Love it or hate it, voicemail is part of our work culture. My first encounter with it was in the 1980s. More than 30 years later, far too many people still haven’t figured it out.

For the worker

If you use voicemail at work, see how many of these techniques you have mastered:

  1. Change your greeting. When people get your voicemail, do they hear a pleasant voice that says, “Hi this is Jim…”? Or, do they hear a computer-generated voice that says, “The person at extension [pause] 123 [pause] is unavailable”? If you’re not sure, call your own number and see what other people experience.
  2. Record a temporary greeting. Some days, we’re in the office. Sometimes, we’re out of town for an extended period. Callers aren’t mind readers. How will they know we’re gone for a week?

    A good phone system allows the user to record a “temporary greeting.” It would start something like this: “Hi, this is Mary. I’ll be out of the office until July 16th and will be returning calls at that time. If you need assistance before then…”

    Part of recording the temporary greeting is setting an expiry date and time. In this example, on July 16th the temporary greeting would automatically be replaced by the regular one. How many times do you encounter an outgoing message that talks about dates from weeks ago? You just encountered someone who hasn’t mastered this technique.
  3. Check voicemail remotely. Just because someone is out of the office for a week doesn’t mean voicemail has to accumulate. Any reputable phone system allows the user to dial a number and then enter the extension and pin. That arrangement allows the out-of-town executive to return calls during spare pockets of time.
  4. Forward calls. People have much more control over where the phone rings than they realize. Going to be out of the office and want all your calls to ring through to your mobile phone? Do you and a colleague need to answer each other’s calls when one of you leaves the office? It’s easy to make it happen.
  5. Use programmable keys. Does the keypad include a key or two the user can program to store a string of numbers? I once worked with a phone system that required entry of two strings of numbers to retrieve voice messages. I programmed one key to dial those two strings and even insert a short pause between them. That one shortcut reduced a dozen keystrokes to a single keystroke every time I checked voicemail.

For the manager

If you’re in charge of keeping the organization’s phone system operating efficiently, can you perform these functions?

  1. Update the telephone tree. The telephone tree tells you to “press 3 for Joe Smith.” The only problem is that Joe retired a year ago. The organization has no plan in place for keeping the tree up to date as employees change. If you’re not sure if yours is working correctly, check it. Pick a time after hours and try each option on the tree one at a time. You may be surprised.
  2. Change the greeting for someone who has left the organization. Sometimes a position is eliminated and nobody assumes that extension. What happens when an unsuspecting caller dials that extension directly? Do they hear the greeting for the person who is no longer there? How many messages are piling up in unmonitored mailboxes at your organization?
  3. Communicate with others how to use the functions discussed above. When a new phone system goes in, those doing the installation leave behind copies of the user guide. It explains temporary greetings, forwarding calls, etc. The problem is people lose them and nobody can lay hands on one. A phone call to the company who installed the system would solve the problem of the missing manual.

What does “as soon as possible mean”?

How many voicemail greetings do you hear that promise to return your call “as soon as possible”? So exactly what is “as soon as possible”? Does that mean five minutes from now when you get back from the bathroom? Does it mean five weeks from now when you get back from an extended vacation?

I have an entire post that addresses that subject. Come over to “Voicemail: How to Make Your Outgoing Message Helpful.”

Where do we go from here?

Find the manual that tells how to use the phone system. Then, start setting up features that are going to ultimately save you time. They’ll also save time for your callers.