Dropping Voice Mail

It’s a trend: corporate offices are dropping voice mail in favor of newer messaging media that are more user-friendly. Coca-Cola this month became the biggest corporation yet to shut off its voice mail servers. It’s a cost-cutting measure, but not the way many workers initially thought. The company estimates it was spending $100,000 per year to operates its voice mail system, so that’s not where the savings are. Turning off voice mail makes the work week less stressful and saves the average office worker one hour per week of fumbling through the voice mail menus and scribbling down notes to respond to incoming messages. For Coca-Cola, that could eventually be a billion dollars in savings.

I certainly understand the appeal of voice mail for those who know how to get their voice mail messages, but at this point, the proficient voice mail users are mainly workers older than 45 years old who have worked at the same company for at least three years. That is less than half of the workers in an ordinary commercial office. There is a generational divide, with workers over 50 not understanding how anyone could see voice mail as complicated and workers under 35 not understanding how anyone could ever learn to use all the features of the voice mail system.

Voice mail is a victim of creeping complexity. The voice mail systems of 20 years ago were already complicated, but learnable. More features have been added over the years — so many more that only those who knew the earlier systems have been able to adapt to the new features as they were added a few at a time. It does not help that telephone desk terminals have also become more complex over the years and that voice mail and telephone features are rarely integrated with each other. Picture the new 18-year-old worker who is given a new-style phone with about 40 buttons along with a two-page summary of the voice mail system commands. The quick reference guide cannot refer to the actual buttons on the phone, since that depends on what kind of phone you have, and your phone is something the voice mail people don’t know anything about.

It is a system set up for failure, and the failures are well documented. Many voice messages are never received. At the other extreme, there are those who turn their phone speakers on and blast their incoming messages out to anyone within earshot. Callers don’t necessarily know what will happen to messages they leave, and that makes them more reluctant to leave messages. Voice mail has become a downward spiral — a worker receiving fewer than one voice message per week can get out of the habit of checking for messages, a pattern that makes callers all the more reluctant to record messages for them.

Knowing the potential for failure, many corporate offices made voice mail optional for new workers. If you were a new hire, you would get a voice mail account only if you thought you would benefit from it. That started to happen about five years ago, and the voice mail participation rate has been falling ever since. It was just a matter of time before voice mail is turned off entirely. Coca-Cola decided that that time was 2014. Other corporate offices will surely follow.

Messaging technology in general is becoming more flexible, but the voice network is not, suggesting that it too could fall by the wayside in the future.

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