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What Is a Digital Answering System?

Digital answering systems are used in both homes and businesses to accept calls and receive messages.
A cordless phone with a digital answering system.
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  • Originally Written By: B. Miller
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 05 October 2014
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A digital answering system, sometimes also called a “digital answering machine,” is an electronic device that is connected to a land-line telephone for the purpose of recording and storing caller messages. The device will answer incoming calls, usually after a certain number of rings, and will then instruct callers to leave a message. It records these to a digital chip, keeping track of the exact date and time of each call. Owners can often access stored messages remotely, either by calling the device or sometimes through a dedicated Internet site, and they can almost always be played back on the device itself, too. Digital answering systems are common in both home and office settings, and they can typically be set up with multiple mailboxes for different users.

Basic Mechanics

The technology involved is usually fairly simple. Some telephone handsets and base stations come with digital answering already built in, in which case all a user needs to do is set it up. The devices can often be bought independently, too. In these instances, the machine must be plugged in to both a power source and the phone line, either directly or through a jack on the base station of the phone itself.

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A digital chip is imbedded into the device and is where the messages are stored. Many of the first answering machines recorded messages onto tape, which could then be rewound, re-played, and recorded over time and time again. The digital system removes the need for tape, and generally provides a more reliable message storage service. It’s usually a lot harder to fill up these sorts of mailboxes, though it is possible. In these instances the problem isn’t running out of tape, it’s running out of memory. People who have this issue frequently often look for models with more memory, or they look for ways of upgrading the chip capacity they already have.

How It’s Used

People can use digital answering machines both at home and in office or business settings. In either case, the user can usually record a custom outgoing greeting that callers will hear before they can leave a message or the answering system will provide a number of standardized greeting choices. Systems for home use often come with a number of handsets with smaller base stations that can be used around the house.

Many units have the capacity to create different mailboxes for different users. For instance, a caller might be instructed to press one to leave a message for Jim or press two to leave a message for Jessica. This type of answering system can be beneficial for large families where members each receive many messages, or for small businesses with only a handful of employees. Some may only be used with one telephone line, but others are able to accept incoming calls from two or more individual lines.

In the office, the answering system is often called "voice mail" and will likely encompass the entire office. Employees typically each have their own digital mailbox that is most commonly accessed with an extension number branched off of the company’s main phone number. Employees are often instructed to record their own greetings and to regularly check the messages from their individual phones — sometimes by dialing their own extensions or by listening at the base station.

Retrieving Messages

Digital answering machines typically indicate new messages with a beeping sound, a flashing light, or an illuminated number that shows how many messages are waiting. The easiest way to hear them is to push the button labeled “play” on the device, but this isn’t usually the only option. Many answering systems can be accessed remotely simply by calling one's own phone number and entering a pre-set code. The system will then play the messages over the phone while keeping them stored on the machine for later access. Depending on how the system was set up, users may also be able to view and screen waiting messages from a dedicated website.

Distinguishing Cellular Voicemail

There can be some confusion between digital answering systems and programs known as “digital voicemail,” which are common with many mobile and cellular phone carriers. Mobile phones frequently come with the option of voicemail services, but these aren’t usually true digital systems because they aren’t independent pieces of technology. Rather, they are facets of the basic phone service. These sorts of messages are usually stored either in the cloud or with the service provider, and aren’t generally as permanent.

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ceilingcat
Post 3

My parents really need to get a cordless digital answering system for their home. It's pretty unbelievable, but they are actually still using an answering machine with a tape! They've had the machine for years, and it's definitely on its last leg. However, they just won't give it up!

It's very inconvenient for anyone who wants to call them, because the tape fills up fairly quickly. And then they forget to check their messages and rewind the tape. Maybe one of these days I'll convince them to join the rest of us in the 21st century!

Azuza
Post 2

@sunnySkys - It sounds like you worked for a pretty disorganized office! Most offices specifically designate someone to check the voicemail for a certain department. It also sounds like your boss made the mailbox system needlessly complicated!

I think it's interesting that cell phone voicemail isn't technically a digital answering system! That's the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of digital answering systems, because I haven't had anything like a cordless phone digital answering system in years! I've been exclusively using my cell phone for quite some time now.

sunnySkys
Post 1

We had a pretty complicated digital phone answering system at the last office I worked in. You could leave a message for specific people, for the sales team, or for a customer service representative.

However, it was a small insurance office, so everyone did sales as well as customer service. So no one was ever sure who was supposed to be responding to the voice mail system! Sometimes everyone would check each voice mailbox, and then multiple people would call back the same customer. But sometimes no one would check, and customer would be upset because no one got back to them! It was a mess.

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