How Voice Mail Works

Voice mail allows business professionals access to messages -- even when they're away from the office.
Voice mail allows business professionals access to messages -- even when they're away from the office.
© Photographer: Dreamstime | Agency: Dreamstime

A call to any business or home used to mean one of three things -- an answer, a busy signal or endless, unanswered ringing.

Increasingly, it now means an encounter with voice mail.


First introduced to the world in the 1970s, voice messages have become a routine part of everyone's day, if not the most common electronic message system used. At work, on your cell phone and at home, almost everyone has at least one voice mail account, and sometimes more than one.

Voice mail providers vary widely, using different approaches and equipment to achieve essentially the same goal: a convenient messaging service for phone users. Such companies provide office voice mail, cell phone voice mail and home voice mail services.

Voice mail once ruled the world in terms of electronic messaging. It's now one of several popular methods of leaving and retrieving important -- and sometimes not so important -- messages for friends, family and business associates. One trend in electronic messaging these days deals with tying all these systems -- voice mail, e-mail, instant messaging -- into integrated systems aimed at keeping users constantly in touch.

However, voice mail started it all, making it possible for people to instantly pass detailed information from one party to another without directly speaking to them. And the old standby has evolved and improved, remaining relevant and popular even during these times of overnight communication revolutions.

In this article, we'll talk about what voice mail is, along with the types of voice mail. We'll also discuss using voice mail, including setting up and using voice mail accounts as well as the future of voice mail.

What is Voice Mail?

Voice mail was introduced in the 1970s predominantly for business professionals.
Voice mail was introduced in the 1970s predominantly for business professionals.
© Photographer: Yanik Chauvin | Agency: Dreamstime

Voice mail was introduced in the late 1970s. Gordon Mathews founded a company called VMX in 1979. VMX stood for "voice mail express," and Mathews received a U.S. patent for his digital invention in 1982. VMX was the first voice mail provider service, its first client being 3M. The system recorded and managed messages using the digital technology available during the late 1970s and 1980s. Some companies still use their VMX systems.

Voice mails are essentially digital recordings of outgoing and incoming voice messages that are managed either by an on-site or off-site system. Some users purchase systems that are operated and managed either by its own employees or on a contract basis with another company. Home-based users, such as home telephone and cell phone users, often use an off-site service, such as their phone service provider, for voice mail accounts. Others, however, purchase software that allows their PC to become an electronic message system.




Voice mail systems make phone systems more powerful and flexible by allowing conversations and information to pass between parties, even when both aren't present. In a work setting, customers and business people rely upon voice mail, both for leaving and sending messages. Outgoing messages, for instance, are the messages people use to greet those who call their line. The outgoing message can tell a caller whose line they've reached, when that person might return and to leave a message. The caller, armed with this information, can leave a detailed message that's most appropriate for his or her needs.

Voice mail typically is integrated with the on-site phone system, allowing both inside and outside users to utilize many features. Such features include off-site access to messages, paging and urgent message delivery, among many others.

As in the phone systems of old, many voice mail systems today come with an "operator." The difference is these operators aren't human, they're auto-attendants. Auto attendants guide users, both those from the inside and the outside, through the many options a voice-mail system has to offer. It instructs users how to enter commands through the phone's keypads, such as how to retrieve a message.

On the next page, we'll talk about the different types of voice mail.

Types of Voice Mail

When messages are left, a prompt like this mailbox show up, alerting the user.
When messages are left, a prompt like this mailbox show up, alerting the user.
© Photographer: Brent Hathaway | Agency: Dreamstime

There are several types of voice mail systems available. Such systems are designed to function differently based on who's using them and where, what equipment and software is used, and who's providing the phone message services.

In general, two major systems include ones based on PC technology and proprietary systems using equipment specially designed and supplied by a voice-mail provider.


PC-based systems can be run using standard computers and servers. Such equipment can be modified to include voice board circuitry and additional plug-ins for phone lines or other equipment. These systems also include specialized software that integrates incoming and outgoing phone messages.

Service-provided voice mail systems use hardware that's specially built by the company. Such proprietary systems can be customized from the ground up for the type of business it will serve. They can be more expensive than PC-based systems because of their custom nature.

Other types of voice mail systems are available. While they each share some commonalities, there are important differences between them.

Residential voice mail, for instance, refers to voice-mail systems for the home. Generally these serve landlines and may include one or more "mailboxes" in which incoming callers can leave messages. In such systems, one mailbox typically acts as the main one, from which users can enter commands. Such systems can be based off-site with a service company or on-site with the resident's home computer. Users generally record a greeting and dial a special number and enter a password to retrieve messages. Cell phone voice mail works much the same way, except that it's based on wireless technology exclusively.

