Voice mail is still a source of great frustration, despite its being in common usage. There is an assumption that a message left on voice mail is a communication miss and that it will need to be followed up later with another call.
There is nothing wrong with the technology per se, but it is very easy to ignore voice mail and as such, people’s trust in it is poor. The failing is usually a human one. If the communication is even remotely confrontational, the temptation to delete the voice mail and get on with something more pleasurable is immense. We can’t always answer our phones. If, like me, you work solely with a mobile phone, there are times when it is out of range of a transmitter or in an environment where its use is not permitted.
Recently I was doing a job in a prison (it’s OK, I got out when I was finished) where I was not permitted to take my phone with me. I left it in the car to save having to log it in with the gate guard and log it out afterward, and I was in the prison for only about 45 minutes. When I came out, I noted that there were three missed calls but only one voicemail. I called the person who left me a voice mail back. It turns out he had made all three calls and was annoyed that I hadn’t answered. I explained the reason and asked what he needed. I don’t think he was really annoyed with me, but I think it was the fact that he had resigned himself to having to chase me until I got back because, like many others, he did not trust voice mail.
How can we turn this situation around?
There are two things that could help: one is to record a new message daily that states what you will be doing. The problem with a lot of messages is that they are never changed so you don’t know if the person is merely away from the phone for a couple of minutes or on a six-month sabbatical. A message stating today's date and your availability is a great help at putting people’s minds at rest.
I’m guilty of this myself. I change my message only if I am on vacation or off work for any reason. A daily update takes only a few seconds and is very reassuring for a caller who is anxious to speak to you. If they find out that you won’t be responding for a couple of weeks, they will try somebody else.
The other thing we can do is to make sure that we always acknowledge voice mails. Indeed it is always a good idea to acknowledge an e-mail for the same reason. I am shocked when people express surprise when I return a call from voice mail, yet it is not surprising, it is not unusual, for there to be no response from a voice mail. Trust in the technology will come only when people start to make time for voice mail replies.