In its heyday, voice mail and caller ID were hailed as the big saviors of telcos. A lot of customers dropped clunky answering machines and changed over to the telcos’ voice mail. And it was lucrative, at least for the larger telcos. They charged $5–$7 for residential voice mail and $7-$10 for business voice mail and this drove a lot of revenue.
It was not necessarily such a good deal for smaller telcos, although they had to have it to remain relevant to their customers. I can remember one client upgrading voice mail and spending $150,000 on the new hardware and software platform. I doubt that they had more than a few hundred customers on voice mail, so this made for a slow payback.
Today it’s easy to think that voicemail has been around for a long time. But it was developed by Voice Message Exchange in the late 70s and didn’t hit the market until the early 80s. Many of the larger companies like AT&T didn’t have a large business solution until the early 90s. Voice mail relied on bulk computer storage and wasn’t practical on a large-scale basis until there were large and affordable drum storage units.
But then the market started chipping away at voice mail. A few cellphones came with free voice mail in the early 90s and today it’s a standard feature on almost every cellphone on the market. Voice mail and a lot of other telephone features are now included with the price of the service for most VoIP plans like Vonage, and most unlimited long distance plans. One has to imagine that the residential penetration rate for paid voice mail has dropped significantly.
But the real money in voice mail has been for service to business lines. It’s not unusual for businesses to pay $10 per line for voice mail, even at large businesses. And of course, with today’s cheap data storage, this has to be almost all margin to the voice mail provider.
Companies are dropping voice mail partially because of the cost, but more importantly because people just don’t use it much. I know I hate voice mail and it’s a labor to check my own. I finally installed an app that would transcribe my voice mails to an email so I wouldn’t ever have to check it again. If I call somebody I know and get their voice mail I don’t leave a message but instead send them an email. And all of us remember those people who left us interminably long voice mails that made you groan once you knew who left the message.
The millennials hate voice mail. They are a generation that expects to be able to communicate quickly and they prefer text messages or instant messaging. In fact, one of the big complaints about millennials in the work force is that many of them hate talking on the phone at all. I’ve read that in colleges today leaving voice mails is as rare as sending emails – they are both dismissed as old technology.
We are probably a generation away from a time when voice mail will become a thing of the past just like many other telecom services. It is hard to explain to a kid today why somebody should pay $10 per month just so others can leave them messages.
Today a lot of telcos are pushing unified communications, which is basically enhanced voice mail. This is a product that combines all forms of company communications onto the same platform and lets people receive communications in whatever format they like. But as the millennials become more prevalent in the workplace even unified communications doesn’t look to have a rosy long-term future. A lot of these platforms are about transcribing things from emails and voice mails, and if those aren’t used then you don’t really need a fancy platform if employees are only going to text and IM each other.
I am positive that when voice mail was introduced in the 80s that absolutely nobody could have imagined that just over thirty years later people would be abandoning it, and by fifty years later it might be completely dead as a product. This goes to show you how quickly things are changing. Now millennials, can I make a request? Can you also get rid of the big corporate IVR systems?