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Take Back the Beep: How to save time and money while leaving voice mails

1:34 AM, Feb 3, 2012   |    comments
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We've all heard those automated voice mail instructions before. They usually play after someone's personal greeting. They're several seconds long and pass along some crucial information like, "Please, leave a message after the tone. When you're finished recording you may hang up or press one for more options."

Has any one really ever pressed one for more options? What are those options any way?

10News looked in to this and found out that all that time people are spending waiting to leave a message counts against their minutes and costs them money.

Some East Tennesseans we spoke with found this surprising and had no clue they were getting charged. Others didn't seem too bothered by it. But it turned out many other people thought the automated messages are annoying.

"You know what you have to do. They've already given you a message, so you leave a message. You don't need them to tell you and use up time and money," said Knoxville resident Will Skelton.

As we dug in to this, we found those people weren't alone.

More than two years ago, New York Times tech columnist David Pogue launched a cell phone crusades of sorts, "Take Back the Beep."

"I was becoming increasingly annoyed with the answering machine message you hear when you call someone's cell phone that gives you all these painfully obvious instructions, like you may begin speaking at the tone. We've had answering machines for 45 years," Pogue said.

Pogue did the math to estimate how much it's worth for that robot voice to annoy you. He used Verizon Wireless as an example. By his calculations in 2009, those automated messages could have made Verizon as much as $852,092,500 that year.

Back then, Verizon had 70 million customers, and automated messages lasted around 15 seconds. Pogue used Verizon's $59.99/900-minute monthly plan, which comes out to 6.67 cents a minute.

Assuming people check their voice mail twice a day, here's his formula: 70 million users * (6.67 cents * 0.5 [time listening to instructions]) * 365 days = $852,092,500.

Since Pogue's call to action, some of the major carriers have listened.

"AT&T cut their 15 second message in half. They eliminated the prompts for faxing, paging," Pogue said.

"Sprint said that they already had a menu option that lets each Sprint customer make it optional. The just never told anybody."

"Then there was T-mobile, who said we'll investigate this the next time we update our voicemail system software, which could be the year 2050 for all we know," Pogue said.

But he notes that he didn't get any response from Verizon.

While the automated instructions are shorter, there are also more wireless customers. 10News decided to updated Pogue's formula estimate.

According to Verizon's 4Q 2011 earnings report, the cell phone carrier has 92.2 million customers. We timed out its current automated instructions, which average about 7 seconds in length. We used the same $59.99/900-minute monthly plan that Pogue originally used for his estimation. Even with shorter automated messages, the potential total still comes out to $561,163,755 in one year.

Here's how we calculated it: 92.2 million customers * (6.67 cents * 0.25 [time listening to instructions]) *365 days = $561,163,775.

Of course, that number is theoretical. In practice, many people don't use all their minutes every month, so it costs them nothing. But no matter what the actual number is, it's still money made off of your annoyance.

We did reach out to the major carriers and most said they keep those automated messages for user convenience. Still, many users we talked to think its an inconvenience.

So how can you beat the system? For each carrier, there's a key you can press to bypass the automated instructions and get straight to the beep:

Sprint: # for most devices

AT&T: 1 or #, depends on make and model of phone

Verizon: *       

T-Mobile: Pogue said #, but a T-Mobile representative told 10News users cannot bypass the voicemail greeting

But with different keystrokes for different carriers, it can sometimes be confusing for the caller.

"Of course, it's not always the same key. So the problem is, that you as the caller are expected to know which cell phone service your callee uses. And there's no way for you to know that," Pogue said.

We did find some instructions for suggestions on how to turn off the automated instructions all together for Sprint users.

But as technology changes, users do too.

"It's a cultural shift. Young people really don't do voicemail. For them, this is all moot. They just look at the call log and they see that they've missed you," Pogue said.

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