Over the past few months, I've been getting several articles forwarded to me as FYI or asking my opinion on the topic of voicemail’s death. It started out as this announcement from Coca-Cola that happened late last year, but recently there's been more action on that front.
Not sure why it is such a hot topic all of a sudden, but it definitely is. The purpose of voicemail platforms has certainly changed over the years. It started out simply as a centralized bank of answering machines, to eliminate the “While you were out” slips of paper. Then, it became the first tool to pro-actively send someone an electronic message. Remember, this was WAY before email was around. With these new voicemail systems popping up, you could, for the first time, send a message to multiple recipients and it would show up right where all of their other electronic messages were, ie in their voice mailbox. But now, with so many other forms of multimedia messaging around, voicemail is gone back to being an answering machine. I don’t want to make that sound like a minor thing. This is really about a bigger subject that we in the communications biz call “Coverage”. So, let’s talk about voicemail and see what the conversation is really all about.
First, I will admit that I have very mixed reactions on this question of whether or not voicemail is dead. Personally, I’ve come to grips with the fact that I hate voicemail. I can tell you that I don’t check voicemail very often. If it didn’t get delivered into my email inbox, I’d never check it at all. I also RARELY leave voice messages for anyone. I definitely use voice when I need to talk to someone ASAP and when I don’t know what their preferred method of communication is. But even then, I‘m usually looking to get an answer to a question that probably multiple people might know the answer to. So, if my call goes to voicemail, I generally hang up and try someone else. But I definitely know that you can’t think about these things too ego-centrically.
The rest of the world does not operate exactly the way I do. So, I ask around. I talk to a LOT of customers. And lately I’ve been asking their opinion on this topic. And while most of them operate the same way I do (they also hate voicemail), they all say that the business they serve demands these kinds of legacy features. Could they simply be out of touch with their end-users? Quite possibly. I do see that a LOT. But I think to understand this better, we need to not think of this so black and white. I think when you separate this between informal and formal communications, some interesting trends pop out. Informal communication might be more “personal” in nature. By personal I mean that the caller knows who they are trying to reach and they know what the communication preferences are for that person. I think informal is also about having flexibility as to the multiple people you could reach out to, and again, still always knowing who those people are. Formal communication, on the other hand, tends to require more closed loop aspects to the call. A lot of the time, these kinds of calls are a statically defined component to a business process. Other formal communications may also include when I’m not reaching out to a person, per se. I may be reaching out for a skill, or where I don’t know anything about the person I’m calling. I don’t know their preferences, or their availability. These formal calls need conclusion. They need a defined path to resolution. They need “coverage.”
This idea of “coverage” becomes a VERY important piece of this whole conversation. Communication endpoints simply can’t participate in business workflows if there is no way to handle that endpoint being offline. So, for the “phone,” most people use voicemail as point of Call Coverage. Voicemail answers the phone when the user doesn’t. And while voicemail could go away, “coverage” can’t. The trick is to realize that coverage could certainly be other things besides voicemail. A Call Center could be a very valid form of coverage. In fact, when I was getting my Mortgage refinanced with Quicken Loans a few years ago, when I called in to talk to my loan officer, when he didn’t answer his phone, I was given the option to talk to someone else on the team that was working my loan. Presence and “attribute” based routing becomes a key component to their story. But this was basically using a call center as a point of coverage.
Interestingly, we’re seeing other forms of communication becoming “business ready” once they are given coverage options. Instead of calling it “Call Coverage”, maybe we need to start calling it “Session Coverage.” As an example, we know that Instant Messaging is wildly popular. But to really be usable, you must be able to support the concept of “Persistent Chat.” This is a feature that allows you to start a chat on one device, continue it on another, and even receive chats when a user has no devices currently registered or logged in. Persistent Chat adds session coverage for Instant Messaging. In terms of real products, you get this kind of capability with Apple’s iMessage, Microsoft Lync/Skype’s Persistent Chat server, and Avaya’s AMM (Avaya Multimedia Messaging). As I mentioned before, Persistent Chat lets you include teammates in workflows even if they are offline. That is what validates it for enterprise use.
So, let's go back to the original question, "Is voicemail dead?" No. Not yet. But I do think it is dying the same way the hard telephone is dying. Which means it really isn’t dying. But it is changing. While the physical nature of a telephone is absolutely changing (soft clients, mobile devices, etc.), voice is still a very valid and popular form of communication. Are there other valid and popular forms of communication? Absolutely. Are we going to see more and more people not deploying voicemail to their users? Definitely. Will the concept of voicemail change? Absolutely. It already has. But if you think about it in terms of Session Coverage, no matter what the actual product is or looks like, the concept is absolutely here to stay.