Think Before You Voicemail

Voicemail is dead. Please tell everyone so they’ll stop using it.

When I first started out in the real world in the mid-nineties voicemail was an important productivity tool. I remember people talking about the pros and cons of various enterprise voicemail systems – which had the best forwarding and group messaging, which allowed for archiving, and how many messages could be stored and for how long. Even though email was around, people were still unsure how to use it. Letters went on letterhead and were formal. Voicemail was informal and common. Email etiquette was still being developed. It was good for mass-forwarding jokes and moving Word, Excel, and Powerpoint files around, but it took a while for email to take over as older generations moved out of the workplace or got with the program.

But now an increasing number of people are just plain avoiding voicemail (for my impromptu and unscientific survey, see the comments here, which are predominantly anti-voicemail). It takes much longer to listen to a message than read it. And voicemail is usually outside of our typical workflow, making it hard to forward or reply to easily.

Typical voicemail messages today include things like “Please don’t leave me a voicemail, I rarely listen to them. Please just email me at” Many people don’t bother setting up their voicemail accounts at all. Then there’s my favorite method, the one I use personally – let the message box get full and then don’t empty it. Caller ID still tells me who called, and I can simply call them back.

How many times have you called someone back and said “I saw that you called but didn’t listen to the voicemail yet, Is it anything urgent?”

Senders often feel guilty for leaving voicemails, too. And to make sure you get the message, quite often people will follow up with a text message – “Just left you a VM, it’s important” – just so you know it’s there.

There are startups that are trying to make voicemail more useful. Pinger, GrandCentral and YouMail are among them. The iPhone’s visual voicemail feature helps clean up the clutter, too. But at the end of the day you still need to take time to listen to those voicemails, and that usually comes after other equally urgent but less disruptive tasks.

The services that really make voicemail more usable are those that convert voicemail into text and then send it to you via email or SMS (Spinvox, PhoneTag Yap and Jott, for example).

More mobile carriers are offering text conversion for a monthly or per-message fee. It’s my guess this will become more and more common. Voice is here to stay as a data input method, but listening to messages will certainly become an increasing luxury, to be reserved for loved ones or those messages that aren’t transcribed properly (or you need to hear it for tone or emotion).

For now most people don’t have voicemail transcription services. So think before you voicemail, more and more people just find it annoying.