Phone Message Rant


Answering machines in one form or another have been fairly common for about forty years now, give or take. That means that at least three generations have had good exposure to them, and two of them have not known a time when an invitation to leave a message wasn’t part of normal communication.

Given that we’ve all been exposed to the things, either physical or virtual, it’s absolutely amazing that so many folks haven’t a clue about what constitutes a good greeting for their machine. Knowing that the world awaits, with bated breath, a guru to so enlighten them, I figured it was time for me to step into this egregious breach. Herewith, Bill’s Rules for Answering System Messages.

Keep it short. Your callers all know how to leave messages; it isn’t necessary to provide instructions. Besides, if you have a mobile phone or use the phone company’s answering service, the robot is going to give directions too, and waste still more of your caller’s time. The caller most likely wanted to speak with you, not to listen to your recording and the robot. If he or she has to leave a message, let them get to it!

My message says (in a pleasant tone, since it’s a sort of curt message), “This is Bill. Can’t answer now, but please leave a message if you want to.”

Compare that to something like, “Hello.” (Pause, so just as you think you’ve actually got a real person and start to say something, the real message starts.) “This is Sallie Mae. I can’t come to the phone right now, but your call is very important to me. Please leave a message, and I’ll get back to you as quickly as possible. (Reads favorite Bible verse.) Have a blessed day. Bye, now!” (Said very slowly and carefully, as if you’re a half-witted child who can’t understand normal speech.)

Then the robot gives you another fifteen seconds of instructions, just in case you’ve never accomplished this technically challenging task before. Then you get to leave a message. Total time: a minute and a half, when all you wanted was to say, “This is Bill, call me when you get a chance.”

It is not necessary to give the news and weather report. If you are dying of starvation, there has been no news from the outside world in a week, and you are staggering off in some direction to try and find help, then it might be appropriate to leave a detailed answer on your machine. (Better leave a note, too.) Otherwise, keep it short. The same is true for the messages you leave on others’ systems: stick to the meat and potatoes; the veggies and dessert can be handled in person.

Call your own number and listen to your message. Ask yourself: If my head ached, I was stuck in traffic, and there was a crying child in the back seat, would I want to listen to this garbage?

Take the trouble to check out your provider’s software to learn if there is a “short answer” selection that leaves out all the instructions. Many carriers provide such things, assuming that the odd professional communicator might want to use their services.

Repeat useful information. Example: “This is Joe’s Plumbing. We are unable to answer. Please leave a message. In an emergency, call 555-555-5555. That’s 555.555.5555.”

After you provide the number, STOP TALKING! The person is probably trying to remember the number until they can find something to write it on. Further talking is guaranteed to make them forget it. Use your head — are you trying to communicate, or do you just like to hear yourself talk?

And while we’re at it…

Ditch that music that plays while the phone is ringing! Why should an innocent caller have to listen to your choice of music until you answer the phone? Trust me, they are not entertained. What if you’re a hip-hop fan and I make you listen to Japanese flute? Show some respect for your callers. It’s not all about you, showoff — and it’s so passive-aggressive.

People live busy lives these days. They call our phones for all sorts of reasons, from business, to casual calls, to emergencies, but rarely do they have time for, or want to listen to, a lot of unnecessary babbling. Cut them some slack; they may be trying to leave a quick message before the light changes. If they want to listen to trash, they can tune in talk radio. Go get some help for your excessive need to control,* and change your message to something short, succinct, and less annoying.

There! I said it, and I’m glad!

*Yes, I see the potential comment there, but I didn’t force you to read to the end, you chose to. 😉

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