In today’s business world, we all get more messages than we could possibly answer. Here are seven tricks to get people to return your voicemail messages.
As I’m sitting in a four-hour delay in the Pittsburgh Airport, gate A-4, I look up and see a weird site. About 70% of all the people walking in my field of vision have a similar device stuck to the side of their heads, talking into it, listening, nodding. It was surreal. One dude sits down next to me and is listening intently without speaking. Every now and then he reaches up and touches a button on the phone, then listens some more. After 5 minutes, he finishes and my curiosity takes over.
“So who were you talking to?”, I inquire.
Politely, although looking at me like I was a three-headed Ghydra who just fell off the turnip truck, he replies, “I wasn’t talking to anyone—just checking my voicemail.”
“Lots of messages, huh,” came my witty retort.
“About 10. I’ll only return two of them.”
One of those cartoon dialogue balloons that means I was thinking appeared over my head with “A-HAH!” in all caps. A communications challenge on the horizon.
You see, folks, the more technology we introduce to help us communicate, the less we actually communicate. The businessman at the airline terminal will only return 20% of his messages. Have you ever felt like part of the eighty percent sent to digital purgatory? Voicemail has taken over auditory communications technology, so if we want to avoid endless frustration and productivity loss, we need to learn to leave messages that get returned. Here are my top 7 tips on leaving messages that demand a response:
1. Be brief and get to the point. Don’t begin your voicemail with small talk, jokes or other needless filler words. Remember the fellow at the airport? Your message may be one of many, so he may be tired of listening when he gets to yours, so get right down to business. Identify yourself and the purpose of calling.
Bad: “Hey, Charlie! It’s me. Got a great one for you. Did you hear the one…”
Better: “Hi Charlie. This is Karl Walinskas, calling about our meeting in Tuscaloosa.”
2. Put the call into context. Say something immediately after your greeting that puts you and your importance in the mind of the listener. She may not remember you if you just met once or twice, so give her a reference. The listener is always thinking, “Who the heck are you and why should I return your call?” If they asked for the call, make sure you say so.
Bad: “Hello Ms. Watson. I’m calling today to let you know of our great new line of…”
Better: “Hi Ms. Watson. This is Karl Walinskas. We met last Tuesday at the Internet trade show in Chicago at my company’s booth, The Speaking Connection. I’m following up on your request to…”
3. Given the listener a reason to reply. What does the call recipient get if he gets back to you? Pleasant conversation? A special offer? Offer something compelling that makes the listener want to get back to you for his own good. Everyone wants to know what’s in it for me, so provide the listener with an answer to that question.
Bad: “I’d like you to call me back so we can discuss…”
Better: “I’m holding the cruise dates for 24 hours until I hear from you. Call me by tomorrow to book your vacation or plan something else.”
4. Time stamp the message. Most voicemail systems have automatic time stamps, but don’t rely on them. I never listen to them because the electronic voice is annoying, and many answering machines don’t have a time stamp. Let the person know the day and time you called and more importantly, when she can call you back. Provide a window for the return call that is accurate but not too restrictive.
Bad: “We need to talk on the medical account. Call me anytime to discuss.”
Better: “I’m calling on Thursday around 3 pm. I can be reached in my office tomorrow from 10 to 1 in the afternoon at 555-1212. Please call to discuss…”
5. Let the listener know how to reach you. Simple right? Give the listener a phone number for a return call and an alternate like a digital phone that’s always with you. If you’re never around and don’t have a mobile phone (like me for years), use the convenience of email technology to let her know an email address that she can reply to that you can be sure to get.
Bad: “Call me back so we can get to it.”
Better: “I can be reached at 555-1212 from 3-5 today, or at my mobile number of 555-2121 anytime. You can also get me through email at. I check it regularly.”
6. Provide Instructions. Tell the listener exactly what you want him to do. For business calls, discussion isn’t good enough. What is this person needed for? The “I need” phrase is the most powerful two words in the English language, so use it.
Bad: “Call me back so we can discuss the Warren account.”
Better: “I need your approval on the final contract to propose to Mr. Warren for the half-million dollar widget order.”
7. Explain the consequences of not calling back. This is a great call-return-getter that most people don’t use. Think of the cruise example earlier, with the implied consequence of losing the trip reservation unless a return call was made. If you can, be explicit.
Bad: “Honey, call me back about the groceries you wanted me to pick up.”
Better: “Honey, call me back to let me know if you wanted skim milk or whole milk. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll assume you found other nourishment and no longer wish for me to pick up groceries. Bye-bye!”
You can use these seven techniques immediately to dramatically improve your rate of callbacks when you leave voicemail. What you’re doing is enabling the recipient with enough detail and reasons so that calling you back just makes good sense. Email me at and I’ll give you five great phrases that will up your call return-rate even higher. If you chose not to use these methods, I’ll assume that you do not wish to have your messages returned and just like speaking into electronic recording devices.