“The scientists. They’ll want to know they sent me to the wrong time… I can leave a voicemail message that they monitor from the present… Can I just make one telephone call please?” -James Cole, Twelve Monkeys

The Art of Leaving Effective Voicemail Messages

A while back, I read a Yahoo blog post by Jim Citrin on crafting the “perfect” voicemail (see insert below). Jim had several tips on leaving voicemail messages after which he provided several examples. What I found surprising were the number of critical comments based on old school thinking.

However, I found all of his tips on point and helpful. Here is a quick recap:

  1. First, be clear about the goal of the message. This goes without saying in all our communications.
  2. Next, be authoritative yet upbeat in your tone. No one wants to hear you whining on the other end. No one needs more drama.
  3. Also, find a bridge to the person you’re calling. This goes back to the reason you are calling and being clear about the goal. So, do your research.
  4. Be brief. We’ve all been guilty of leaving voicemail messages that stretch into a 5-minute monologue. I think we’ve also been the recipient of voicemail messages that tested our patience. How many of us hit the delete key after 45 seconds? People are busy. Show some respect for their time.
  5. Be specific in your request. Again, this goes back to knowing your goal or outcome.
  6. Finally, leave your contact information slowly and clearly. Another no brainer.

The comments in the blog blasted Jim for saying he wouldn’t return a call if the caller left a poor voicemail message. They lambasted him because he was breaking with the tradition of returning all calls promptly.

I think that sometimes we confuse being nice, with being effective. We can be nice, we can be effective, and there are times when we can be nice and effective. However, the two are not equivalent.

Feedback From Executives on Leaving Voicemail Messages

I spent some time working in a call center. I also did time in an engineering lab and grew up applying the scientific method of analysis. After 6 months in the center, the one thing I noticed was that shorter voicemail messages got more return calls. Longer voicemail messages were rarely returned. So, from my experiments, shorter voicemail messages yielded better returns.

Back in 2005, I attended a Dale Carnegie regional sales meeting in Pittsburgh. In one session, several high-level executives from some of our larger national clients participated in a panel discussion. They were there providing insights into what top-level executives wanted from the sales reps calling on them.  And the Iron Mountain executive gave what I found to be the most helpful suggestions.

He said he wanted a sales person to be clear, direct, and results oriented. The person had to have done their research and had to be offering a solution that addressed a problem. Then as he was wrapping up, he added, “…and no lengthy voicemails. Twenty seconds is long enough to make your point.”

So, in Jim’s defense, I found his points to be relevant when compared with my own experiences. His examples, however, are another matter. After reviewing all three of his voicemail samples, I concluded that I wouldn’t return any of them. In every example, the caller talked about themselves and what they wanted. They made no attempt to address any of Jim’s interest.

Every person listens to their favorite radio station, WII FM, or What’s In It For Me. If you can’t leave a voicemail that operates on this frequency, expect poor reception.

The Original Post from Yahoo

Below is the original post from the Yahoo Leadership blog:

The Art of the Perfect Voicemail

by Jim Citrin

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

In the age of email, there are still times when you need to let your voice do the talking. You may be initiating contact with a prospective client, soliciting advice on an important project, or trying to secure an interview for a job.

In these cases and many others, your initial outreach will inevitably require you to leave a voicemail. What you say and how you say it will, in large measure, lead the listener to decide in a split second whether or not to return your call.

Six Tips for Effective Voicemails

Sometimes leadership and performance has to do with broad notions and momentous issues. But sometimes it’s about the granular and the practical. Since it will determine whether or not you make progress on an important task, the art of leaving an effective voicemail is very much a case in point.

Here are six tips to keep in mind when leaving voicemail:

  1. Be clear about the goal of the message.

    Don’t try to do it all — close a sale or get the job. The objective of the message should be to get your call returned.

  2. Be authoritative yet upbeat in your tone.

    Your communication sends a clear signal about who you are and how important you are. You need to portray a sense of confidence, authority, and respect. People also respond better to an energetic, positive-sounding person than to a bore. But at all costs, avoid being obsequious — there’s nothing more annoying.

  3. Find a bridge to the person you’re calling.

    People feel comfortable if there’s a familiar connection from them to you. This can be someone who suggested you call, a mutual acquaintance, a shared affiliation with an organization (such as your alma mater), a hometown, or any number of things. Do your homework and be creative in finding a link.

  4. Be brief. Everyone’s busy, so keep your message short.

    Your listener will resent it if the voicemail’s recorded announcement says, “New message received at 7:45 p.m.; five minutes.”

  5. Be specific in your request.

    People are much more likely to get back to you when they know that the conversation will be confined to a clear topic. Request an answer to a specific question with the promise of a well-defined time frame, rather than introducing an open-ended issue that the caller may fear will turn into a black-hole conversation.

  6. Leave your contact information slowly and clearly.

    This sounds painfully obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many people rush through their phone number and email address so fast that you have to replay the message three times before you can understand them. Since many people check their voicemail when driving, the easier the number is to hear and remember, the greater the likelihood that you’ll get the return call immediately. Also, leave your email address and invite your caller to start the dialogue via email. This can be less threatening given its more detached nature.

Which Calls Would You Return?

To bring these points to life, here are three actual voicemails that I received (all personal details and contact information have been changed):

Caller No. 1:

“Hello, Mr. Citrin. My name is Dick White from Bain and Company. I’m a third-year associate and I’m looking to make a move out of management consulting into general management, either in technology or media. I understand you work with executives and clients in these areas. I would appreciate it if we could get together to discuss my background. My number is (646) 555-1234 and my email is richardbwhite@bain.com.”

Caller No. 2:

“Hello, Jim, this is Kate Peters and I’m calling regarding a reference for your former colleague, Tony Thompson. We’re speaking to Tony about potentially joining our company. Can you please call me over the next two to three days so that I can get your views on his strengths, weaknesses, and potential fit with our organization? If it’s easier, I can have my office schedule a call with you so we can avoid phone tag. My office number is (212) 555-5678.”

Caller No. 3:

“Hello, Jim, this is Dennis Lions. I’m a fellow Vassar grad from the class of 1998 and I’m currently working at a small Internet company in Palo Alto. I have a difficult decision that I need to make in the next 48 hours. Can I run it by you? It’ll only take five to seven minutes of your time. My office number is (650) 555-9101, my cell is (650) 555-1121, and my email is dlions@dlions.com. Thank you very much in advance.”

Who Got the Callbacks?

Which calls do you think I returned?