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Does Voicemail drive you crazy?

21 easy ways to make it work for you

By Peter Urs Bender

In the last century railways were built across the countryside at a furious pace. Farmers worried their cows would no longer produce milk because of the noise and steam. But railways were here to stay.

Voicemail is like that. Love it or hate it, it's here to stay. You have to deal with it. For the most part, it's a great idea. But like any system, it's only as good as those who use (or abuse) it.

I listen to dozens of voicemails every day, and the quality of them varies from superb to awful. As a professional speaker I just can't believe how many voicemailers mangle the language. I have had correspondents who speak so fast not even turning the speed of the message to its slowest will help make sense of it. Others speak so softly the system can't pick up their words. And then there are those with strange-sounding names who won't take the time to pronounce them carefully or spell them out so I know whom to call back.

Voicemanglers are a pet peeve of mine. You can waste an incredible amount of valuable time trying to translate a garbled message. Not only is the message not going through, the caller is building up a head of steam in the callee. It's definitely not leaving a good impression.

Voicemail is such a useful tool in business and personal life, it's a shame not to use it to your best advantage. Here are a few suggestions about how to use it properly. Follow them and your messages become true communications, of value both to you and your listener.
  1. Take it for granted that voicemail is here to stay. Don't get upset with it. You're just spinning your wheels like a car on an icy road. Learn the rules of its etiquette and use it to your advantage.
  2. Before you phone, write down information you want to convey. If the message involves names, dates, places, times, phone numbers or email addresses, have them ready so you can give them clearly and crisply.
  3. When you leave a message, always start with your own phone number. You may know it well, but say it slowly. At the end of a hard day's work, nothing is more difficult that to understand than a rapidly-spoken phone number.
  4. Be specific. Tell them exactly what you want them to do. Spell out alternative courses of action. Don't waste your words babbling like a politician on an election platform.
  5. If you have a number where a person can leave you a message 24/7, be sure to say so. It only takes one phrase: "You can leave me a message on this line at any time."
  6. Reply to your voicemail messages. That would seem courteous, but many people fail to respond at all to voicemail. Perhaps they're too busy or not interested in you. Since you can usually return voicemail messages around the clock, you can easily pick a time when it's convenient.
  7. Keep your replies short. But always give your name, company, and phone number, even if you know the person has it. He could be checking his voicemail outside of the office. Where possible, give your correspondent an option. For instance, "Phone Pat after 8:00 a.m. or Lynn before 5:00 p.m."
  8. If your voicemail system acts as your receptionist, set it to pick up calls after the first ring. Nothing is more annoying than a system that rings three times, then picks up on the fourth ring to give you a recorded message. My time is valuable, too. If one prefers to receive a voicemail, don't make me wait to leave one.
  9. Remember. If you get a voicemail answer on the first ring it could be that someone is busy on the line, or that the line is structured like that. That could mean you might never be able to talk to a person, but must leave a message. Try it out-416-491-6690. This is my main line, and it's structured to answer with a voicemail on the first ring.
  10. If you realize you're garbling your message (it happens to CEO's and doctors more often than to kids) press the pound key (#) on your phone. About 80% of the time the system you are calling will recognize the signal and give you the option to "correct." Not all systems have this feature but it's worth trying. If the "correct" feature is not available, hang up, call back, apologize, and leave a corrected message.
  11. Learn to use the different phone pad number keys to get the most out of your system. Such commands include speeding or slowing the message, fast forwarding or backing up, skipping from beginning to end of the message (and vice versa), saving, deleting, and adjusting volume. Learn these features before you need them. I speak from experience. I don't know how many times I've lost a message by pressing the wrong key.
  12. Listen to your own outgoing voicemail periodically. Try to imagine how it sounds to others. If it's not clear, or there are annoying background noises, rerecord it immediately.
  13. Before you record any message, drink lots of water. That will help to keep your vocal chords clear. Don't drink milk or eat cheese. That could make your voice crack. Try using a mirror-so you can see yourself smiling. Stand up. Your voice will be stronger. You never see a soprano singing from a chair.
  14. Deeper voices create more believability in your message. If you don't have a deep voice, don't worry. Just keep it in what I call the "norm voice range." For more information on this topic visit www.Bender.ca and read the article on Voice Power.
  15. The best time to change your outgoing voicemail for tomorrow is tonight. That way if someone calls you at 8:00 in the morning he's impressed with how early you get to work.
  16. If your system offers background music, make sure it's something generic and not offensive. I would love to play some yodeling (because I was born in Switzerland) but friends suggested it might not be such a good idea.
  17. If you're using voicemail as a selling tool, write your message as if it were an infomercial-but don't read it. Nothing puts people off more than a message that is read. Use your written notes as a guide. Put points in order, and close with the action you'd like your listener to take.
  18. If you give out your business card in full business dress, and it shows an address on Bay Street, callers automatically think they are phoning Bay Street. But you could actually answer in your underwear from your bedroom.
  19. When you finish a voicemail, press the pound (#) key. Try it. Most of the time this will give you options. These include the opportunity to listen to the message, erase it and rerecord, or send it "special delivery."
  20. You can resend a voicemail to another person, but it only works if you are both using the same voicemail system provider. So if you think you've resent the message-you may not have. So you told the guy to jump in the lake, but he never got the message. What a pity! Check which provider your contact uses.
  21. Keep your mailbox clean. Check how many messages it can store. Most systems offer limited capacity. When your mailbox is full, callers won't be able to leave a message. Nothing is more annoying, especially if your message is genuinely timely and urgent.


Peter Urs Bender is one of Canada's most dynamic and entertaining business speakers. He lives and works out of Toronto. He is the author of four best-selling business books: Leadership from Within, Secrets of Power Presentations, Secrets of Power Marketing, Secrets of Face-to-Face Communication, and Gutfeeling.
To read excerpts from his books visit www.PeterUrsBender.com.


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