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September 24, 2012
Does Voicemail Have to Be a Pain? Use Yours Effectively
Have you ever tried to call someone, desperate for an urgently needed answer, only to get their voicemail message announcing that they’re away from their desk or on another line? How ‘bout when you can’t even leave a message because their mailbox is full? How do you feel when you get a computerized voice giving you instructions to leave a message at the sound of the tone? Or when you can’t find your way out of the maze of voicemail prompts? If you’re like most people, you get frustrated, and sometimes even downright angry!
Now let me ask you this: what does your voicemail message sound like, and how does it make your callers feel? When used properly, voicemail is an incredibly powerful tool; and when it’s not, it can turn off your most important customers, coworkers, and vendors. Let’s take a closer look at how to use voicemail as a valuable tool.
Setting Expectations
First and foremost, your voicemail greeting should set clear expectations for your callers as to when they might expect to hear from you. If your greeting always says that you must be “away from your desk or on another line” I assume this means you’ll be getting back to me as soon as you get back to your desk or off the line. However, you may actually be on vacation or tied up in meetings for the next three days. You’ve either inadvertently set an inaccurate expectation for me, or you’ve set none at all. Either way, I’m left in the dark and frustrated. This is why it’s so important to change your greeting every day.
Change Your Greeting Daily
When your voicemail announces today’s date and tells me your schedule for the day and when you might be available to return calls, you establish clear expectations for your callers. If you’re in meetings all morning but available in the afternoon, I know not to expect to hear from you until then. If I know that you’ll be tied up all day but will get back to people by tomorrow morning, I again know what to expect and can plan around that. If your voicemail greeting never changes, though, I don’t even know if and when you’ll get my message. 
And by the way, for those who think they’re too busy to attend to a detail like this every single day, I wonder what that says about how much you value your customers and other callers. It takes less than 90 seconds each day to update your message. Whether you do it at night before you go home, or before bed, or first thing in the morning, we all have 90 seconds available at some point in our day.
Creating the Right Feeling
Beyond setting expectations, your voicemail greeting is a tremendous chance to set a feeling or mood with your callers. In my company, I wanted us to use every opportunity to create a feeling of warmth and friendliness. When we make our greeting sound friendly, genuine, and sincere (not like the “artificial” voice flight attendants use when they go through their standard verbiage), we cause our callers to feel good about us and our company, and we make them look forward to working with us. A good way to do this, by the way, is to stand up and to smile while you’re recording your message. Picture a real person sitting across the desk from you. Now simply speak in the style and tone of voice you’d use with a real person. I used to tell our people that if you didn’t occasionally have someone leave you a message complimenting you on your greeting, then it wasn’t friendly enough!
Do It Yourself
OK, I admit that this is a pet peeve of mine, but I hate calling an executive and hearing a greeting recorded by his/her assistant saying that Mr. Executive is away from his desk, etc. To me, it sends the wrong message. It says that Mr. Executive is so busy and so important that he/she can’t possibly take the time to talk to “regular” folks. Think of how differently you’d feel about calling that person if, instead, you heard a friendly, inviting, genuine person deliver a message specific to that day. 
Leaving a Message
I’ve been talking so far about the importance of using your own voicemail as a valuable tool; but there’s another side to this: leaving a quality message for others. How often have you received a voicemail message that simply asks you to call the person back, and then you end up going back and forth multiple times before you finally connect? This is a waste of everyone’s time.
When leaving a message for another person, try to give as much detail as is appropriate to move the action forward. If possible, leave them your specific question. They may be able to simply email you an answer or leave you back a detailed message with the answer during off hours. If you need to speak with the person, let them know the best time to call so that you’re most likely to be available. It can also be helpful to let them know the degree of urgency so that they can better prioritize their response time. The point isn’t simply to place a call. The point is to get something accomplished. 
We often complain about voicemail as a frustration of modern times.  I look at it differently.  Our frustration isn’t with voicemail; it’s with people using voicemail ineffectively. Properly used, voicemail is one of the best tools we have to get more accomplished in less time. Make yours a valuable tool.

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David Friedman is the former President of RSI, an award-winning employee benefits brokerage and consulting firm in the Philadelphia area. The author of Fundamentally Different:  building a culture of success through organizational values, Friedman is a sought-after consultant, guest speaker and seminar leader on organizational culture, leadership, and values. 
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