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Telephony is Disrupted Because Voice No Longer Matters… (As Much)

Dan York

Does "voice" communication really matter as much today in business communications?

Think about it. When you need to reach someone today, what do you do? Do you call them on the phone? Or do you send them email? Or a text message? or IM?

I know personally that my normal communication flow usually goes something like this:

  1. Instant Messaging - I check first to see if I can reach the person on some form of IM. For me, I usually use Skype, GoogleTalk or WLM/MSN, although I do have accounts on other services as well. I use IM because I can see the presence of the other person. If they are online and available, I'll shoot them a message. Sometimes the question may be dealt with entirely within an IM exchange. Other times I use the IM chat as the precursor to initiating a voice call, i.e. "Ping… do you have time for a call?"
  2. SMS - If the matter is relatively important and I want to talk to someone, I might send an SMS next to their cell phone, again often to see
  3. E-mail/Facebook/Twitter/other - Unless the matter is really urgent, the next mode I'll use is some form of "asynchronous" communication. Previously that would have just been email, but these days I find myself very often sending messages via Facebook or Twitter.
  4. Phone Call - If I can't reach someone any other way I'll pick up the phone and call someone… and typically wind up leaving a voicemail message

Now, this flow changes if something is urgent. I believe voice is still critical when you have something to convey that might have emotional undertones (ex. negative feedback on a project that might be misconstrued in email) or when you really need answers right now on some matter. If I have to urgently get in touch with someone, the flow is usually more like:

  1. IM - Check the person's presence and try to get in touch with them.
  2. Phone call - Call the person via cell phone or a service like Skype.
  3. SMS - If, as usual, I had to leave a message, I may send an SMS to the person's cell phone.
  4. E-mail/Facebook/Twitter/other - I may followup with an email asking the person to call me.

Why don't I just start out using the phone? Really for the reason I mentioned above:

whenever I call someone I almost inevitably wind up leaving a voicemail message.

I don't remember the statistic from the messaging presentations I attended, but I seem to recall the stat being that something like 80% of phone calls wind up going to voicemail. The reality is that most of us aren't usually available to take phone calls.

Presence can help us with this. Many of the "unified communications" solutions out there have the ability to give you "telephony presence" information, i.e. is the person on the phone or not. This can help avoid the case of your phone call going to voicemail because the person is busy on the phone. (It does not help with case of the person sitting there at his/her desk not on the phone but not wanting to take the phone call.) So we can know not to initiate the call and to use some other mechanism. (such as IM'ing them "can you call me when you are done?")

Now I recognize that I'm often in the early-adopter/bright-shiny-object-chaser category, but in watching colleagues at work and how they communicated, I saw the same pattern play out. IM or Email ruled for most all communication, with IM taking an increasingly larger role. Voice was somewhere farther down in the list of communication modes.

So what does that mean for those of us in the world of telephony? I'll suggest the following:

  1. Presence is critical. We want to know if we can reach someone and how: IM? voice? mobile/cell? video? Communication systems must have presence capability.
  2. Multi-modal communication is key. Communication systems should let us seamlessly flow between modes of communication. I should be able to start off in IM, move to a voice call, continuing using IM to pass along URLs, files, etc., potentially add video or web/data collaboration, and then when the voice/video/datasharing call is over, the IM channel still lives on as a way to send any follow-ups. Naturally, we need to have presence information over all those modes.
  3. Context is important. If I am in a meeting, I may only want to be reached via IM. Or may only want to be reached by certain people. I want to be able to specify who can reach me when and by which mode of communication. There are a whole number of companies playing in this space right now, trying to solve this particular beast.
  4. The bar has been lowered for new entrants. If voice is now just one of many modes of communication, and an often lower-priority one at that, it follows that newer entrants into the communication space don't need to care as much about voice. They don't need the x-hundred features of traditional telephony solutions. Due to the degree to which mobile phones have lowered our expectations around audio quality, they don't even have to be as worried about that traditional concern. (Nor even reliability — look how quickly Skype recovered after their two-day outage!)

This last point is to me why I think we are seeing so much disruption happening within the world of telephony. The fact that voice is no longer quite as critical gives us the freedom to explore how it can be used in different ways. Plus, we need to answer the question — if voice isn't the most critical way to communicate, what is? How do we integrate it all together?

What do you think? What is your communication flow? What do you use as the first way to reach someone? Do you pick up the phone? Or do you IM? or email? Do you agree that voice is less important than it once was for regular communication? What lessons do you think we need to draw from that? 

By Dan York, Author and Speaker on Internet technologies. Dan is employed as a Senior Content Strategist with the Internet Society but opinions posted on CircleID are entirely his own. Visit the blog maintained by Dan York here.

Related topics: Mobile, P2P, Telecom, VoIP

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