‘Press 7 to delete’: The decline of voice mail


“Hello, you’ve reached the voice mail box of a modern person who doesn’t check these messages. I am in the office today, but my company may decide to eliminate this service before I get around to returning your call.”

There was considerable voice mail schadenfreude last week when it was revealed that megabank JPMorgan Chase & Co. was cutting off the service for most of its consumer bank employees, a move that would save the company about $3.2-million (U.S.) dollars.

“We realize that hardly anyone uses voice mail any more,” said Gordon Smith, chief executive of the banking arm. The company expects to cut the $10-a-month service from 65 per cent of its workers.

As cost cutting goes, it’s not earthshaking. In terms of tapping a vein of consumer outrage, it was a winner. If one of Canada’s deadlocked federal parties wants an issue to campaign on, banning voice mail might provide a breakthrough.

“Leaving me a voice mail is no different than writing down your message on a rock and then throwing that rock into the middle of a lake,” ESPN’s Grantland writer Shea Serrano recently tweeted.

“Ways to get in touch with me, ranked: 1. text 2. facebook chat 3. tweet 4. e-mail … 998. skywriting 999. smoke signals 1000. voice mail,” was another popular joke posted on Twitter by Amy Brown.

Elle Magazine published a listicle that wins for most extreme anti-VM sentiment: “I’d rather you throw acid on me and then tell me my shoes are ugly than leave me a voice mail.”

Almost every outlet that wrote about the decline and fall of voice mail’s empire quoted Michael Schrage’s 2013 piece in the Harvard Business Review, Time to Hang Up on Voice Mail.

“The issue is not whether I’m for or against voice mail,” said Mr. Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business. “My view is that people want convenience, people want efficiency … they will migrate toward whatever tools and technologies in the workplace give them that.”

Vonage, a provider of voice over Internet protocol services in the U.S. and Canada, reported in 2012 that the number of voice mails its customers were leaving fell by 8 per cent and those retrieved slid 14 per cent from the previous year. Their most recent stats suggest the trend is speeding up: In the six months between October, 2014, and April, 2015, the amount of voice mails left or checked fell by 8 per cent, as compared to the same period in the previous year.

Canadian telecoms wouldn’t confirm figures, but did say that while basic voice mail was on the decline, they had hopes that updates to the service will keep it relevant.

“Although we’ve seen a slight decline in VM’s [consumer and biz] as text and e-mail become more popular, it’s still an important means of communicating and is evolving with the times,” said Ryan Bazeley, senior communications manager with Telus Corp.

One counterfact to the “voice mail is dead” meme he cites is that Telus smartphone customers have demanded to be able to store more than three voice mails as part of a standard plan, so recently the company increased the number of messages that can be saved to 25.

“Businesses aren’t abandoning voice mail, they are moving toward unified communications solutions. Smartphone users can use features like voice-mail-to-text or visual voice mail to receive messages” he said.

Mr. Schrage is skeptical that those systems deliver on their promise. He blasts existing voice-to-text technologies as “disgraceful underperformers and laggards.”

“It doesn’t do what you would want,” he said. “I wish they had worked … I would have cheerfully paid $99 a month to get an editable relatively clean transcript of all of my phone conversations.”

A search for “Google Voice transcribe fail” brings up dozens of amusing videos on YouTube that showcase how even the world’s biggest search engine can’t crack telephony tools that turn voice to text. Most hilariously, Google transforms mumbling or humming into long sentences of nonsense.

Another way voice mail has tried to keep up with the times is that even without dialling in, many services now let you access your voice messages from any device.

“Voice mail has evolved, but it remains a key part of the range of complementary communications solutions we offer,” said Bell Canada spokesman Jason Laszlo. “Bell Total Connect enables you to make and receive calls using your business number across multiple devices and provides a voice-mail-to-email service that delivers voice messages right into your inbox.” Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus offer similar services.

But technology that promises to save you from bashing your voice mail code into the office phone poses an additional problem: Now you’re always connected to work, and the only thing more loathed than voice mail is something that adds to your overflowing e-mail inbox.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, voice mail was seen as convenient relative to not having voice mail,” said Mr. Schrage. “You couldn’t leave a message, you couldn’t co-ordinate with people, there were few opportunities for asynchronous communications. … Those days are gone. Some would say for the worse, I say for the better.”

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