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Voicemail’s dead. What now?

This article was updated on November 21, 2022

Three years ago, Coca-Cola removed voicemail from their corporate headquarters. Rather than being a one-off, it seemed to be part of an overall decline: according to Vonage, voicemail usage dropped by 8% at the start of this decade. And no story is complete without a mention of how the topic affects millennials: needless to say, millennials are shunning voicemail.

But, wait. Technology doesn’t just go away. Maybe voicemail isn’t dead but, instead, it is evolving. If so, what does that mean for customer communication?

Didn’t we used to call it an answering machine?

What we call voicemail today is an idea almost as old as the telephone network itself. Some 28 years after Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone, his rival Thomas Edison unveiled a device he called the telescribe. Edison claimed the telephone was poorly suited to serious business because conversations were ephemeral. His telescribe would transform the telephone by producing a permanent record of each call. Needless to say, the telephone did just fine as a business tool and the telescribe became a tech history footnote.

But the idea of capturing audio from telephones persisted. In 1949, the Tel-Magnet became the world’s first commercially available answering machine. It was huge – the size of a drinks cabinet – and a commercial flop. Nonetheless, others developed the technology, miniaturized it and spread the answering machine throughout homes and offices around the world.

Arguably, voicemail took a separate evolutionary path that has its origins in the office memo. While answering machines worked well for individual lines, mid-20th century companies would often have a centralized message desk. If a particular extension were busy, or marked as unavailable, the caller would be redirected to one of a team of specialized operators who would take a message by hand. Automation helped improve such services. In particular, the introduction of pagers, such as the Motorola Pageboy, made such message desks look more like voicemail.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, corporate voicemail as we know it came to market through providers such as IBM, AT&T and Wang. With the ubiquity today of the cellphone, and modern cloud-based business phone systems, voicemail has all but replaced the answering machine. Is it accurate to say, though, that voicemail itself is being replaced?

In the 1970s, perhaps people were telling each other that the message desk was dead. And the 1980s, no doubt, saw people proclaim the death of the answering machine. In fact, message desks, pagers, answering machines and voicemail are steps in the evolution of how we handle asynchronous phone communication. The implementation details might change every few years but the need remains.

Why are people using voicemail less?

Even if voicemail is evolving, rather than dying, it seems to be true that voicemail usage is falling. Three strands of thought appear to be behind this:

  • voicemail is inefficient
  • cultural norms have moved on
  • newer alternatives are better suited to getting the job done.

In fact, the first two reasons are symptoms of the last: voicemail is inefficient in the light of better alternatives, and culture has changed because people have adjusted to newer technologies.

Let’s look at news article quotes attributed to millennials on why they dislike voicemail. In the New York Times, one person is quoted as saying:

“It seems more practical to text or email. The only reason you leave a voice mail is so the person can hear the sound of your voice. It almost seems presumptuous, for that reason.”

Voicemail is a less efficient carrier of information than a text-based medium. It demands undivided attention, and listening to someone stumble their way through a voicemail takes longer than reading the equivalent text. To those for whom SMS and WhatsApp are their primary methods of communication, voicemail seems unnecessarily wasteful. Each voicemail is an obligation and so culture has changed to make voicemail feel like an imposition in the face of more efficient alternatives.

So, is the future text-only? Not quite.

Unified messaging and visual voicemail: the last gasp of voicemail?

Time and again, as we look at how technology is changing communication, one theme becomes clear: the medium is not the message. Increasingly, the content of a message and the channel used to transmit that message are becoming decoupled.

Visual voicemail and unified messaging are a simple example of this. Sign up to a service such as Vonage’s Voicemail to Email, or Microsoft Exchange’s Unified Messaging, and you’ll find voicemails delivered to your inbox as both an MP3 attachment and a text transcript.

Seen differently, the millennial preference for text-based communication puts just as much obligation on the person sending the message as a voicemail does on the person receiving the message. In many circumstances, for example, it can be harder to type out a message than to record a voicemail. Automatic transcription relieves the burden on both parties.

The impact on customer communication is two-fold:

  • customers will increasingly expect companies to communicate with them on their terms (see WhatsApp’s recent API announcements)
  • a conversation that starts in one medium may switch between different media multiple times throughout its lifetime: omnichannel really is here. What at first appears to be the story of voicemail usage declining is actually a fundamental shift in how consumers view communication, which goes hand in hand with an increasing preference for self-service. Voicemail in the contact center—and even enabling customers to request a call-back at a less busy time—are just Band-Aids compared to what’s just around the corner.

Self-service and AI

If the purpose of voicemail—and, before that, pagers and message desks—was to provide an asynchronous option for phone communication, then it fits neatly into the story of self-service. People leaving a voicemail with a business do not want to leave a voicemail. They want to get something done.

And, so, the death of voicemail is actually the story of voicemail making way for self-service.

In their trends for 2017, Forrester Research cited self-service and automated conversations as the top two priorities for customer service operations. Online banking, for example, has taught people that they can help themselves more quickly, more precisely, and at their own convenience.

So, the answer to what comes after voicemail is “AI in the contact center.” Just as automated voicemail replaced message desks, computerized agents will allow customers to get stuff done regardless of whether a human agent is available.

Not dead, just different

Voicemail is not dead. But its decline does point to a change in the way that customers expect to interact with service providers. That’s a change driven by technological advances that, in turn, have impacted the culture of communication.

So, when you read that voicemail is dead, consider what that means for the channels you use to communication with customers today and the way that AI will change your contact center tomorrow.

Vonage staff

Vonage staff

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