Business voice mail and office voice mail can be based on- or off-site, using PC or proprietary equipment. Such systems operate multiple mailboxes and generally have an automated attendant that guides both internal and outside users through commands to leaving and retrieving messages.

On the next page, we'll talk more about using voice mail.

Using Voice Mail

Many cell phone providers include voice mail as part of a service plan.
Many cell phone providers include voice mail as part of a service plan.
Photographer: Eastwest Imaging | Agency: Dreamstime

As with most communications technology, simplicity of use is a must with voice mail. Early systems were complicated and cumbersome, which meant only the largest corporations could afford to buy and maintain them. PC-based systems and the plethora of service providers changed that. Now it's easy to use a voice message system, whether it's residential voice mail, cell phone voice mail or office voice mail.

Using voice mail, for the incoming caller, is as easy as dialing a phone number and speaking. After dialing, the party's phone will ring or, if prearranged, the call will be sent straight into voice mail. Once there, the caller will be instructed how to leave a message by the person's outgoing message.


A typical outgoing message might go something like this: "Hello, you've reached the voice mail box of John Smith. I'll be out of the office until Monday. Please leave me a message after the tone including your phone number, and I'll call you back when I return."

Such a message gives the caller important information, including when Mr. Smith will be back in the office, and therefore when the caller might expect a call back. Most voice mail systems allow internal users to constantly update their outgoing message.

Some voice mail systems allow callers to page the person by pressing a number on their phone keypad. The auto-attendant will advise the caller of this option, as well as instructing the caller to stay on the phone for further options once they've finished recording a message. Such options might include assigning a delivery priority to one's message, ranging from normal to urgent delivery. Urgent delivery might be set up to automatically send a page, text message or e-mail to the internal user, advising them of the message's nature.

For the internal user, using voice mail usually involves setting up a "mailbox" or account, entering certain keypad commands, recording outgoing messages (some systems allow the user to record both internal and external outgoing messages or greetings) and retrieving messages.

Setting up a mailbox creates a space for your messages on the server. It opens a file where your digital messages can be stored. You often also create and enter a pass code, so that only you or someone whom you authorize can listen to or manipulate your voicemail box.

Keypad commands include features such as forwarding messages, archiving messages, deleting messages and replying to messages.

Users can retrieve messages at their usual work station or home, or remotely using a special phone number and pass code or through their computer. Such procedures vary by provider.

Some services provide fax detection, which automatically detects when a number is accessed by a fax machine. When this happens, the service may automatically disconnect the call or redirect to a fax machine if one exists. The recipient can then download those saved fax messages to another fax machine, forward them or save them.

Other providers offer a question-and-response service, whereby the mailbox owner can program his mailbox to ask questions and record responses. This system could be used, for instance, to provide round-the-clock service that will help organize information while you're out of the office.

On the next page, we'll talk about setting up and using voice mail accounts.

Setting Up and Using Voice Mail Accounts

Setting up voice mail is simple -- it just involves following the automated attendant's prompts.
Setting up voice mail is simple -- it just involves following the automated attendant's prompts.
© Photographer: Norman Pogson | Agency: Dreamstime

Setting up your voice-mail account is easy, with intuitive software and auto-attendants ready to walk you through the process with commands and choices.

Here's a typical example of the steps to follow when setting up and using voice mail accounts.


  1. Dial the phone number to access voice mail system.
  2. Follow the auto-attendant's instructions to create a numeric pass code, usually four to six numbers.
  3. Follow the auto-attendant's instructions to record an outgoing message, also known as a "greeting."
  4. Follow the auto-attendant's instructions to take advantage of other features, such as forwarding message, paging and auto fax pick up.

Cell phone voice mail, residential voice mail and office voice mail all work in a similar fashion. Usually the process starts with dialing a main number. The number puts the user into the front-end interface of the voice-mail provider. Often the auto-attendant will prompt the user for a mailbox number, which usually is the same as the user's personal phone number, but not always. It will ask for a numeric pass code of some type. If you don't have one, it will prompt you to create and enter a new one. Usually people choose a number that's easy to remember, but not too obvious. A favorite number, the birth date of a parent or friend are examples. Whatever you choose, it's important to safeguard it to protect your privacy and identity.

Once into a system, the first thing you'll want to do is record a greeting. Your greeting is what people will hear when you're not there to answer the phone, therefore your greeting is very important.

