Voice mail struggles to remain relevant in a digital age

Decline in actual voice usage is a trend worth watching

September 9, 2012 

I’m not exactly Miss Manners, but I do wonder how to handle this: I left a voice-mail message that went unanswered for two days. I was about to call again when I received an email saying “I see you left me a voice mail. Is it important?” I was thinking about responses like “Why not play it and see?” when it occurred to me that what I was witnessing was a change in how we use our tools. Voice mail, that more capable offshoot of answering machines, is getting long in the tooth.

A report from the Pew Internet & American Life project found the use of phones for actual conversation is said to be declining among young people in the 12-17 age bracket. At the same time, communicating by text messaging is on the rise. If this keeps up, we can expect better and better deals on wireless voice usage because the carriers are seeing fewer people using their phones for talking. With the smartphone being the gadget of choice, email, texting and a variety of time-shifting tools come to the fore.

But the classic voice message? How passé. Internet phone company Vonage is seeing the same trends, noting that the number of voice-mail messages left by users was down 8 percent in July from a year ago. What’s just as interesting is that the number of retrieved messages fell 14 percent during the same time frame, meaning that more and more users are, like my contact above, receiving messages and never listening to them.

Frustrating time waster

Or maybe not. Between social media options, email, chat functions galore, texting and a host of ways to view voice-mail data smartphone users can take their pick about responding to their friends. A voice mail carries information just by showing up on your smartphone, making a quick texted response a way of checking in without bothering to listen to the message first. Among friends who are glued to social media, a quick chat response also offers the chance to check on other friends, review recent posts and consolidate your own Facebook or Twitter presence.

I have a certain sympathy with this because voice mail has become, in our frenetic age, a frustrating time waster. You know what the prompts are going to be and you’re forced to listen to them in the same order every time you go through the procedure. Moreover, while it’s understandable for businesses to save money through voice-mail menu trees, being forced to wend your way through them can be excruciating. What would take a human a few seconds to process becomes a tedious journey through nested choices. No wonder voice mail is declining.

Transcription preferred

While you can choose how to respond to a buddy, your business choices are a lot slimmer. But various transcription and call management tools have sprung up to ease the pain. YouMail, for example, offers a service that makes voice mail “visual” by giving it a smartphone interface that shows inbox messages and can provide transcripts of each ( Choose the call you want to see transcribed in the order you think important. YouMail’s latest is an iPhone app that lets you assign specific voice-mail greetings to various callers, including the ability to snare telemarketers, who hear your message before the app disconnects the call.

Voice-mail transcription is going to be common as people look for ways to get past the limitations of the medium, but the decline in actual voice usage is a trend worth watching. There are many situations where a quick text solves a problem when a voice connection would be superfluous. Smartphone tools connect us in a whole series of ways. The challenge for businesses is to reconfigure their answering systems to keep an increasingly impatient public happy.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at

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