At the tone, please don't leave a message

In an age of ever-faster communications, fewer people have time for voice mail

By Beth Teitell
Globe Correspondent / July 9, 2009
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Taylor Davis, 20, a college student waiting tables in Wellesley for the summer, waits days to listen to her voice mail messages and, even then, checks her inbox only when she’s bored.

“Usually it’s from my boss or people wanting me to pick up shifts,’’ she said, shrugging off missed opportunities, “or from my mom or my aunts. They like to talk a lot.’’

Ja-Nae Duane, 32, CEO of Wild Women Entrepreneurs and Ja-Nae Duane Ventures, in Woburn, deletes many of her voice mails without even listening. “What I really hate are the soliloquies,’’ she said. “I spend more time listening to your message than I do responding to it.’’

Brian Walshe, 32, a Boston-based international art dealer, keeps his phone’s mailbox full to ward off new messages. The maneuver annoys those who want to reach him, but he estimates it saves him 30 minutes a day. “People complain,’’ he said. “Everyone likes to leave a message.’’

The problem is, these days, not many people like to listen to them.

In an age of ever-speedier communications, a growing number of people are unwilling to endure voice mail’s shortcomings. Some can’t stand the endless prompts just to hear a longwinded - and often pointless - message. (Hi, it’s me. Why aren’t you picking up? I’ll call you later.) Others dislike voice mails that can’t be searched, easily forwarded, or surreptitiously played during a meeting or lecture. And on the off chance a message does contain key information, it’s often left at the end of a ramble and spoken rapidly, forcing the recipient to listen all over again. And then write it down, of course.

In other words, after the beep, please don’t leave a message. Or do so at risk of being ignored.

More than 30 percent of voice mail messages remain unheard for three days or longer, according to uReach Technologies, which designs voice messaging systems for Verizon and other phone companies. And more than 20 percent of people with messages in their mailboxes rarely check them, said Saul Einbinder, the firm’s senior vice president for marketing and business development.

A little more than 25 years after it caught on in offices and homes, voice mail has developed what could be called a Norma Desmond problem. “I am big,’’ the silent-screen star famously says in the film “Sunset Boulevard.’’ “It’s the pictures that got small.’’ The same idea applies to voice mail. “Traditional voice mail hasn’t changed,’’ Einbinder said, “but it has become less acceptable because everything around it has changed. We’ve been very conditioned these last few years with instant forms of communication.’’

A survey done for Sprint by Opinion Research Corporation found that with the exception of people age 65 and over, adults respond more quickly to a text message than to a voice message. Those under the age of 30 are four times more likely to respond within minutes to a text message than to a voice mail. Adults 30 and older are twice as likely to respond within minutes to a text message than to a voice message, according to the survey.

With impatience about voice mail growing, services are springing up to take the voice out of voice mail.

So-called visual voice mail comes standard on the iPhone and is also available on other smartphones. It allows users to see a list of calls (with photos of callers, if available) and to listen to those calls in any order. Some visual voice mail systems allow users to e-mail voice messages to others or post them to a blog. Perhaps best of all, users can access messages simply by clicking on them or tapping a screen, eliminating repetitive and time-consuming instructions and prompts.

For those who can’t be bothered to listen to messages at all, even those they care about, a number of companies now offer voice-to-text transcription. The best known is Google, which at the end of June began a rollout of Google Voice, a service that offers - among other things - voice mail transcriptions free of charge.

Craig Walker, a coproduct manager for Google Voice, described the transcription service as a “game changer’’ that turns voice mail from a “temporary audio recording trapped inside your phone’’ into information that’s “usable and storable and searchable.’’ Without transcription, he added, “the value of voice mail is lost. A few days later you’re looking for that matchbook cover you wrote the person’s phone number on.’’

James Siminoff, founder and CEO of PhoneTag, another company that transcribes voice mails and sends the text to users, agrees.

“Voice mail is a dead service as it stands today,’’ Siminoff said. His company estimates that it takes 6 seconds to read a voice mail that would take 79 seconds to hear. Fees for PhoneTag’s services range from 35 cents to transcribe a single message to $29.95 for unlimited monthly transcriptions.

Initially, Siminoff said, some people are hesitant to lose the “sweet nothing’’ of loved ones’ voices: “We’ve had people who said ‘I’d never use [a transcription service] - I want to hear how my wife sounds on every message.’ ’’ But people don’t check them quickly. Siminoff said the average person checks the voice mail six to eight hours after it was left.

“Your wife might have been happy when she left you the message asking you to pick up milk,’’ but when you return home without milk because you didn’t listen, “it’s a different story.’’

After a month of using the transcription service, he added, only 1 percent of customers listen to the voice file that’s sent along with the transcription. “What does that tell you?’’

Still, some people can’t bring themselves to hit delete without listening. “It would seem rude not to listen to a message, and you might miss something important,’’ said Lorrey Bianchi, 63, a Back Bay retiree, as he strolled through the Shops at Prudential Center with his wife. “Presumably if someone is calling you they have something to say.’’

And after all, we do ask people to leave a message - even if we have no intention of checking it.

Consider the case of Duane, the CEO who deletes some messages without listening. The outgoing message on her work line practically begs callers to leave a message. “Unfortunately I am unable to come to the phone now,’’ her voice says sweetly. “But if you leave your name, your number, and a brief message, I promise I will get back to you as soon as possible.’’

A bait and switch? No, Duane insisted. She recorded the outgoing message years ago, in an era before e-mail and texting. “But,’’ she said, “I’m going to change it now.’’

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