Well-connected travel. (voice mail systems for travelers) (Column)
by Daniel Janal
Nearly half of Terry Kalil's work life is spent on the road--at conventions, meetings, airports. In today's world, that isn't unusual. But it does present an interesting problem. How do you manage a staff when you've been gone 80 out of the past 200 workdays?
As public relations manager for Great Plains Software, the leading developer of accounting and business management software for small- and medium-sized businesses, Kalil spends at least 16 weeks on the road meeting with strategic partners such as Apple, Borland, and Lotus to discuss marketing opportunities and with resellers and reporters to announce new products and strategies. Technology helps.
"I could not travel as much as I do . . . without technology," she says. "The company is very skilled at taking advantage of the technology."
One of the biggest aids is a voice mail system that operates on the company's personal computers. "Our company thrives on voice mail. It is a critically important tool," she says. "We use the telephone for more than 'It's Terry; call me.' We leave full messages--and get full answers in return."
Voice mail is a powerful tool for Kalil. She uses it to instruct her staff and answer their questions. She also uses voice mail to report to her manager and respond to questions coming in from the public. "I use voice mail like I use Post-it notes. I attach a note to the original message and send it off. I can delegate by forwarding. I'm not losing productivity because I have to wait to get home."
With voice mail, she can even discuss sensitive issues. Kalil was at a conference recently when she had to discuss salary adjustments for her staff. Since she was thousands of miles away and payday was the next day, she had to conduct the process entirely over the phone. Security is built into the system so that unauthorized listeners can't hear messages, by accident or on purpose.
She can save time by broadcasting messages to anyone or everyone in the company headquarters or at its 57 remote field sites in North America. For instance, when a national C.P.A. contest rated Great Plains at the top, she sent a message to all company personnel. "We played an audiotape of our announcement, complete with the company president's extemporaneous remarks. I got calls from people saying, 'I felt as if I were there. I heard the popping of the balloons.'"
By using voice mail actively, she's been able to establish positive relationships with new contacts and maintain camaraderie with office mates.
"Because we spend so much time on the road, we have adapted," she says. "If you rely on technology, you end up being a better communicator. There are people I've never met whom I've had extensive conversations with. When we meet, we feel $(as if$) we know each other. We are like old friends and know each other well."
Although voice mail doesn't afford you the opportunity to pick up important cues like body language, Kalil says that if you are a good listener, you'll hear the subtle cues delivered by voice inflections and other means. "If you are a good communicator, the telephone or E-mail is not a hindrance." She has this advice for voice mail users:
1. Be a good listener.
2. Be personable, not formal.
3. Laugh. Let them hear a smile in your voice.
4. Show empathy.
5. Use the memo approach by stating the subject up front.
Other tools in Kalil's traveling arsenal include a Compaq portable computer. "A laptop is never more than inches away from my hand," she says. Her laptop puts her in touch with the company's cc:Mail and MCI Mail.
"At 5:00 a.m. I can sign on and know what our daily sales figures are. I can write press releases, approve copy, and send thank-you notes to my administrative assistant to type. I type it into the system, and people at the main office get the work done."
For those times when she must actually see material for final approval of layouts or copies of articles that will appear in the media, Kalil relies on the powers of the fax machine: "How did we live without them? I feel so connected to the business with it. I'm never out of touch," she says. "Maybe I'm a communications junkie."