Voicemail Etiquette: Tips for Managing Your Messages

By Kate Zabriskie

How many times has one of the following happened to you?

  • You call someone and get his voicemail telling you that he will be out of the office until July 6th. The only problem is it’s September 8th when you place the call.
  • You call a big organization but still can’t get in touch with a living, breathing person no matter what combination of buttons you push, and you’ve already left three messages and received no returned phone call.
  • Someone leaves you a message, but you can’t clearly hear her name or number. The only part of the message that is comprehendible is that the call is urgent.

When he thought up the idea of voicemail in the late 1970s, inventor Gordon Matthews probably never imagined that more than two decades later people would still be abusing and misusing his would-be office miracle. Those types of encounters are annoying, frustrating, and a total waste of time you probably cannot afford. The worst part is they happen by the millions every day and show no signs of stopping.

If you use a telephone at work, chances are you’ve been to voicemail jail. It’s a horrible place, and unfortunately, most of us know it well. The good news is there are some steps you can take to stay out of this hotspot.

Read the Book: First, take a look at the manual that came with your voicemail system. Over the course of a year, you may waste a few hours repeating whole messages if you don’t know the simple commands for forwarding and rewinding calls. What?  You’ve lost the book, or they never gave you one?  That is no excuse: Google it online. Search for your phone model, and you will probably find the manual. No time to read it? Bring it with you to meetings, on airplanes, the grocery store – find a minute here or there to pick up a new tip.

Improve the Quality of Your Outgoing Messages: If you give people information that can help them help themselves, you will give them what they need faster and save yourself time as well.

  • Identify your name, organization, and telephone number in your outgoing message. For example: “Hi, this is Karen Smith with Adcomine at 212-555-1234.”
  • State that you are not available and any other important information. For example: “I’m out of the office today, January 3rd. I will be returning January 5th. I will not check my voicemail until I am back. If this is an emergency or you need immediate assistance, please call Bill Withers at 917-555-6543.”
  • Tell people how to leave an appropriate message. That’s right: if you want good information, ask for it. For example: “Please leave a brief message stating how I can help you along with your phone number, and I will call you back.”
  • If you prefer email, offer that as an option to callers. If you have an unusual name or company name, spell out the email address. For example: “You may want to email me at…”
  • To cut down on repeat calls if you work in a high-volume call area, state that you will return calls within 24 hours or whatever time period your organization’s policy on return calls requires.
  • If you update your message when you go out of town, don’t forget to update it again when you get back.
  • If your system allows callers to bypass your message by hitting the pound key, tell them that, especially if you have an unusually long message.

Stay on Top of Your Messages: What frustrates callers isn’t always the fact that they have had to leave a voicemail, but that their calls were not answered “promptly.”  The number of times you check voicemail each day will vary depending on your job function. However, if you have not told people differently, at a minimum you should check messages once a day and return those calls. Here are some other guidelines for making the most out of your message-checking time.

  • Have a pen and paper ready when you begin dialing.
  • Listen to all of the messages before you start returning calls.
  • Remember that you don’t have to return calls in the order in which they were received.
  • Sometimes it’s easier to return calls when you are relatively sure the recipients won’t pick up the telephone. You can answer their questions on their voicemail and move on with your day.
  • If you are extremely busy and have the luxury of an assistant or some other kind soul, ask this person to return some of your phone calls. This is especially good if it is going to take an unusually long time for you to get back with someone.
  • Don’t save messages you really don’t need. If you wrote down the information from the call, most of the time there is no reason to save the original recording. After all, do you really want your box so full no one can leave a message? That’s embarrassing and unprofessional.

Don’t Perpetuate the Problem: Are you tired of long-winded, difficult to understand voicemails? Stop the cycle by leaving concise and clear voicemails. When recording a message, have mercy on your listeners and do the following:

  • Speak slowly and leave your phone number at the beginning and the end of the message.
  • Limit your comments to one or two subjects. Voicemail is not a one-person show.
  • If you are rambling, for the sake of others and your reputation, stop yourself and rerecord.
  • If you need action of some sort, state what you need. Voicemails that simply say, “Call me” are irritating at best.
  • If the recipient of your messages tends to fall into the trap listed in the previous point, tell him or her, “When you return my call, please leave a message on my voicemail to let me know the status of the project if I’m not able to answer the phone.”
  • If you are using a group distribution list that includes everyone’s name on the message, read the manual for your phone system and put the list at the end. If people want to listen to it, they can.

A little careful planning and attention can free your time and help you view voicemail as the useful tool that it is rather than the prison it can be.

Kate Zabriskie is founder of Business Training Works, Inc., a company that specializes in down-to-earth soft skills training in the workplace. For more information, call 301-934-3250.

[From the December 2006/January 2007 issue of AnswerStat magazine]