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Coke Cuts Voicemail: Sign of the Times, or Mistake?

This week, Coke scaled-back its voicemail system "to simplify the way we work and increase productivity." Yes, Coke has put its UC infrastructure on a diet. Ninety-four percent of the voicemail boxes were deleted. Now if you call one of those direct-dial numbers, you get a generic recording that suggests you call back later or use an alternative method of communications.

The official statement from Coke:

"Employees were given the option to turn off their voicemail systems at the Atlanta Office Complex and our Coca-Cola Technology Plaza, and only 6% opted to keep the voicemail. This action is aimed at streamlining preferences and simplifying systems, based on associate use and feedback.

"The main driver behind this project is not cost savings, it is changing the tools and methods in which we communicate as a company. Some savings will be realized through reduction of mailboxes and right sizing the platforms accordingly. We estimate the IT associated savings to be less than $100,000 per year."

"The main driver behind this project is not cost savings, it is changing the tools and methods in which we communicate as a company. Some savings will be realized through reduction of mailboxes and right sizing the platforms accordingly. We estimate the IT associated savings to be less than $100,000 per year."

Choose one:

A) Smart, progressive, reasonable?
B) Misguided, rude, WTF?

Let's take a look at A first.

Text-based communications are generally preferred by senders and receivers (with obvious exceptions like the visually impaired). We can generally read faster than we can hear. Many people hang-up and start typing upon hearing a voicemail greeting. In 2012, Vonage reported that the number of voicemail messages left on user accounts was down 8% year over year. Voicemail can indeed be tedious and disruptive. It's much preferable to scan a screen.

Coca-Cola's stated driver is to streamline and simplify, but that connection isn't explained.

Although explicitly stated that this was not a cost savings measure, Coke is under pressure. Evidently Americans are less thirsty. A summer article on Coke in Bloomberg reported:

"For decades, soft-drink companies saw consumption rise. During the 1970s, the average person doubled the amount of soda they drank; by the 1980s it had overtaken tap water. Americans are now drinking about 450 cans of soda a year, according to Beverage Digest, roughly the same amount they did in 1986."

Yes, call it obesity, diabetes, or just general health--evidently we are quenching our venti-sized thirst from other sources. Coke had previously announced that it would cut $3 billion in annual expenses by 2019. Why not start with voicemail?

Now, let's look at Option B.

By cutting 94% of the mailboxes, Coke claims it will save $100,000 per year (that's about 4 liters of insulin). It's also about .00333% of that annual expense savings target. You can realize more just by returning a percent or so more bottles in Maine.

$100k is vending-machine change, potentially because voicemail is standard in so many UC solutions. By eliminating it you could find some savings in admin, overhead, or even eliminating a server. But Coke didn't eliminate voicemail. They retained 6% of their voicemail boxes for "business critical" needs. So if the system is still there, that means administration and management is still there. It's not like you can skimp on those, particularly since it is now exclusively a business critical service.

Coke is telling us that it is ok to adjust lifestyle preferences with the times. Ironic.

But wait, there's still this productivity element. How much time do we waste going through voicemails every day? Probably not much. As stated above, voicemails are declining. For most of us, it's faster to read than listen. That's why IM, email, and other forms of textual messaging are increasing.

In other words, this is a self-mitigating non-problem. Voicemail is not a big drain on productivity (most of us waste much more time in email). However, voicemail tends to get used when it's the best or only option of communication. There are lots of situations where text-based communications are ineffective or inappropriate – including the desire not to give-out email addresses.

I tend to go with option B.

I do see the merit and potential of option A. Personally, I am not a big user of voicemail, but I do receive a few a week. I don't think it's any more reasonable for a major employer like Coke to tell its employees (and customers) how to communicate than it is for millennials to tell their employers to change their tools and workflow processes. Evolution seems to work pretty well without decrees and tantrums.

One of the big benefits of UC over the past few years is increased choice--IM, voice, video--home, office, mobile, soft client, and so on. Voicemail should be among the choices. Each user should have the ability to turn on/off the service as desired. Many of these single-number services get tripped up by multiple boxes, creating a game of hide the message. Making it easy to turn off selected boxes solves a lot of problems (personally, I forward unanswered calls on my cell to my UM server).

Voicemail isn't as critical as it once was, but it's still useful. It's nice to hear from loved ones, and voicemail isn't plagued by viruses or reply-alls. It's also showing signs of rebirth with video messaging, personal assistants, and advanced services. I'm not clear how eliminating an option for effective, rich communications streamlines.

Voicemail is generally paid-for and certainly inexpensive to buy and maintain. It is way better than a busy signal. For the record, busy signals are efficient and free--unlike Coke's outgoing "go-away" message (most likely played by the voicemail server).

Coke killing voicemail can be compared to removing the jack in your trunk. It's hardly used, and think of all that money you will save on gas with a lighter vehicle. It's irrefutable logic until....

Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.

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