Often, the system auto-attendant will prompt you to record a greeting. It may ask you to press a series of key pads to do so. Follow the directions closely. Think about what you'd like to say and the way you'd like to say it. Both what you say and your tone of voice are important. Speak clearly and cheerfully. Include your first and last name, your job title and company. Give short, simple instructions for leaving a message. Tell people when they can expect to hear back from you. Updating your greeting frequently can let callers know that this is a vibrant, active voice mail mailbox and leaving a message will not be an exercise in futility.

Some systems allow you to leave both an external greeting, meant for the public, outside caller, and an internal greeting, meant for your co-workers. Think carefully about how to approach each. You may choose to include information for an internal greeting that you wouldn't for an external greeting. Still, both messages should be short, clear and respectful.

Some voice-mail systems offer many other options for users, including paging, auto fax pickup and ways to integrate voice mail with other electronic communications such as e-mail and text messaging. You should consult your auto-attendant or user manual to take advantage of such features. You might also consider how much electronic messaging technology you need to do your job effectively.

Residential and cell phone voice mail works in largely the same way. Set up your mailbox, select a pass code and record a greeting. Personal voice mail and office or business voice mail can provide a valuable service.

On the next page, we'll talk about the advantages that voice mail offers over the traditional answering machine.

Voice Mail vs. Answering Machines

Voice mail offers many more user-friendly options than answering machines.
Voice mail offers many more user-friendly options than answering machines.
Photographer: Pablo Eder | Agency: Dreamstime

Voice mail offers many communications advantages over answering machines, including the ability for users to check their messages remotely.

With the traditional answering machine, the user must be in the same place -- often literally standing nearby -- at the machine to retrieve their messages. The machine replays an analog or digital recording of a message, to which the user can listen by pressing a button.


Voice mail users, however, can listen to their messages anywhere using any phone -- landline or cell -- by calling a central number that lets them access their account. After calling the number, the user can enter their numeric access code to gain entry to their messages.

The advantages of voice mail over answering machines don't stop there, however. Voice mail also offers better security and privacy because of the numeric access code. Without the code, you can't listen to voice mail messages. With an answering machine, you need only push a button.

Also, voice mail offers more options for managing messages by using simple keypad commands to access various functions. For instance, a user can forward messages, sending a copy to one or more additional voice mail boxes operated by those who also might need to hear the message. Often, voice mail communications systems allow the primary recipient to record an introductory message when forwarding other messages, allowing the user to set up the context of the incoming message for the additional recipients.

Voice mail users can easily save, delete and archive messages, again using simple keypad entries. Voice mail systems often also incorporate caller ID features, such as the number from which the message originated, as well as the date and time of the call. In some cases, users can then choose to instantly reply to a message, especially if the person who left the message has a voice mail box on the same system as the recipient. Some voice mail systems also offer callers the option of paging the message recipient or delivering a message with an "urgent" protocol, both of which help the user receive important information faster.

Whether it's for business, home or cell phones, it's easy to see the many advantages voice mail offers for digital communications over the answering machine.

On the next page, we'll talk about the future of voice mail. 

The Future of Voice Mail

Voice-mail systems allow users to access messages -- even from other phones.
Voice-mail systems allow users to access messages -- even from other phones.
© Photographer: Franc Podgorsek | Agency: Dreamstime

Might voice mail one day read a caller's emotions to give the message recipient a heads-up? Could software and hardware come together to form unified communication systems that integrate all messaging technologies and put them at your fingertips?

The answer is yes, and such future voice mail technical advances are already in development.


Voice mail systems already are getting involved in politics, giving people the option of placing a campaign commercial on their voice mail greeting so whenever callers go to voice mail they're solicited to vote for a candidate. The greeting can be set to play for select friends or anyone from the receiver's address book who calls.

Many voice message service providers are focused on unifying the various electronic communications systems into integrated systems. Voice mail -- office voice mail, cell phone voice mail and residential voice mail -- will undoubtedly play a big role in that future.

Other technologies are focused on recognizing emotions in the voices of those who leave messages on their voice mail systems. One system, called Emotive Alert, has been under development at the University of Massachusetts Institute of Technology for several years.

The system allows users to decide which messages are the most urgent, helping them cut through the glut of electronic communications and be more efficient. It could learn to recognize basic moods, such as urgent, happy, formal or excited by chewing on variables such as speech rate and volume comparing it with a database and spitting out an opinion.

As communication systems become more integrated, it's a sure thing voice mail will remain part of the mix. After all, it deals in that most primal type of human communication -- speech, digitizes it and feeds it into the electronic world we live and work in today. Voice mail, one of the first high-tech messaging systems, is here to stay.

For more information about voice mail and related topics, check out the links on the next page.