How Voice Mail Works

Using Voice Mail

girl looking at phone
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.