Voicemail Etiquette – What to Say When No One’s Listening

Voicemail isn’t dead yet. In fact, thanks to instant messengers like WhatsApp, it’s having an unsuspected revival. But when can you use it professionally? And what do you say? With our etiquette, voicemail can still be of real use.

I’m not going to call generation wars here, but voicemail – yay or nay – seems to be a truly generational matter.

In 2014, the NYT concluded that Millenials were completely estranged from voicemail . Understandably so, short messages are more comfortably written than spoken and read than listened to. Not to mention the dreaded beep tone and burdensome retrieval of voice messages from a robotic clerk.

Meanwhile, four generations above them routinely use voicemail professionally and like the more personal, dedicated spirit they convey. Fortunately, the young folk have embraced their equivalent , voice memos in instant messengers.

Time for a voicemail etiquette to bring everyone to a common ground.

When (not) to leave a voicemail

Age used to be a good predictor of how much someone appreciates or rejects voicemail. Granted you’re older than 25, if you’d text your mom why that is so, she might leave her theory as a VM.

But now that voice messages are an established feature of instant messengers and voice-controlled communication hubs like Amazon’s Echo put ‘Voice First’ , the lines are blurred.

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In the future, you’ll rather face the question which form of voicemail you choose and in which situations to use one of them at all. As to the former, stick to the more accessible IM version whenever you’ve already been in contact with the recipient over a messaging app. As to the latter, here are some use cases:

Use voicemails…

  • for briefing someone for an upcoming, more complex conversation with information that doesn’t fit a text message.
  • for dropping an introductory note for someone who doesn’t know your number yet (always with a supplemental email).
  • for getting back to someone who explicitly asked for a call but is unavailable at the time.
  • as an introduction to a more personal or confidential talk that will be conducted in person
  • if you don’t know whether you’re calling a cellphone or landline. Many landline phones don’t account for calls if you don’t leave a message.

How you feel about voicemail is largely generational. People who haven't hit 40 don't get why their parents and other olds don't just text or let a missed call speak for itself. In some cases it's an argument of etiquette.

Leslie Horn, gizmodo.com

Don’t use voicemails...

  • for self-evident callback cues like “I wasn’t able to reach you. Please call me.”
  • as a substitute for the failed call, going through the detailed points you meant to explain in the actual conversation.
  • for schedules, lists and similar information that’s hard to gather without visualization. Also, not for giving complex directions.

Identifying yourself

Both in private as in professional setting, most people don’t answer the phone unless they know who’s calling. They’ll surely not call you back if they don’t learn that from the message you left. That’s why clearly identifying yourself is anyone’s first obligation in cold calls .

  1. Salute, conversational but with some formality. “Dear Sir/Madam”, for instance, isn’t conversational. A simple “hello” does it whenever you continue with “Mrs.”/”Mr.”.
  2. State own full name, company name and job title. No more, no less.
  3. If you’re calling (from) landline phone, spell out your own number.

It is uncanny when someone calls and seems to know us better than we do vice versa. But it’s just as uncanny when someone calls and introduces himself as if it was the first encounter – while it isn’t. When the recipient knows you:

  1. Salute, conversational with no more than the suitable level of formality. If you’re on first name terms, make sure not to go back to something more formal.
  2. State own full name with or without surname, above rule applies. Mention your company name if the last interaction happened some time ago and your job title only when it was a long time ago.
    While your name likely isn’t enough to clearly identify you, your company’s name should ring a bell. In which case additionally stating your job title could come across as you not remembering the last interaction.
  3. If it’s been a while or you’ve been referred by another person, give a quick reminder of the topic of your last conversation or your referral, respectively.

Make sure to always speak loud and clear while maintaining a friendly tone. Also, decelerate your speaking rate for specific information like phone numbers or addresses.

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Our post on customer service exercises includes some simple exercises for advancing your vocal skills. Also, call from a quiet place, preferably a closed room.

Delivering a concise message

The ‘body’ of your call is the part most prone to digression. Classic answering machines weren’t generous with stage time. The dreaded beeping tone threatened callers into keeping it short. Or, looking at it the other way around, these robots were mindful of their owner’s time.

Today’s voicemail recorders on phones usually offer you between 1 and 3 minutes. WhatsApp, Telegram and the likes even grant you complete freedom. Either way, today’s answering machines demand self-limitation to not overstrain your counterpart’s patience.

There is a natural temptation to over-explain, over-context, over-share and over-sell. We all wrestle with the underlying feeling that to make sure we are understood we must cover all the possible angles.

Scott Mabry

So, firstly, consider brevity a necessity. But then, also as a chance to display professionalism and respect for your counterpart’s time. When space is endless, the ability to be concise becomes a true virtue.

Scott Mabry shared some basic principles of lean communication that you’ll find applied in our following suggestions:

  1. Start by naming the broad topic, the subject line of your voicemail. If there were previous interactions, take up on it: “Regarding last week’s meeting about marketing your new product, I came up with some new ideas, as you requested.”
  2. Implement a call to action. Say what you’d like the recipient to do next. If you ask for a callback, state what your intention is for that call like “Please call me back, so we can find a date to discuss my suggestions and settle on a strategy.”
  3. Give the recipient a timeframe for the next step. This enables her to assess the urgency and virtually open her calendar to schedule a follow up time.

Not all voicemail offer to review or confirm your message before sending it. To organize your thoughts, or to prevent rambling, grab a pen and script your VM in bullet points before you dial. Rehearsing it upfront will make you even sharper.

If you’re planning on doing a sales call sprint via phone – so, possibly via voicemail – trust the scripts crafted by close.io’s Steli Efti on this one .

Finally, since it tends to come out of people nearly automatically whenever they leave VMs on phones: Please don’t say “I tried calling you” or “I wasn’t able to reach you.” It’s self-evident that it was so, no need to spend time on it.

Ending with alternative channel offer

When you conclude your message, it’s your goal to make following up effortless for the recipient. Particularly, you want to avoid a voicemail ping-pong at all costs. Sending voice messages back and forth because you can’t get each other on the line is mightily inefficient.

  1. If possible, provide a time of definite availability. ‘Definite’ because saying you’re available when you’re eventually not is worse than not offering any date: “You can reach me on weekdays during 9 and 11 am.”
  2. Offer an alternative channel: “You can also send me an email to sven.riehle@userlike.com.” This allows your counterpart to switch to a different channel if she generally favors one or deems it more suitable for her follow up. This also mitigates any damage if your initial decision for voicemail was ill-advised.

Setting up professional voicemail greetings

When receiving calls, view your voicemail greeting as a tool to guide your caller to leaving a concise message. Consequently, you should set the tone by being brief yourself. Focus on these components:

  1. State your full name and clearly indicate that this is your voicemail greeting. Your caller shouldn’t think it’s actually you, live. So refrain from intentionally casual greeting like “Hi, this is Sven Riehle, what’s up?”. Better: “Hello, this is the voicemail of Sven Riehle.”
  2. Then, thank the caller for reaching out and kindly invite them to drop you a message. Don’t waste your caller’s time to state the obvious fact you’re currently unavailable.
  3. If possible, inform callers when they can reach you or expect your callback, and how frequently you check your voicemail.
  4. Offer an alternative channel: “Feel free to send me an email or drop me a message.”
  5. In case there’s someone besides you eligible to answer certain common questions, offer that colleague’s number: “If you experience technical issues with our product, you may also call my colleague…”

When you’re answering a voicemail via call, have both the answers to the questions you were asked as well as follow up questions of your own noted down.