Fed up thinking about voice mail? Some big companies clearly are. J.P. Morgan Chase is cutting VM service for some employees who don't deal with external customers.

The chase supposedly is to cut costs. Coca-Cola did something similar, only eliminating voice mail for everyone in its headquarters as part of an austerity measure. Callers are told to email or call someone's mobile if they don't pick up. "Coke says the savings will be less than $100,000 a year, but that the change will simplify and speed up work," as the Wall Street Journal reported.

But why would a company consider voicemail to be superfluous and liable for cutting? Let's all say it together: because practically no one listens to voicemail and no one answers it. So, voice mail is not seen as necessary as it once was by some major corporations. Why spend money when it's a waste? Does that mean you should drop it? Probably not, and neither should have these major companies. Although the move is splashy on the part of J.P. Morgan and Coke, it's a wrong-headed move by treating a business symptom, not a malady. Here are the reasons why.

First pinpoint the problem

The clue to mishandling is that the focus is immediately on cost. You cut cost from a business when it's not providing a solid return on the investment. For voicemail not to provide a return means either that either people don't use the phone anymore, they don't leave messages, or the messages they leave are ignored. The first two possibilities seem highly unlikely. Granted, younger people often default to texting, but that still leaves tens of millions who are conditioned to use a phone, particularly when they're trying to contact someone with an apparent degree of urgency. That no one leaves voicemails seems hard to believe, particularly when you might often get a message that the person's email box is full. The answer is that too many people let calls go to voicemail and then do nothing with them. It's not a money problem, it's a communication problem.

Decide what behavior is necessary

Well-run business functions on encouraging proper behavior and discouraging what reduces effectiveness and undermines strategy. As communications is a core business function, there is a problem when employees ignore people trying to get in touch, whether those people are other employees, customers, business partners, or other stakeholders. You can't let messages be ignored.

Understand the breadth of the problem

When people ignore communications, the assumption that it stops with voicemails is naive. Those who won't answer voicemails are likely also ignoring emails and texts. (How many people have you seen rack up hundreds, or thousands, or messages that sit in an inbox?) When you enable people to ignore communications, you're supporting actions that hurt your business.

Look beyond symptoms for sources

Understand the problem and you see that removing a way of leaving messages does nothing more than further enable poor communications. Now you need to understand what drives the behavior, and that can easily vary from one employee to another. Are people scared of dealing with conflict? Do they simply not care about others? Are they poor at time management and unable to address their communications responsibilities while retaining time to get other work done? Has the company so overloaded them that it set up the problem and are they responding the only way that seems practical? Maybe the biggest problem is with a small number of people, which is a different issue than if everyone shirks communications. The source is what you need to solve, not the symptom.

Fix the source

When you understand the problem and its source you can begin to take action. That may mean reassessing how thinly you have staffed a department. Perhaps a particular group of people need extra training to help them manage communications, get out from under a massive weight, and get ongoing control. You might even have some employees who need to hear the riot act or even be replaced. Instead of eliminating voicemail, which is hiding the problem, face the issue square on and create a systemic solution that will improve your business going forward.

Published on: Jun 3, 2015