Apparently, I am a dinosaur when it comes to voicemail. I still listen to voicemails that I receive from people who call me and leave a message. I have my office phone set up to forward voicemail messages directly to me as email attachments so I’m notified of them shortly after the message is left.
Granted, fewer people leave me voicemails these days, but I still try to return messages from all but those who are trying to sell me something that I don’t want or to offer me the chance to earn substantial amounts of cash through what appears to be some sort of scam.
For most people, however, voicemail seems to be a place where messages go to die, and this is nothing new. Back in 2013, eVoice, a company that helps users manage phone calls by using virtual phone numbers, conducted a survey and found that 67 percent of respondents couldn’t even be bothered to listen to the voicemails from business contacts whose phone numbers they recognized. Eight-two percent didn’t listen to voicemails that arrived from unknown numbers.
Nevertheless, many people persist in maintaining voicemail boxes encouraging callers to leave a message. When you have no intention of listening to let alone returning a voicemail message, is it wrong to lead a caller to believe otherwise by ending your outgoing message with something along the lines of: “… I’ll get back to you as soon as I can”?
Some who have no plans to listen to or respond to voicemails have taken a more responsible approach by never activating a voicemail box in the first place, making it impossible for callers to leave a message. Others make it clear in their outgoing message that they do not respond to voicemail and that if the callers would like to reach them they should email them, text them, or perhaps just call back at another time. “Please don’t leave a voicemail” seems a reasonable message particularly when followed by “but instead you can contact me by…” with the relevant details included.
Any of these or similar approaches strike me as good when it comes to managing or choosing not to manage voicemail. If you have no intention of listening to voicemails let alone respond to them, then the right thing is not to mislead a caller into believing you will or simply not offer callers a voicemail option.
There are good reasons to eschew voicemails. Most people are busy keeping up with texts, emails, social media messages, and any number of messages that are more immediate and quicker to access than voicemail. Just as many people don’t have a sense of urgency to respond to a postal letter, many don’t have a sense of urgency to respond to voicemails. Fine. Good. Perfectly acceptable.
But telling people you will respond even if in an outgoing message you recorded months if not years ago is misleading. Callers who might believe the message they left is urgent should at least know you have no intention of listening to it or returning it so they can find some other way to reach you if they must.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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