For big-wave surfers around the world, it's the one call they don't want to miss: the word from Jeff Clark that the Mavericks Surf Contest is about to begin. Clark is founder of Mavericks Surf Ventures, a company named after the legendary beach in Half Moon Bay, California, where surfers convene from around the world to test their skills against towering swells that can top 50 feet. Mavericks is a fickle spot, delivering those massive breakers only about five times each winter. So when the surf is up, the athletes need to know. And Clark needs to notify them because his company earns most of its revenue from the competition's sponsors, such as Ask.com.
For most of the company's three-year history, Clark and his staff have spent hours every week in winter calling two dozen surfers scattered across several continents, as well as corporate sponsors, caterers, media outlets, and volunteers, to update them on surf conditions. This year, however, he found a new voice messaging tool called Pinger, which allows him to send instant voice mails to large groups of people without actually calling them. He dials Pinger's number and records a message, which is automatically forwarded to everyone he needs to reach--this year, more than 600 people at once. "When I see something in the waves, I have to be able to get the message out now," says Clark. "The competitors are stoked to get the updates."
Digital technology has changed nearly everything about the way we communicate--except voice mail. Which is to say that keeping up with voice mail is still the royal pain it's always been. That's especially true today, when nearly everyone has multiple phone numbers and voice mail boxes. Checking all of those accounts means entering PIN numbers and listening to messages in the order in which they were received. But what if you could listen to that urgent message from a client before that drawn-out message from your aunt? Or merge all your voice mail accounts into a single location? Or read voice mail messages off your BlackBerry?
Some of these voice mail 2.0 services have long been available at large companies with big communications budgets. Now start-ups such as Pinger, SimulScribe, GotVoice, Jott, and GrandCentral, all of which have launched their products in the past few years, are giving small-business and consumer voice mail a much-needed technological overhaul. They take slightly different approaches. GotVoice, based in Kirkland, Washington, uses an automatic dialing system to log in to each of your voice mail accounts. It records the messages and e-mails them to you as MP3 files. "Voice mail is usually just drudgery," says Bruce Peterson, co-founder of GotVoice. "Our service is for anyone who's busy, can't miss a call, and hates to check messages."
New York City-based SimulScribe takes another approach. It uses software to transcribe voice messages into text files, which are e-mailed to you--so you can read your voice mail on a BlackBerry while, say, you sit in a meeting. Other services, including GotVoice, Pinger, and Jott, help you send messages to a large group of staff or clients. Jott users dial a number and record a message. The message is transcribed in India and delivered via e-mail and text message, usually within four to five minutes.
Another company is trying to end the era of multiple phone numbers. GrandCentral, based in Fremont, California, lets you consolidate all your phone numbers--your home, work, and cellular lines--into one new number provided by GrandCentral. When messages come into the voice mail box on one of your old lines, they're forwarded to your new GrandCentral number and kept as audio files in an online mailbox for easy access. But the service has a major downside: To use all of GrandCentral's features, your contacts have to switch to the new number.
Many of these products are in public beta formats and the vendors are still working out kinks. Because of some glitches with GrandCentral, for example, some customers canceled the service and had to tell all their friends and clients they were changing their numbers back. And SimulScribe's transcription software can miss some words, though the company says the transcriptions are about 90 percent accurate.
Despite these glitches, voice mail 2.0 tools have already changed the way some entrepreneurs do business. Before using SimulScribe, Jason Weissman, the 28-year-old founder of Boston Realty Advisors, a commercial and residential real estate firm, was inundated by up to 50 voice mail messages a day on his office phone and another 15 to 20 on his cell phone. For Weissman and his brokers, a missed call can mean a missed sale. "Getting back to someone quickly is absolutely everything in this business," says Weissman.
Weissman recently hooked up SimulScribe for all 30 of his real estate brokers. Because SimulScribe stores all of their voice mails online, Weissman's brokers never have to search for that lost phone number scrawled on a napkin. They can also sift through their online SimulScribe boxes, which retain all incoming messages, for sales leads.
Compared with his $30,000 to $40,000 annual bill for phone, fax, and BlackBerry, Weissman says his SimulScribe investment of about $15 per user per month is relatively small. Even though he says the service struggles to translate some words, Weissman expects to see the results of his new investment reflected in his company's bottom line soon. "It's definitely a paradigm shift in terms of the way I operate," says Weissman. "I really believe this creates an efficiency for our agents and gives us an edge over the competition."