The recent decision by Coca-Cola to end voicemail services for landlines had the web abuzz for days — voicemail is dead! But reports of voicemail’s demise are probably exaggerated, at least for the foreseeable future. Even as trendsetters dismiss leaving your message at the tone as an irritating time-killer, a number of more thoughtful experts are questioning whether less really is more, when it comes to communicating.
The anti-voicemail movement has been growing for several years, and there’s no doubt that the shift to texting and the efficiencies of Smartphone technology have played a large role. Why plow through a voice message when a short text can be read in the blink of an eye? And some feel that just the record of a call should result in a call back; saving you the time spent leaving a message.
The voicemail rebellion
An article back in 2009 in the New York Times was one of the first to raise the question of whether voicemail was becoming obsolete.
“In an age of instant information gratification, the burden of having to hit the playback button — or worse, dial in to a mailbox and enter a pass code — and sit through “ums” and “ahs” can seem too much to bear,” Jill Colvin reported. And she provided plenty of examples of Gen Xer’s and millennials grousing about how much time they wasted with voicemail.
Before long, others had taken up the flag of declaring voicemail to be on its way out.
“The truly productive have effectively abandoned voicemail, preferring to visually track who’s called them on their mobiles,” wrote Michael Schrage in 2013, in an article for the Harvard Business Review. “When once-innovative technologies descend — decay? — into anachronism, it’s time to put them out of your misery.”
And the critics have data on their side: Vonage reported an 8 percent drop in voicemail volume between 2013 and 2014. More tellingly, the VOIP provider found a decline of 14 percent in year-to-year voicemail retrieval. There’s no doubt that today, a substantial number of people simply don’t want to use voicemail — and many refuse to.
The Nov. 6 announcement by the Atlanta-based soft drink giant of a plan to end its landline voicemail service was hailed by many as a bold step that other companies would inevitably follow.
“If a company as middle-America as Coca-Cola is ditching voicemail, then, well, maybe this whole post-voicemail thing might go mainstream sooner than we may think,” wrote Ryan Matzner, director if strategy at Fueled, a mobile design and development company, for VentureBeat.
Coke has declined to comment on its decision, but the company did release a short statement, clarifying that the move was not primarily a cost-cutting measure.
“The main driver behind this project is not cost savings, it is changing the tools and methods in which we communicate as a company,” the statement said. “This action is aimed at streamlining preferences and simplifying systems, based on associate use and feedback.”
The statement also said employees were given the option of continuing to use voicemail, and only 6 percent chose to.
Not dead yet
In the days since Coke’s announcement, a bit of a backlash has occurred: with some making the argument that even if it is trendy to dismiss voicemail as a dinosaur technology, it still has its uses.
“Voicemail usage is declining because there are so many viable alternatives,” says Dave Michels, a telecom expert and president of Verge1 Consulting. “Yet it remains valuable because the alternatives are different, not simply better.” He adds that, for example, text messages can be misunderstood, because they lack the subtleties of tone or emphasis in a spoken message.
He also noted that most initial contacts in the business world are made by speaking on the phone — texting or email normally follow after introductions are made.
“Since people don’t typically advertise their email address, voicemail remains critical for first contact,” he says. “It’s deceptive, because most of our communications are with people we know, and then alternatives such as IM or email may be easier.”
Voicemail also offers some advantages over emails, in that they are less likely to be forwarded (and easier to erase permanently). “There is also a perception that voicemail is more confidential,” Michels says. “Doctors are willing to leave patients voicemails, but usually not emails.”
Half of the word voicemail is, of course, voice — something that carries an emotional resonance that texting or emails still can’t match. A 2014 survey sponsored by Vonage found that people prefer to hear the sound of loved ones’ voices. The survey said that in the case of a special moment or important message, people overwhelmingly prefer a phone call to text messaging.
Although the survey didn’t specifically address voicemail, it found that even younger people dropped texting for more important messages.
“Surprisingly, although millennials (18-34 year-olds) text more than they call, 67 percent stop texting and start calling when it comes to sharing special moments,” Vonage said in a release last May.
In a recent Gizmodo article entitled “You’re Wrong About Voicemail,” Leslie Horn writes that, as someone under 40, she used to think voicemail was obnoxious. But a very personal experience led her to a different conclusion. “Voicemail is great,” she wrote. “Voicemail is essential.”
Horn told the story of how her father unexpectedly passed away, and although she was too emotionally fragile at first to talk on the phone about it, the many voicemails she received were of great comfort to her, and more valuable because she could return to them whenever she wanted.
The revelation also reminded her that she had saved voicemails over the years from friends and family that she still treasured. “Voicemail is a default archive of your life. You would miss it if it were gone,” she wrote.
Michels agrees that voicemail can add a personal touch that emails and texting don’t always have. But more importantly for the business world, he added, the service allows more flexibility in communicating.
“The trend in tech is more choice, not less. People expect to choose the medium they prefer,” Michels says. “This goes back to choice — if people can be more efficient with alternative forms, then they should use them. If they can’t, then they should use voicemail.”