‘At the sound of the tone, please leave a message …’


How to properly use voice mail

By Harry S. Dennis III, for SBT

I’ve put this onerous subject off as long as possible, but since wireless communications and voicemails are such a substantial part of our business existence these days, it’s time to make some observations. My thanks to TEC speaker Susan Reuben, a professional communicator, for her thoughts on the subject.
Let’s begin with the voicemail world and then a word or two about working with gatekeepers. To begin with, some voicemail message systems allow you almost unrestricted talk time and others keep you time-bound to about 45 seconds. Regardless, there are four things you can do to leave a distinctive impression:

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1. Adopt a positive tone from the get-go. Visualize that the other person is sitting directly across from you. Sound friendly and energetic — and smile! Not because you are on Candid Camera, but because it will help you sustain a warm and friendly conversational tone.
2. State the purpose of your call immediately after you state your name, affiliation, and time and date of your call. Before you leave a message, think about how you will position the purpose of your call.
3. Create a sense of urgency to have your call returned and establish a specific callback time.
4. End on a positive, upbeat note and repeat your phone number, with area code, at least twice. Conclude with a thank-you.

Now here are some classic mistakes that voicemail callers make:

1. Start talking before they hear the "beep" so that their opening message is truncated.
2. Talk with background noise present (especially calls from vehicles).
3. Mumble.
4. Pause too often with their remarks punctuated with annoying "uhhs."
5. Repeat their callback number too rapidly so that the message has to be replayed to get it right.
6. Forget to end the transmission and start a conversation with someone else who is in the vicinity of the phone.
7. Become windbags and run out of recording time, requiring a callback to complete the message.

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Voicemails are, unfortunately, necessary evils – no different than e-mails that clutter our electronic lives. It pays to become a voicemail expert and distance yourself from the masses who don’t know better.

Here are some additional tips for voicemail and answering machine preparers:

1. The monotonous routines of saying "after the beep please state your name, the time and date and purpose of your call, and we will return your call as soon as possible" or, "I am out-of-the-office or away from my desk, please state your name, etc.," can all be succinctly replaced with: "This is Harry Dennis. Please leave a message or press ‘0’ for assistance (in the case of a company message)."
2. Adding the phrases such as "we really appreciate your call," or "we’re sorry we missed you," is an impersonal tactic that does nothing but waste airtime.

Finally, a footnote for corporate adapters of the voicemail frenzy. Many companies still insist that you have human contact when you call them. At my company during normal business hours, you will hear a human voice with a human name. If the party you wish to reach is unavailable you will be asked if a message can be taken for that person, or you will be asked if you want his or her voicemail.
Be aware, too, that company voicemail directories sometimes do not do what they purport to do. You often are directed to a party with similar initials or names such as John Smith Sr. vs. John Smith Jr.
Want to get a first-hand feel for how well your external communication is really working? Have some friends call in and test the system. The results may amaze you. A Madison TEC member with 400 employees did so recently and the company is now totally revamping its "state-of-the-art" phone system. Why? Customers don’t like it.
There is one other alternative to dealing with unwanted voicemail communication at the company level. That is, learning how to work with a gatekeeper in the firm who has direct access to the party you are trying to reach. Susan Reuben has some tips here that make good sense:
1. Treat the gatekeeper with respect and like a friend. Take the time to build some rapport.
2. Work on a first-name basis, and be respectful of their time.
3. Use humor if it is appropriate.
4. Establish the nature and importance (or potential importance) of the business you have with the individual (usually the CEO) who the gatekeeper is assigned to protect.
5. Ask for help. Ask, too, about the best way to help the gatekeeper give you that help such as personal contact with the person who you are trying to reach.
6. Follow up with a personal thank-you note or another small token of your appreciation.
7. Be very clear about the action you will take subsequent to the gatekeeper contact, such as calling back to confirm a good time to call or meet with your contact.

Until next month, "thank you for reading … please leave a message!"

Harry S. Dennis III is the president of TEC (The Executive Committee) in Wisconsin and Michigan. TEC is a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at 262-821-3340.

Oct. 31, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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