The Voicemail Curtain

Voicemail is an interesting technology. I remember its inception and introduction. It was hailed as a space, time, energy, cost, etc, etc, saving technology. A panacea. A cure all. Initially, and possibly in some instances today it continues to provide business efficiencies and cost reductions. It has become so ubiquitous that we almost never even think about it. Almost never, with the possible exception of when we actually want to talk to someone about a problem or issue that may have some urgency associated with it. It is in these instances that voicemail no longer provides its Dr. Jekyll based higher minded benefits and services, and reveals its darker, far less beneficial Mr. Hyde side.

I have mentioned several times that I am old school in many of my approaches to business. That doesn’t mean that I reject new technologies and capabilities. On the contrary, I would like to think of myself as something of an early adopter in an effort to always try to improve what business does and how it gets done. However I hope to never lose site of the fact that business is conducted by and between people. While asynchronous or non-real time communication such as voicemail can provide increased productivity in certain instances and applications, such as when individuals are in significantly different time zones around the world, it seems to me that in many instances it is becoming a detriment and an inhibitor to getting business done now.

It appears that asynchronous communications such as voicemail (and email for that matter) may have removed in some people’s minds the necessity to actually have to conduct business by and between people. Instead of talking to people, we now have slow motion conversations over some other type of media instead of a real time discussion over the phone. We have evolved our use of voice mail to the point that instead of answering a call and potentially having to deal real time with an unexpected issue or request, that we will now let the call roll over to voicemail instead. This enables the called party to review the potential issue or request at their leisure and then decide on a potential course of action with which to respond, if they so choose to become involved at all.

When you combine voice mail with other technology advancements such as calling line identification, we have now created a recipe for people to actively avoid answering calls from specific displayed numbers where they know or suspect the caller may be requesting time or support that the called person may not be able or want to provide. We are now enabling and in some instances inciting a behavior where the avoidance of work may now be perceived as being previously engaged, or even over worked. People are in effect hiding behind the voicemail curtain. Regardless, the result is that things get slowed down.

Business is about solving issues, and solving them as quickly and efficiently as possible. That is how value is generated. If you cannot solve customer issues, it is very difficult to generate customer value. I think this is a pretty widely accepted premise for doing business. In a great many instances the way a customer issue is solved is by internalizing it within the vendor organization. Another way to say this is that many businesses bring value to their customers by taking customer issues away from the customer, solving them within their own confines and presenting the customer with a solution.

The result of this process is that the customer is so thrilled with no longer having a problem to deal with, that they give you money.

Up until recently I would have said that this model worked admirably well. Not everyone likes issues but in solving them we provide the needed or desired value. What I have noticed was that in the drive to solve internalized customer problems I was starting to have more and more discussions with the voicemail system mailboxes where I would explain my issue in the hope that the intended party would hear my plea, be provided with enough information to act, and would get back to me with what I needed, than I was having with the actual people I needed to get solutions from.

What has been happening as time has passed and voicemail usage has matured has been that the called party usually returns the initial voicemail with another voicemail (I didn’t know until recently that you can actually do that. You don’t even have to call and forward to the voicemail system. You can now remain in the system and respond to a voicemail with another voicemail) where they either ask for more data (to be left on another voicemail) or explain that I need to contact another different party with the issue (where I will probably have to start the whole extended voicemail message process over again). If they had just answered my call in the first place I would have been able to learn this then and there instead of the several hours or days that it took for them to get back to me.

Voicemail in itself as a technology is not inherently bad. It is the misapplication of the technology by the user that is the cause of the issue. Voicemail was created to help us receive those phone calls that we would otherwise miss. It automated an otherwise labor intensive administrative function. Best of all it got rid of those ever present pink phone message notes that covered your desk every time you came back from lunch.

It seems that because we know that our automated greeting avatar will now answer the phone every time we cannot or decide not to answer the phone, we have increasingly decided to continue on with whatever we were doing, even if it was nothing in particular, and let our voicemail answer the phone. The result is that the business that could have been conducted by and between people real time has now been slowed down.

The speed at which business must be done continues to accelerate. The workloads of those involved continue to grow. People are busy. I understand and accept this. I just don’t believe that everyone is so busy that they cannot answer their phone anymore. It doesn’t take that much time or effort. It gets things done.

To prove my point I’ll close with a scenario and a question. How many times have you been out to lunch with business friends and associates, the food is served and you are eating. You are discussing the business or even social topics of the day, and someone’s cell phone rings? They have voicemail on the cell phone, but what do they do? They interrupt the conversation flow; stop eating and or talking and answer their phone is what they do.

We have all seen it happen and may have possibly even have done it.

My question is: Would they have behaved the same way if they had been sitting at their desk?

We need to start treating our business phone like our cell phone and answer it when it rings, and not expect to conduct our business via voicemail.

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