Voice mail used to be a useful business communication tool. Today, however, it's becoming as obsolete as fax machine. This became clear to me when somebody forwarded me today's Dear Abby column. Check it this excerpt:

I'm a receptionist. There's a growing trend that people don't bother to listen to their voice mail... I don't know why people are so lazy and inconsiderate that they don't listen to their messages. The head of my firm deals with a lot of younger clients, and it seems the younger the person is, the less likely they will listen to any of their voice mails, or their voice mail boxes are full, so it's impossible to leave a message for them.

Well, I'm definitely no youngster, but I haven't listened to a voice mail for years. While it's sometimes inconvenient, I estimate I've saved several hundred hours over that time. Hours that I've spent much more productively, needless to say.

Beyond the fact that it will save you time and money, here's why you should consider trashing your voice mail system.

1. The telephone keypad is obsolete.

The standard telephone keypad is a 1964 design based on a 1904 design for the rotary phone. Even with the addition of the asterisk and pound key, it's an awkward set up that was never designed for entering anything more complicated than a series of numbers. Voice recognition has helped somewhat, but fails frequently enough that you end up peering at the letters on each key. (BTW, this makes no sense because they're inconsistent. The 1 key has no letters, the 7 and 9 keys have four letters each, and the 0 key has "OPER"? Dumb.)

2. You can't edit voice messages.

With text-based communications, you can review your message, make some edits, and then send it. If that message is important, you can take whatever time you need to craft it appropriately. With voice mail, you must either get the voice message right the first time or go back to the beginning and start over. To craft a voice mail, you must write it out first, in which case you might just as well send an email anyway.

3. Voice mail can have dropouts.

When was the last time you got an email or text with some of the letters missing because of bad reception? Like never, because that never happens. Poor reception can, however, garble a voice mail so that it's meaningless. Unless the person leaving the message reviews the entire message, he or she won't be aware that data was lost. And even if the sender does review the message, if there's a bad connection, he or she might hear a dropout that's the result of the playback but not actually in the message. Argh!!!

4. Everyone sounds rude on voice mail.

The human voice--a product of a million years of evolution--is intended for conversation, either one-to-one or one-to-many. Conducting one half a conversation is inherently awkward. While talented broadcasters and podcasters can monologue and remain engaging, when most people leave voice messages, they sound ill-at-ease because they know that it's rude to "talk at" people rather than "talk with" them.

5. Voice mail is awkward and time consuming.

When you're listening to voice mail, you typically need to have a pen and paper at hand, or a computer open, because you may need to write down an important part of the message, like a phone number or a date and time. What's worse, though, is that you're forced to listen to the entire message, perhaps more than once, to glean out what's important or to write down something that wasn't spoken clearly. What a waste!

6. Voice mail encourages spam.

Spam emails are irritating but easily ignored. Not so with voice mail spam (both robocalls and cold calls). Because you must listen to voice mails in a sequence (rather than picking and choosing, based on what the Inbox list), you're forced to subject yourself to at least the beginning of each spam message to confirm whether it's worth a listen. Spammers know you're a captive audience and front-load their messages to hook you in.

7. Voice mail tag is still a thing.

Since many people don't answer their phones (which is why voice mail exists, of course), it's inevitable that two people trying connect may need to leave multiple messages to coordinate a time when they can actually talk--a slow and clunky process. By contrast, it's incredibly easy to schedule a call using email or any other text-based messaging. Or a scheduling tool. 

So the Dear Abby letter-writer had it exactly backward. It's not "lazy and inconsiderate" to ignore voice mails. It's "lazy and inconsiderate" to expect other people to use voice mail whenever there's a viable alternative. Which there almost always is.

Published on: May 10, 2019
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