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Escaping Email and 
Voice Mail Jail 

by Dianna Booher


A year ago last May, I phoned an editor of a previous book of mine to discuss a complex permissions issue regarding the use of a section of the book in a software product. Instead of a live editor, I reached a recording of Editor Beth in Boston.

May 2: Editor Beth's voice mail informs me she is on vacation and will return in two weeks. I leave her a message asking for a return call.

May 17: I phone again. The same voice mail message greets me. I leave a second message.

May 22: Still no word from Editor Beth. I phone again, bypassing her recording and opting to speak to a live receptionist, Nancy. Nancy informs me that Beth is no longer working out of that office. Nancy gives me another phone number for Beth's back-up, Tony, "who now handles permissions." I phone Beth's back-up, Tony, who also has a recorded message. I leave another complete message.

May 29: No word from Tony. I phone again and receive Tony's recording that it's May 17 and that he's out traveling. That recording gives me a number for Tony's back-up, Don. I phone Don's number, where I get a recorded menu, telling me to direct all calls about permissions to Lorenzo at the New York office. I dial Lorenzo in New York and reach a recorded voice that says he's traveling for the next two weeks.

June 19: No return call. I phone Lorenzo again. A recorded message tells me to call Donna as his back-up. I phone Donna. She states that she has no idea how to handle anything with regard to permissions. She gives me another number in Boston for Harriet. I phone Harriet and reach a recording that tells me all matters relating to their books should be referred to Lorenzo, Philip, or to Ruth in New York, depending on the pertinent issue. I phone Philip and Ruth just for good measure, reaching the voice mail of both. Both of those people call me back to say they don't know why someone gave me their number, that they have nothing at all to do with that line of books.

July 7: No return call from Lorenzo. I phone Editor Beth's back-up, Nancy, just for the heck of it. Nancy tells me that indeed Beth is once again handling permissions since the company has been right-sized, but that Beth is now on vacation. I leave a complete message on Beth's recorder, asking for a call-back-from her, Tony, Lorenzo, Donna, Harriet, just someone live who knows what's going on.

July 21: No return call. I redial everyone's phone number that I've collected in the previous three months (now numbering nine). At each number I receive a recorded message.

August 7: No return call. I write to the General Counsel at headquarters, stating that I intend to reclaim rights to the material in question within ten days if someone-recorded or live-doesn't make contact.

August 14: I receive an overnight letter from the General Counsel, telling me to cool my heels, that someone will be in touch with me shortly to discuss the matter.

August 21: A letter granting the permission I had requested three months earlier in May arrives-signed by Editor Beth.

I become admittedly disconcerted over this and similar voice mail traumas. But am I the only one? I think not. Recently, while attending one of our customer training programs, an employee of a Fortune 10 company brought to class a complaint letter addressed to the company's president. The writer of the letter detailed an incident, similar to mine, after having dialed an 800 number published in The Wall Street Journal. He suggested that his inability to reach a live salesperson could account for the fall in the company's stock prices over the past two years.

For sanity's sake, consider these tips before locking others into an endless loop. 

If you're the one leaving a recorded greeting in your absence, keep your greeting brief, current, and informative. And make sure your back-up staff knows that calls will be directed to them on your behalf!

As the caller, before you dial, assume that you will reach a recording and be prepared with a succinct summary and request for action. Edit the details. Leave rambling for the tumbleweeds. Give your name and number at the beginning of the call and again at the end of your succinct message. Articulate the number so that it doesn't all run together in rapid-fire delivery.

In addition to the voice mail madness that seems to be sweeping the nation, email messaging can also become an abysmal pit of pressure to respond-from the trivial to the urgent. The typical participants in our business and technical writing classes tell me that they receive from five to 60 emails each day. Choices? Delete, file, or print out. We're back to the desktop stack trays piled high with printed email.

Before email habits victimize more human beings, please consider passing along these tips to the guilty:

  • Use informative subject lines so readers can determine priority. If you need action, state it in the subject line. 

  • Use the conventions of upper and lower case and punctuation. (They make reading easier on the eye, and deciphering endings, beginnings, and acronyms is time-consuming.)

  • Think before you write, not as you write. Buried messages with irrelevant details are no more appropriate in email than in hard copy.

  • Remember that humor or tongue-in-cheek remarks rarely go over in black and white. That's why humor writers make big bucks for short copy.

  • Allow cool-off time before you zap someone with a hostile, cynical, or whiny note. You may come to regret reflex mail at performance appraisal time, during a job-hunting season, or in the face of later sales opportunities.

Should you get caught in email or voice mail jail, bang on the bars until someone hears you. Technology is here to stay. What's disappearing fast is personal communication.

Dianna Booher is CEO of Booher Consultants, a Dallas-based communications firm.  She speaks on communication (writing, oral presentations, interpersonal, customer service communications, gender, listening, meetings, conflict) and life balance/productivity.  She has published 40 books, including E-Writing: 21st-Century Tools for Effective Communication  (Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books), Communicate with Confidence! (McGraw-Hill), and Get a Life Without Sacrificing Your Career (McGraw-Hill).  For information on Dianna's keynotes and workshops call 352-438-0261 email [email protected] or visit www.ExpertSpeaker.com/Speaker/booher.htm 

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