Business

Wait for the tone, and ... never mind. Voice mail is on the way out.

Voice mail, once seen as a time-saving innovation in the workplace, today seems headed for the same fate as the VCR player and the fax machine.
Voice mail, once seen as a time-saving innovation in the workplace, today seems headed for the same fate as the VCR player and the fax machine. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Not too many years ago, Diane Rivers would arrive at the Charlotte development firm where she works and be greeted with 15 voice mail messages. These days, she might see just one.

“I think if they’re missing you, they’re texting you,” said Rivers, a managing partner of Brackett Flagship Properties in SouthPark.

Voice mail, once seen as a time-saving innovation in the workplace, today seems headed for the same fate as the VCR and fax machine. In a business world where speed of communication is critical, many view voice mail and its repetitive keystrokes as a relic.

J.P. Morgan Chase, which is expanding its business in Charlotte, announced this month it will cut out voice mail for thousands of workers around the country who don’t deal directly with clients, in a cost-cutting move. In place of voice mail, callers encounter a message that says the person isn’t available and to try again at another time.

Charlotte-based Bank of America has looked at cutting it out as part of a broader efficiency initiative, although the bank still uses voice mail and has no immediate plans to stop, said bank spokesman Dan Frahm.

Coca-Cola Co. employees in Atlanta were given the option to turn off their voice mail last year. Only 6 percent opted to keep it, the company said.

Coca-Cola said the goal was not cost savings, but “changing the tools” it uses to communicate. It estimates information technology savings of less than $100,000 per year. An automated message now requests that the caller reach out to the desired recipient in another manner, such as email.

Certainly, not every company is looking to pare back on voice mail. Charlotte-based Duke Energy, for instance, uses voice mail extensively, for both internal and external communications.

But it’s just a matter of time before it fades away, says Michael Schrage, a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management’s Center for Digital Business.

“Voice mail is like the fax machine or carbon paper or the old Xerox copy paper. It was great for its day, and now ... it’s a zombie technology. It’s dead,” he said.

Sorting through spam emails takes seconds – and you can do it in a meeting! – but listening to unwanted voice mails takes time.

Nucor Corp., the Charlotte-based steelmaker, uses voice mail, but some employees complain that too many incoming messages tend to be cold sales calls, said Scott Messenger, the company’s IT director. They’re often frustrated that the number of voice mails is large, but the number of meaningful voice messages is low, he said.

“A person is thus forced to wade through a lengthy list of messages, only to discover that just a few, or perhaps none, were really worth the time invested,” Messenger said. “Users tend to prefer messaging, either email or text, that puts the message in their hands – as opposed to forcing them to go and retrieve it, as is true of voice mails.”

Rather than kill voice mail, some companies are combining telephone, email, text and video systems into unified Internet-based systems that eliminate overlap.

Premier Inc., the Charlotte-based health care company, said it is taking advantage of unified messaging systems, which can deliver voice mail into a user’s email inbox.

AT&T still provides voice mail services, but the company says that in recent years it has seen more and more businesses move to mobile and cloud-based technology.

As communication technology evolves, said Schrage of MIT, people crave convenience and efficiency.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, voice mail provided that convenience, Schrage said. But today, “it’s the antithesis of convenience.”

Staff Writer Rick Rothacker contributed.

Chaney: 704-358-5197; Twitter: @sechaney

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