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The Voice of the Users: Should Voicemail Die or Change to Fit UC?

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July 14, 2008

The Voice of the Users: Should Voicemail Die or Change to Fit UC?

By Art Rosenberg

Michael Arrington, technology writer on the Web, caught my attention by posting a blog entitledThink Before You Voicemail.” It started off by saying “Voicemail is dead. Please tell everyone so they’ll stop using it.” I think that the message has some merit but for whom, the callers or the call recipients?

He goes on to complain about what everyone already knows, that voice message management and retrieval has always been awkward and inefficient (compared to text messaging). His blog certainly struck a nerve with his Web audience, generating over 250 comments up till now, debating whether voicemail should die or not. (Many observed the truism that personal phone calls deserve voice messages, but we are most interested in business contacts here!). The bottom line of all the comments shows that change is needed in handling messages, but it’s really up to individual users to decide how they want to send or to receive any type of message.  
The main cause of the voice mail problem that Arrington complains about is due to the fact that the bulk of voice messages come from failed called attempts, better known as “telephone answering” or “caller messaging,” and telephone interfaces are limited to sequential voice output, coupled with cryptic touchtone codes for user controls. For the typical caller who landed in “voicemail jail,” it is pretty simple to just leave a voice message like on an answering machine, but for the recipient, it is not so simple to manage voice messages compared to text messaging on a screen interface.
Who Is Really Controlling Voicemail Use?
Legacy enterprise voicemail systems were designed primarily for two kinds of users – internal ‘subscribers” who had the benefit of sending and replying to other voicemail subscribers on the same company system or voicemail network, or outside callers who could only leave a message as second prize if their call attempt failed because of a “busy” or “no answer” condition. Because of the richer information content afforded by e-mail, most business enterprise voice mail systems today deal primarily with outside callers and their voice messages. “Call return” capabilities allow a callback to be initiated, but those return call attempts are just as “blind” as the original call. (That’s where we get the legendary “telephone tag (News - Alert)” stats that say, “three out of four call attempts don’t reach the intended party.”)
Traditional telephone answering voice messaging has always really been under the control of the contact recipient, not the outside caller, who is not a “subscriber.” So Arrington’s admonition, “Think Before You Voicemail” is not really appropriate for callers who don’t have any choice, other than to “zero” out to an operator or hang up, once they land in “voicemail jail.”
Time to Change Voicemail?
Now that screen-based “smartphones” (like Apple’s (News - Alert) iPhone or RIM’s Blackberry) that accommodate both text and voice messaging are becoming the desired communication device of mobile consumers, it is certainly time to question the role of traditional voice mail as an application of business UC. More importantly, as I have been stressing in my column, it is time to consider the needs of the caller separately from that of the recipient, because they are certainly not identical.
Even though there is much talk about SIP-based “telephony presence” enabling a caller to quickly ascertain the accessibility of a person for an immediate voice connection (regardless of the device that needs to be connected), there still remains the question of effectively communicating when you just can’t connect for a person-to-person voice conversation. With the flexibility of unified communications, however, there are now alternatives to voice messaging from both the caller’s as well as the callee’s perspective.
These include:
  • “ASAP” (As Soon As Possible) calls can automatically be arranged as soon as both parties are available using federated presence capabilities. It would still be appropriate for the caller to leave a message regarding the subject/purpose of the call, like in e-mail, so that the call recipient will be able to properly be prepared for the callback.
  • The call initiator can opt to use IM to make contact, if at a multimodal desktop or mobile device, and the contact recipient is indeed available. This approach is rapidly becoming a popular way to contact the recipient first, than initiate a voice connection by a “click-to-call” action, if appropriate.
  • If it becomes necessary to leave a message asynchronously, voice is still convenient and efficient for the caller, but the recipient shouldn’t be forced to retrieve the message only with a voice/telephone interface (TUI). Transcribing the voice message into text enables the recipient to manage message retrieval and disposition more efficiently as part of email or mobile SMS messages. As I mentioned in my column last year, new “voice-to-text messaging” services are rapidly appearing as a service for recipients to replace their legacy voicemail messaging technology. However, there are other improvements that can be made to insure that such messages also enable more flexible response options.
So, we don’t see voice messaging as being “dead,” but the old limitations of voicemail should be a key starting point for the benefits of UC to be realized by the next generation of “callers” and “call recipients.” The question now is how will enterprise voicemail systems transition to UC, where voice transcription to text and visual interfaces can replace the shortcomings of the TUI? Can we give outside callers more control over their voice messages and still protect the recipients need for managing their accessibility and time efficiently?
Industry veteran Art Rosenberg (News - Alert) writes the blog, The Unified-View. You can contact him at [email protected] or 310-395-2360.

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