I'M A LONG-TIME CRITIC OF ELECTRONIC TELEphone answering systems, and I'm a skeptic on what actual cost-savings are realized by users. Beyond the alleged savings, the cost in customer frustration and dissatisfaction has proven to be a real issue for many dealerships.

I have conducted a personal survey of consumers' satisfaction levels regarding taped messages and the results have been heavily in favor of eliminating this "canned aggravation."

I recently experienced the ultimate in electronic stress. I wanted to change the telephone service in our summer home so that we would be billed only for maintaining the number.

In past years this was accomplished by a simple telephone call to the local business office. Please remember I am dealing with the top professional organizations in our communication world, AT&T and Verizon, my local telephone supplier. By the time each organization had done their "number" on my patience I was ready to use smoke signals to communicate.

After spending 10 minutes doing the press-a-number game, I was told by a taped voice, "Because of a large volume of calls please call back later." After two days and three "please-call-back" requests, I really got angry.

Upon the suggestion of a friend I discovered a way to get a real live person on the line. If, when they begin playing their numbers' game, you punch the O on your phone twice, I was assured a real live person would eventually answer. But if you believe this is a simple solution, then you believe in the tooth fairy!

The OO activity did produce a live person, who referred me to another live person, who, before I could say much, transferred me to another menu of taped messages!

Hanging up with a resolve I would conquer this electronic monster I tried the OO caper one more time. Before they had a chance to feed me into their tape trap again I shouted, "I want to talk to a supervisor!"

Alas, this verbal aggression finally got results. I was connected to a person with true compassion for my situation, and who offered to stay on the line with me until some one would flick the magic switch to fulfill my original request. (By this time, I had almost forgot what it was.)

While we waited for the right person to come on the line the supervisor and I engaged in a nostalgic conversation about the simplicity of the good old days when "Good morning, Welcome to Hometown Motors" led to productive business relationships.

First impressions in every situation are lasting and important. Many dealers do not attach enough importance to the telephone operator position, nor do they pay the salaries for the desired personnel quality. Answering telephones with enthusiasm is akin to a hearty handshake. Have you ever shaken hands and felt like you had just handled a dead fish? Did it engender you to seek out a lasting relationship? Nor does a bad first telephone impression do anything but hurt your business.

A cheery, friendly live greeting on the telephone opens up the path for every employee to do an effective job with customers who have been conditioned to be more receptive - all because of a simple well-mannered telephone greeting.

A high volume Chevy dealer in the Northeast goes the extra nine yards in creating a consumer friendly environment. Besides having an excellent telephone operator, every department head carries a two-way radio enabling the user to immediately respond to telephone calls.

This dealer also refuses to have his calls screened by a secretary. He figures if a customer took the time to call him, the customer deserves a courteous and personal welcome.

If he's not available, a voice mail message is promptly forthcoming. No one in this dealership asks, "Who's calling?" That's almost grounds for dismissal!

While on the subject of paging, it would serve every dealer to examine their paging systems. Too many times a blaring public address page to an individual disrupts sales persons about to close a deal or a service advisor attempting to placate a displeased customer.

It seems ill-mannered to intrude that way on a dialogue between a customer and dealership staffer. Better to assign numbers to different individuals which give the individual an option to answer the page or to simply respond with an electronic signal for the operator to take a message.

Managing the telephone system is a serious challenge for all dealers. Done well, it can produce great results. Beyond training salespeople to prospect on the phone, condition the entire organization to perceive the dealership phone system with a sensitivity to customers.