10 tips for effective voice-mail messages

By Jeff Wuorio

Have you honed your skills at "elevator pitches" — that is, the quick sales pitches to influential executives or potential customers that could be pivotal to your business?

Voice mails are similar types of pitches worth becoming skilled at. Maybe a voice mail won't always make or break your business. Maybe it could just mean you have a partner for a weekend game of golf.

At any rate, you want to interest someone in calling you back.

And that's why, as an entrepreneur maximizing small business resources, it behooves you to make the most of voice mails—both in those you leave with others and in your voice-mail greetings to incoming callers.

Here are 10 strategies to make your voice mails more effective and, ultimately, more beneficial to your business.

First, tips on what to do when you're the one leaving the message.

1. Get to the purpose of your call. In this lightning-paced day and age, businesspeople can't afford a lot of time for ambling chitchat. Instead, when leaving a voice mail, make it plain upfront why you're calling. "Is it a call to action, to give an update, or are you just returning their call?" says Kathleen Rich-New, a Cape Canaveral, Fla.—based consultant. "Put the call in context so they know why they should return your call."

2. Put contact information up front as well. It's happened to every one of us—you retrieve a voice mail only to have the message cut off before it's finished. That happens. But minimize the damage by pushing critical information to the top. "I always say 'This is Margot Lester from the Word Factory' and give them my number," says Carrboro, N.C., writer Margot Carmichael Lester. "Then I say, 'Please call me back,' and I give them a deadline. That way, if the call drops, the most important information is conveyed."

3. Don't repeat what the system already knows. Sophisticated voice-mail systems will record the date and time of incoming phone calls. Don't waste time by repeating those in your message. Also, don't say your phone number more than once. If the recipient misses it, that's why rewind buttons were invented.

4. Get to know the person who's getting the message. If you know the person gets a ton of voice mails every day, don't bog down the system—and her patience — by leaving too many voice mails when a few better crafted ones will do the job just as well. "If it's your boss, just ask for guidance on how they like their messages," says Boston consultant David Williams.

5. Avoid trying to leave a message about numerous topics. Trying to cover a variety of complicated issues in one voice mail is nigh impossible. Instead, break them up into individual voice mails or, even better, opt for e-mail to do as thorough a job as possible of covering every topic of importance.

Now then, here are tips for your recorded voice-mail greetings.

1. Consider changing your greeting every day. This is particularly important if you keep in touch with people who need to know when you're available and when you're not. Few things create a more negative impression than an out-of-date greeting.

2. Offer specifics. A caller who hears that you're out of the office or away from your desk was likely able to figure that out on their own—after all, you're not answering the phone, are you? Instead, offer specific, helpful information, such as dates and times when you will be back or when you may be reached if the caller wants to try to call you again.

3. Encourage detailed messages. Ever get a voice mail saying that someone has important new information, and to get back with them ASAP? That isn't overly detailed—and may not be overly helpful to you, either. In your outgoing message, urge callers to leave as many specifics as they think are necessary. "That way, you can get back to them with all the needed information without playing phone tag and wasting a lot of their time and yours," says Karen Leland, author of Customer Service for Dummies.

4. Use humor and offbeat material with caution. As a rule, it's nice to make your outgoing message unique or memorable in its own way. But don't go overboard with risqué jokes or other material that may cross the line in some manner. While some callers may find that entertaining and clever, just as many may be put off by something they feel is in bad taste.

5. Always review your outgoing message! One common mistake that can lead to ineffective outgoing messages is a failure to actually listen to what you've just recorded. Every time you change your message, take a minute or two to critique it. Do you sound enthusiastic or bored? Do you include all the information that you need to and in the most effective order possible? If you're not satisfied, don't be gun-shy about re-recording your message. If need be, record it several times until what you have on tape is the sort of message you want to convey to whoever may be calling. That sort of attention to detail can make a big difference, particularly with first-time callers.

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