Is There Any Future for Voice Mail?

answeringmachineI read that J.P Morgan and Coca-Cola have dropped their voice mail service and I wonder if we are we starting to see the end of voice mail as a product?

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?

Are Telephone Features Still a Product?

English: Original Caller Identification receiv...

English: Original Caller Identification receiver installed at Boeing/PEC facility in Huntsville Alabama (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just read another blog that asked why businesses bother paying for voice mail any longer. And it got me to thinking. Why are companies still offering and charging a lot for telephone features in general?

Let’s face it, traditional TDM voice is dying. It may take a few decades for people like my mother to give up her home phone but, but residential voice is going to continue to shrink and shrink until it becomes a pretty marginal product. Don’t get me wrong about the need to still offer voice – 60% of homes and most businesses still have voice – so a full-service carrier needs to have a voice product.

But a lot of homes only carry a phone line to have a 911 phone or to be able to fax. And more and more businesses are going mobile instead of pouring big dollars into fixed phone systems.

What no longer makes sense is to have a large pile of very expensive features and options that people must add to basic telephone service. You are going to drive your voice customers away even faster than they are already leaving if you are still selling voice mail and caller ID as expensive additives to a voice line.

The blog I read asks why any businessman even bothers to use voice mail today, and it’s a great question. The people who know you can always find you some other way to reach you like text or email. I know for myself that the very last and worst way to find me is to leave me a voice mail. And when I get somebody else’s voice mail I rarely leave a message any more, but instead hang up and send them an email or sometimes a text (I am slow with my thumbs). And so voice mail is turning into the way that you communicate with strangers. Unless you are a salesperson, you are not going to find this all that useful.

The cell phone companies have it right. They don’t even offer features and everything they have is included in the basic phone. Granted they have convinced people to pay a huge dollar premium for mobility, but the line they sell you includes all the features. And with smart phones people can easily customize their calling all they want by adding phone apps.

I have been advising for over a decade for my clients to include most features automatically in their base product. Telephone carriers are competing against cell phones or the cable company, both of which give away most features.  The goal today with a voice product is to keep your customers as long as possible – not to nickel and dime them to death with features prices from $1 to $5 each per month. So look at your product line in terms of being customer friendly and competitive – and stop thinking that features are a way to make money.

There might be one feature package that might still make sense as a standalone product – a robust unified messaging platform. But this can’t just be glorified voice mail or nobody is going to pay extra for it. It needs to include the whole suite of tools that make voice usable across all platforms – follow-me service, voice to text, text to voice.

And rather than charge extra for features for your business customers you should be offering them IP Centrex that has all of the traditional features plus all of the features of cell phones built-in. If you can’t give your customers a business line that will do everything they want they will eventually bypass you in favor of somebody who will give them what they want. Note that there are now a few dozen companies that are selling IP Centrex lines over any web connection. So you cannot count on keeping your business customers just because they have always used you.