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My love letter to voicemail

By Kent W. Schmidgall

Voice mail. Or is it voicemail? Even the name of this seemingly obsolete technology is controversial and riddled with confusion. Why are we even talking about it?

“Get with the program, Grandpa Kent. Nobody uses voicemail anymore,” you say. Fair enough. Below, I explore whether voicemail still has a place in the 21st century. Regardless of your beliefs about audio messaging, there are practical guidelines and ideas to consider.

The history of voicemail

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, he was dismayed to find that he had missed a call from Chuck Norris. This prompted him to invent voicemail.

OK, that’s not true. Actually, in 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph with the intent of recording telephone messages and transmitting them again by telephone. It was almost 100 years later that voicemail systems, as we know them today, were developed. Televoice International trademarked the term “voicemail” when it launched the first U.S.-wide voicemail service in 1980. Eventually, voicemail became a widely used term for automated voice services.

The fall of voicemail

In a world of texting and instant messaging, sending and receiving audio messages can seem like an ancient relic from a bygone era. There are so many ways to more efficiently deliver certain kinds of messages. For example, is it really worth an exhausting game of phone tag to deliver the response to a simple yes or no question? Does a phone call need to be placed merely to submit a simple request?

According to market intelligence firm International Data Corp., office phone sales in the U.S. dropped from 7.9 million units in 2018 to 6.3 million in 2020 amid the pandemic. I suspect these numbers will only continue to decline, as platforms such as Teams or Slack and videoconferencing tools like Zoom replace the phone for many workers.

What’s more, according to a poll by survey platform Tellwut, 71% of people born after 1983 would prefer receiving a text over a voicemail if they miss a call. (It is worth noting that current regulations prevent financial advisors from conducting business communications with clients via text messaging.)

The semi-resurrection of voicemail

Is it time to deliver the final death blow to an obsolete and archaic technology? I think not. Baby boomers—a key client demographic for many financial advisors—seem to like it. In the survey cited above, only 34% of them said they would prefer receiving a text message over voicemail. I suspect the percentage is even lower for the Silent Generation that preceded the boomers. It is tone-deaf for someone in this profession to ignore the strong preferences of a significant portion of our clientele.

In addition, I believe there are reasons to prefer voicemails in certain circumstances. An audio message conveys information and nuance through tone and pitch that emails and text messages cannot. Although this may not matter for all messages, there are times when it is important to audibly convey, for example, warmth, understanding, or gravity.

Some messages or requests are hard to pass along digitally, in which case it makes sense to have an actual conversation. So you pick up the phone, place the call, and the person is unavailable. Now what? Are you going to keep calling every 15 minutes until they are available? Hang up the phone and type your message in an email? Why would you do that? What if you are driving?

Clearly, there are times when the humble voicemail shines, and no better alternative exists. Why is the appeal of voicemail delivered through an efficient system any different than other high-tech audio messaging platforms?

How I use (and have abused) voicemail

This is the section where I teach you about voicemail etiquette. Except I’m not going to, as at some point I have likely broken every voicemail rule in the book.

In an earlier career, I was the master of what I call “voicemail tennis.” Had you used voicemail to place the proverbial ball in my court, I would have put that ball right back in your court with a strategically timed voicemail so that I didn’t have to talk to you. In another career, if I needed to leave a message yet didn’t want to talk, I used a direct-to-voicemail tool.

Now, as an advisor, I use voicemail constructively (seriously, I do). My firm uses an internet-based system, so I do not have a physical office desk phone; rather, I answer incoming calls with my PC headset or mobile phone. With our current platform, checking voicemails is a breeze, whether I’m in the office or not.

I pledge to my clients that I will return messages within 24 hours, with the exceptions of holidays, vacations, and weekends. Ninety-nine percent of the time I respond more quickly, yet the 24-hour pledge provides a boundary and sets reasonable expectations.

OK, maybe a teensy bit of etiquette

I recently read about an employee who checks her voicemails every six weeks and ignores the blinking red notification. That is not good. Check your messages! If you do not check your voicemails, have the decency to let people know. “This is Rick, and I will never check this message, so abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” I can respect this approach versus leaving a caller eternally hanging, wondering how one could be so callous as to ignore their message, after you so kindly proclaimed in your recorded greeting that you would “get back to them as soon as possible.”

However, I do understand why some people prefer not to leave messages; sometimes I fit into that category. For example, if I call someone with an important request or question, I may want to maintain control of the situation and not rely on someone else to call me back.

My concern about leaving messages is eased when I have confidence that the intended recipient will retrieve the message and respond accordingly. If someone loses confidence in your willingness to spend 30 to 60 seconds to listen to their message, then they don’t know what to do when they reach your recorded voicemail message.

Voicemail still serves a purpose

I hope that I have challenged or encouraged you to reconsider the role that voicemail plays in the 21st century. In the ultra-crowded world of tech, I believe that there is still room for that feeble blinking light on your phone or notification on your digital phone app.

Voicemail need not die a painful death. It just needs a slight reinvention and is here to stay for quite some time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I missed a call from Chuck Norris.

Kent Schmidgall, CFP®, is a wealth advisor with Buckingham Strategic Wealth. He resides in southeast Iowa with his wife, Megan, and three children. His perfect day includes a steaming cup of coffee, a warm fire, and a Dickens novel.

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