Voice Mail: Rise, Decline, Gone

My Mac laptop was in the shop being repaired yesterday, so I had a lot of time to think. I am embarrassed to admit that without my laptop I felt exactly the way I do when my car is in the shop. Adrift. Mildly frantic. Helpless. It wasn’t a good feeling.

New keyboard for old Powerbook

New keyboard for old Powerbook

After 6 years and countless feline upgrades (where are we now? leopard? jaguar? kitteh?) I wore out the keyboard. I started slowly, rubbing off the letters from the keys. That didn’t disable it, but it did create light spots from the backlighting. Eventually I wore out the ‘H’, then the ‘G’. You would have thought I’d wear out the ‘E’ first, it’s the most commonly used letter. Nope the two center keys that get clobbered by my index fingers went first. I learned to type in Middle School and it was a pre-electric typewriter.

When am I getting to the voice mail part? Right now. I had to geeze first. You young folks are so impatient. Get off my lawn.

Clint Eastwood, in Gran Torino, "Get off my lawn."

Clint Eastwood, in Gran Torino, "Get off my lawn."

Back in the day when cell phones were the size of shoeboxes and everyone had to stay in the room where the landline was, because the receiver was attached to the phone with a curly wire, there was no voicemail, no answering machine. If the person wasn’t at home when you called, you called back later. It was annoying, but we didn’t know better.

Then came an answering machine. You plugged it into your phone and into the wall and watched the red light blink because it was good training for the VCRs still to come. Almost immediately, no one answered their phone anymore. The cooler you were, the less you answered your phone. Every time-management expert told you that answering your phone just because it rang made you a slave to your phone and proved you didn’t know how to use technology to your advantage.

The idea was to let the calls build up, then pick up all your messages and prioritize them. Only then would you return the phone calls, in their relative order of importance.

After a few years, I believed this to be true, and after much training from the time management expert the corporation I worked for had hired, I was a prioritizing, time-management genius. Except I was wrong.

By the time I learned how to let every message go to voice mail (answering machines were a thing of the past), it was wrong to do that. Even if you left an outgoing message that said, “Your call is important to me.” No one believed that. Callers are smart that way.

Now you were supposed to answer every call, no matter where you were. Luckily, the cell phone was also small enough to carry with you into the restaurant, the symphony hall, the library, and places of worship, not to mention the toilet stall. It was appropriate to bring them into places of worship, because these phones are like gods to us. Their every whim is to be answered, and we listen to them all the time. Probably more than a god, but that’s another post.

People don’t leave messages, they expect you to check the “missed call” list, recognize their number and call back. Quickly. The very same time management expert, now called an organizational development guru and wearing flip flops instead of brogans, gives workshops on answering every call. It’s better time management.

Business, like fashion, has fads that come and go. First we were all given raises when we improved our work, then we were told pay increases are linked to the cost of living, and then that philosophy was adjusted to being told how hard you work and amount of pay are not related. (That’s when I opened my own business, where that still works pretty well.)

Beware of business fads, or you’ll still be shifting your paradigm when everyone else is taking it to another level. Stick to the core actions that work. Answer your phone when you have time to talk and you are in the office. Use voicemail when you are in the car or speaking to a real person. Be polite. Be nice. It’s timeless.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer, life-  and creativity coach. She teaches business people how to write effectively and deliver good presentations.