller to perform an actual transaction over the phone by providing a link to a mainframe computer, which responds with data that is spoken instead of displayed on a screen. For example, a caller might be able to punch a number of a replacement part into the phone and be told if it is in stock; or he might be able to get his bank account balance, or get a stock quotation.
All this technology is available now. Analysts predict that call processing will be a multibillion-dollar business early in the 1990s. But today it is still fragmented, and growing slowly.
According to Probe Research, a Marstown, N.J., consulting firm, there are about 4,200 voice-messaging systems in use, most of which offer an automatic answering and routing function. Probe Research estimates industry sales at about $270 million for 1987.
Corporate America is beginning to recognize the potential for productivity gains and labor reductions from such systems, but that doesn't mean they are sold on the concept.
The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, for example, is able to handle as many as 3,000 calls a day on 20 incoming lines, with just one human operator and an Automated Attendant system from Schaumburg, Ill.-based Dytel Corp.
"Sure, there are some people who don't like machines," said Steve Brandt, office services manager for the museum. "But we figure that more people would have been frustrated by listening to the phone ring forever than will be upset by getting a computer. This way they get their information much faster."
Aware that many such systems are considered little more than digital nags by their detractors, Sanford Morganstein, president of Dytel, likes to explain his Automated Attendant as something more than just a recording.
"We like to describe it not as a machine or a recording, but as a replacement for lousy service," he said. "The idea is to handle phone calls, not just answer the phone or take a message. That annoys people. We want to let them be in charge of their call, let them choose the option they want, let them keep trying if they feel like it, or leave a message if they don't. We found much better acceptance when we stopped calling it a recording."
Nonetheless, there is still a certain wariness among major corporations in turning their most valuable commodity -- clients and customers -- over to an automated system that just might irritate them so much that they go elsewhere.
As a result, the technology seems to be sneaking in the back door.
"Right now it's used a lot for after-hours, overflow and friendly callers," said David Yedwab, senior consultant at Eastern Management Group, a consulting firm based in Stamford, Conn. "Corporations want both worlds: a high-tech solution to improve productivity and a soft-touch approach to deal with their clients."
"We don't want to risk offending or losing our clients," emphasized a partner in a major Chicago consulting firm that has a sophisticated answering and messaging system. The system is not hooked up to the firm's main number.
"We sort of look on it as our back door number," she said. "We give the automatic answering system number to people who have to be nice to us, like suppliers and vendors and family members," she laughed. "Never clients."
"We would prefer that our customers speak to a human during the day," said Robert Gordon, a spokesman for Applied Data Research, a major software house, which uses an automated system in its Princeton, N.J., and Dallas offices after hours and on weekends.
"We're very happy with it for non-normal business hours," he said. "We have a 24-hour tech-support hotline, but if people forget that number and dial the main number at our headquarters, they can get transferred over with a two-digit code by the system."
"A lot of companies are only using these systems internally for their service personnel," admitted Eugene Mathews, technical specialist at American Telephone & Telegraph Co., which also makes such a device.
"But we find that once they try it and find that their callers feel they are getting an alternative to just waiting, they are learning to accept it. The thing they don't want is to have their customers perceive that they are taking a shortcut."
Even OPCOM Inc., a San Jose, Calif., firm that specializes in automated answering and voice-messaging devices, has a human operator answering the 800 number that runs in its advertisements.
"We think it's important to have the personal touch in our first contact with new customers," said Ellen Pensky, marketing director.
"We also like to emphasize that a lot of care should be taken in the way you customize and install this technology," she said. "It doesn't take the place of humans. We never recommend putting it on every line.''