Friday, July 22, 2016

Please leave a message. On second thought, don’t.

I’m old enough to remember when there was no voice mail at work. If you weren’t at your desk, the receptionist or an admin might come find you, or page you. If you were out to lunch, on vacation, or otherwise unavailable, you would have let the receptionist or admin know you were gone. And they’d take a message on a little “While You Were Out” pink slip. message padWhen you got back from wherever you were, you’d find those pink slips in your message box, or on your desk.

Apparently there are some places where, quite quaintly, messages are still taken this way. I know this because Staples – the source of this image – still sells them.

One of my favorite pink slip messages was one that I inherited when I became the manager for the delivery of a “custom-off-the-shelf” financial reporting system for Pitney Bowes. This project, which turned out to be completely and utterly ghastly (to the tune where, at one meeting, the fellow we were working with at Pitney Bowes ripped the yellow pad on which someone on my team was taking notes out of her hand, tore off the top sheet, crumpled it up, and threw it at her), was a truly hellish situation. And this truly hellish situation was the culmination of what had been the world’s longest sell cycle. When I came into this dud of a client, the file folder included a message slip, dated 6 years earlier, that registered the initial call we’d had with Pitney Bowes. And they had called us. It took us 6 years to close the deal and, for me, a number of miserable trips down to Connecticut to meet with them.

But I digress…

At some point, voice mail came in and “While You Were Out” pads became obsolete, at least at the places I worked and/or at least for folks at my level.

Now, when you came back to your office, you spotted a message because the message light was lit on your phone.

It was pretty much considered an obligation and/or common courtesy to return pretty much every phone message, but this, inevitably, led to long games of phone tag. If you really didn’t want to talk to someone, you gamed the system. Someone on the West Coast? Return their call at 8 a.m. the next day. Sorry you’re not in at 5 a.m. your time.

If you spotted someone you didn’t want to talk to outside of their office – and they didn’t spot you – it was a great time to speed off to your phone and call them back. Sorry I missed you. Guess we’re playing phone tag. Tee-hee. (Fake-rueful chuckle, followed by scratching “call X” off of your to-do list.)

Fast forward a couple of decades and:

Businesspeople are using texts, e-mail, Twitter messages, the communications app Skype, and collaborative software like Slack to get people’s attention, fast. (Source: Boston Globe)

I have clients where employees don’t have desk phones. They use a mobile – their own or company issued (more likely their own, BYOD, i.e., Bring Your Own Device, being all the rage). And at one client, employees don’t automatically give out their phone numbers. If you really need to txt them, they’ll let you have it; if not, everything can be pretty much handled by email. Works for me.

And, in truth, I’d just as soon get a text (or an email) as a voice mail.

At home, I hang onto my landline, but 99% of the calls I get on it are people asking for donations or scams (“This is your final notification regarding repairing your credit under The Stimulus.”). So I seldom pick it up, and I rarely listen to voice messages, even though I do occasionally get one from an actual human being whom I know and like and actually want to speak with.

My mobile is different. Even though I’m now getting some solicitations and scams on it, it’s where most of my conversations take place. And I do check my voice mails. Except that they’re coming in at a lesser frequency, as most of my client communications are, in fact, via email, and a lot of communication with friends and family is text based. It’s quick and easy, and if the exchanges start getting long, one of us will just pick up the phone and dial. (Metaphorically dial, of course, since there’s nothing to dial anymore.)

“I refuse to listen to voice mails or answer them,” Zoe Barry told me in early June. “Please, just text me.” Barry, 31, is chief executive of ZappRx, a Boston-based startup focused on making the medical prescription process more digital.

She said she didn’t think the aversion to voice mail was a generational phenomenon. “I think it’s something you see among tech-enabled workaholics, who are very mobile,” she said. “They’re giving it up, regardless of age. The people on my board are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. I don’t see any of them using voice mail.”

Well, I’m glad to see that, at least in this one respect, the Boomers are managing to stay current.

Anyway, one more yesteryear way of doing business that once used what was then cutting-edge technology has bitten the dust.

Wonder how many of those “While You Were Out” message pads Staples is selling these days. And who the heck is buying them?

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