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Voicemail: A Beginner’s Guide

This week I’ve been travelling for work. I left Calgary early Monday morning, and I returned home late last night.

On Sunday night as I was preparing for my trip I briefly considered setting an “out of office” email alert and changing my outgoing voicemail message to advise people of my unavailability. I quickly dismissed this plan though, for the simple reason that I really wasn’t all that unavailable. Sure I was away from my physical desk in Calgary, but I rarely work from there anyway. And sure my calendar was full, but that’s not unusual either. Setting up unavailability alerts would have been a misuse of the tools available to me.

As I was thinking about all this, it put me in mind of a post I wrote about seven months ago titled Weird Workplace Etiquette. In it, I complained about the fact that nobody just picks up the phone and calls me without first sending me a message (or worse, booking some time in my calendar) to ensure that I’m going to pick up the phone and talk to them.

Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, the reason seems obvious to me. We can lay blame firmly on voicemail. Subconsciously or otherwise people hate it, because everybody’s had a bad experience with it. Think about how it normally goes between a couple of busy people – you leave a voicemail for me in which you ask me to call you back, I call you back and get your voicemail, and so it continues ad infinitum.

Happily, this is pretty easy to fix in my opinion, and the ROWE course I took not too long ago teaches us the way: it’s merely a matter of breaking some bad voicemail habits that almost everyone has. Even more happily, you (mostly) don’t need other people to read my advice – you only need concern yourself with what you do. If you do it right, others should fall into line.

Read on to get started!

Everything starts with your outgoing voicemail message. What does it say now? I assume it’s something along the lines of “I’m sorry I’ve missed your call, please leave me a message and I’ll get back to you.” To be blunt, that’s not good enough.

Firstly, you’re not sorry you’ve missed somebody’s call. You were busy doing something more important than picking up the phone, and that’s OK! Apologising for it is a meaningless platitude and everyone knows it, but more importantly it sets the wrong tone for what we’re trying to accomplish. You’re a (wo)man of action, not the kind of person who spews forth wet apologies for failing to be idly sitting around by your phone when somebody somewhere kind of vaguely hoped that’s what you might be doing. If anything, you should apologise when you are available to answer the phone!

Instead, your outgoing voicemail message should reflect that yes, you were too busy to take the call and also yes, you’re too busy to engage an endless game of phone-tag. Instead of asking callers to leave you “a message,” be specific about what you’re looking for from them.

“You’ve reached Jason. Please leave a message detailing how I can help you and by when you need a response, and I’ll get back to you as appropriate.”

The same goes for when you’re leaving a voicemail for somebody. Just because their outgoing message is vague doesn’t mean the message you leave for them should be too. Think about how you want somebody to react when they listen to your message. Do you want them to immediately get to work on what you’re asking of them, or do you want them to have to call you back and speak with you first so they can find out what you needed? Tell them what you want, and tell them to get back to you once they have it!

I’ve been using these tips for a little while now and I have to say they’re working well for me. Voicemail is a vastly improved experience as a result – although it’s still under-utilised, because people still do all they can to avoid using the tool at all if they can at all help it. Most people never even get to hear my outgoing message and come to the realisation that I’m changing their lives for the better.

Regardless, the more I think about it the more I think I may actually kick things up a notch. Long-time readers may recall another post on this blog from the distant past in which I talked about how people (me) can’t possibly hope to read, understand and respond to every email they get in as timely a fashion as they might like. Email, in a typical workplace (certainly in mine) is a vastly overused tool. Voicemail, though? Thanks to everybody shying away from it, a voicemail is out of the ordinary and will get somebody’s attention. If I can do voicemail well, it could become a fantastic method for making my messages to people a higher priority than everyone else’s.

All I’ll have to concentrate on is not using it for evil.

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