Consumer Confidential: Consumers Will Be Losers as More Businesses Hang Up on Voice Mail
Voice mail is dying — has been for years, apparently. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. announced last week that it’s hanging up on voice mail for tens of thousands of workers in its consumer banking division.
Too pricey at $10 a month per line, the bank says, and unnecessary in an age of smartphones, texts and emails.
Chase is following in the footsteps of Coca-Cola, which ditched voice mail for its employees last year. Other big companies are expected to continue the trend.
It’s inevitable that the technologies of the 20th century will give way to those of the 21st. Communication will reflect the needs of a society that is increasingly tethered to digital devices.
But the playing field now clearly favors the business world, which can dictate the terms of any conversation with customers. That can exacerbate your frustration if you’ve got an issue to resolve.
“If you have a problem, you want to be expressive,” said Jonathan Barsky, an associate professor of marketing at the University of San Francisco. “Voice mail allows you to do that. If you’re just texting or sending an email, you’re taking the emotional component out.”
Worse, he said, an inability to connect with another person, even by voice mail, may discourage some consumers from seeking help.
“That’s not what any business wants,” Barsky said. “You want people to complain. You want to solve problems.”
I found stories going back several years that warned of the impending demise of voice mail. A 2013 article in the Harvard Business Review concluded that “the truly productive have effectively abandoned voicemail” and that use of such Jurassic technologies “signals enterprise laziness and complacency.”
But when a corporation of Chase’s size and clout decides to pull the plug, it appears that a corner has been turned and that the business world is increasingly comfortable with the idea that leaving a phone message is just so 1985.
Chase says it won’t rush to shut down voice mail for many of its workers who deal directly with consumers, so it may be months before bank customers experience a recording that says your only way of making contact is online.
But that day almost certainly will come.
Timothy Black, 51, a Newport Beach, Calif., lawyer, told me that he had real problems with American Airlines after a flight to New York was canceled and his travel plans fell apart. Bookings for hotels and rental cars soared in price, and luggage went missing.
Black said that when he tried to contact the airline to complain, he couldn’t get a number for American’s customer relations department.
“If you call reservations, they tell you to go to the Web and send an email,” he said. “They’re making it as difficult as possible to communicate with them.”
I tried it myself. I called American’s “general inquiries” number and, after about 20 minutes on hold, was told that if I wanted to complain about a recent flight, I’d need to contact customer relations online.
“They know you’ll only spend a certain amount of time trying to get a few hundred dollars back,” Black said. “Most people would just give up — and I’m sure that’s what they want.”
Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the airline, told me that keeping such conversations digital allows American “to respond to customers in the most expeditious way possible.”
“On average,” he said, “American responds directly to the customer within two to three business days.”
Good enough for you? Me, neither.
First of all, what if you need to speak with someone right away? What if you’re stranded somewhere and need help? Two to three business days just isn’t going to cut it.
Moreover, there’s something cathartic about speaking your mind, even to an answering machine. You want your frustration or desperation to be heard. You want to think that someone, somewhere, is playing back your message and thinking, “Wow, that person sounds really upset.”
Steve Blank, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University, said consumers will have to adapt to changing times.
Younger people already prefer digital communications, he said, and most businesses will change how they operate to meet the needs of tomorrow’s consumers.
“Voice mail in its current form is breathing its last,” Blank said.
Any business that uses an Internet-based phone system won’t pay extra for voice mail. But from a purely operational standpoint, Blank is correct: Voice mail is evolving.
I asked Alex Quilici what we can expect from answering machines of the future. He’s chief executive of Irvine’s YouMail, maker of an app that’s touted as a digital personal assistant capable of managing both phone and text messages.
Quilici said voice mail won’t go away entirely. It’ll just get smarter — sort of like having a robot answering the phone and checking email on your behalf.
“Eventually, a lot of your communications will have a robot handling them,” he said.
That’s probably accurate.
But suddenly I’m thinking about 2001, The Terminator, Westworld and Battlestar Galactica.
Robots aren’t always our friends.
David Lazarus, a Los Angeles Times columnist, writes on consumer issues. He can be reached at david.lazaruslatimes.com.