Firms hang up on voice mail

Con­sumers will be the losers when their only way of mak­ing con­tact is on­line

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - DAVID LAZARUS David Lazarus’ col­umn runs Tues­days and Fri­days. he also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Chan­nel 5 and fol­lowed on Twit­ter @David­laz. Send your tips or feed­back to david.lazarus@la­times.com.

Con­sumers will be the losers when their only way of mak­ing con­tact is on­line, David Lazarus writes.

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 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 UC 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 You Mail, 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.

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