The Unspoken Future of Voice Mail

by Dave Michels

There is only one thing that frustrates me more than voice mail, people who don’t have voice mail. Five words I hate to hear: “Can I take a message?”

Tell Victor that Ramon – -the fella he met about a week ago? – -tell him that Ramon went to the clinic today, and I found out that I have, um, herpes simplex 10, and I think Victor should go check himself out with his physician to make sure everything is fine before things start falling off on the man.
– Beverly Hills Cop, 1984

Giving someone a message to relay is just too cumbersome, can be embarrassing, and usually requires us to simplify. It is far more efficient to leave a contextual message for the direct recipient without the “value-add” of an intermediary, voice mail filled that important role in the 80s. And voice mail systems have come so far over the past 30 years. My current office production system (Esnatech) offers a wide range of ridiculously advanced features. For example, my outgoing greetings can change automatically based on my Outlook Calendar, it has IM/presence capabilities, and can even indicate when I am “on the phone” while on a Skype call. Small business systems built into popular key systems are also increasingly sophisticated – features like screening (answering machine listening in functionality), and IMAP synchronization with popular email systems are common. Over the past few years, solid state systems have increased reliability by tossing out the moving parts. But as messaging goes, voice mail is no longer our only option; email, twitter, text/sms, are crowding the messaging space.

But despite all this, most of us hate voice mail systems. Not only do we increasingly avoid leaving messages on them, we avoid listening to them. Earlier this month, the NY Times ran “You’ve got Voice Mail, but do you care?” illustrating the point; “But in an age of instant information gratification, the burden of having to hit the playback button — or worse, dial in to a mailbox and enter a pass code — and sit through “ums” and “ahs” can seem too much to bear“. I completely agree. When I return to my desk, I check my emails, my tweets, and then consider dealing with the flashing light on the phone; sometimes.

Last January, I wrote a post about all the things Cell phones have Killed, I am wondering if “traditional” voice mail systems should be added. Most cell phones come with voice mail, so the statement may seem contradictory, but think of how our behavior has changed. If the office line goes to voice mail, do you leave a message or just dial the cell number when you have it? Assuming you get voice mail again, do you A) leave a recorded message, B) hang-up and assume the “missed calls” flag will be sufficient to merit a call back? Or C) send an Email? If you answered A, there is a good chance you are wasting your breath. The NY Times continues:

“Data from uReach Technologies, which operates the voice messaging systems of Verizon Wireless and other cellphone carriers, shows that over 30 percent of voice messages linger unheard for three days or longer and that more than 20 percent of people with messages in their mailboxes “rarely even dial in” to check them, said Saul Einbinder, senior vice president for marketing and business development for uReach, in an e-mail message.

By contrast, 91 percent of people under 30 respond to text messages within an hour, and they are four times more likely to respond to texts than to voice messages within minutes, according to a 2008 study for Sprint conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation. Even adults 30 and older are twice as likely to respond within minutes to a text than to a voice message, the study found.”

Surprised? Probably not. The fact is as I write this my phone is flashing. But voice mail is an important tool in the UC arsenal, and isn’t likely going completely away even as its usage declines. More and more we are guarded with our email addresses and our phones remain our portal to the outside world. To illustrate the point, today I contacted Eric Effron of the The Week who referenced the above NY Times article in his magazine. I had a quick question for him, so I searched the magazine for his email; none. Then I tried trying to find him on Twitter; nope. So I resorted to the main number in the masthead and left him a voice mail. In my message, I offered my phone number and email for return contact; and when he responded, it was by email. Both parties worked hard to avoid voice mail, but it worked its job nicely when “called upon”. His email contained much more information than reasonably found in a voice mail, including a web link. Voice just doesn’t cut it for our data driven world…. “Price check on this can of peas? Thin line, thin line, thick, thick, thick, thin, thick….”

Don’t think the cell companies are giving away voice mail because people want it, they give it away because it is a huge money maker. Most people don’t realize that cell phone plans that include free “cell to cell” calls do not include cell to voice mail. That is why the cell phone prompts are so incredibly slow, drawn-out, and offer ridiculous options such as “to page this person”. It isn’t a beep you hear, it is a cash register ringing

But even if we don’t like voice mail, we accept it. It fills an important hole for people we don’t know very well. We hate to leave messages and we hate to play them, but there doesn’t really seem to be an alternative. Or is there? Recently, I switched over most of my personal calls to Google Voice. This service offers voice mail transcription, and I get the messages sent to me via email (with the Wav file in case I need it) as well as SMS texted to me (multiple texts for longer messages). The service has its flaws, but its speech recognition seems far superior than the system United Airlines uses (“Operator”, “Did you say ‘Tucson’?”). There is usually enough recognized accurately to get the point of the message, though I am sure mis-transcriptions could provide plenty of humorous material for episodes of Three’s Company.

I thought the voice mail transcription would be an interesting, maybe even fun, feature. But it turns out to be much more. I find that I can now check my voice mail messages practically real time instead of waiting for a time to play them. There are lots of times it’s easy to glance at the phone for messages, but highly inappropriate to dial-in or download them; such as being in a seminar, or riding on a chairlift. I find myself in agreement with the NY Times article, once I started getting my voice mail messages as text, they did indeed get literally “read” much quicker.

It appears speech recognition is ready to move out of the scifi lab (please tell United). It has been promised for so long. The technology has dramatically improved. At VoiceCon, Cisco demonstrated near real time recognition and translation (Chinese to English) during a videoconference. Microsoft’s Response Point small business phone system, comes with speech recognition as a standard feature. To my dismay, some credit card companies have taken away my right to dial my account number and now require me to say it. I’ve been very impressed with Google’s free directory assistance (800-Goog411) (this is the R&D; engine for Google’s voice recognition engine). Google Voice is still largely closed to new customers, but don’t fret if you want to try this feature out. Several companies now offer the service, such as,, and; they will transcribe messages and text/email them for a small fee.

I am finding speech recognition, for the first time, actually useable and voice mail transcription useful. In fact, I am shocked how valuable voice mail transcription is. It is a great example of how UC can really increase productivity – long term flashing lights get responses; before I ever see it flashing. It means I can get my messages as a Wav file, as a text file, or as an email – I can play them or read them – any place, any device, any format that suits my situation. I’ve been getting Wav files on my cell email for years, but text opens a whole new world of responsiveness. Another added feature of Google Voice is texts get stored online and are searchable.

The future (according to Star Trek) doesn’t have voice mail. Colleagues just intercom directly which seems a bit annoying. I think this is one area where I think our future trumps theirs. And if you don’t agree, please feel free to leave a message. Dave Out.