Save Time: Dial In to Voicemail Transcription

By Joseph Moran | Posted May 14, 2009

On any given day that mobile phone on your hip (or wherever you happen to keep it) probably rings at any number of inopportune times — when you’re in a meeting, racing a deadline to finish a task, or just trying to take a few minutes to gobble down your lunch.

You can send the call to voicemail, but it just means one more message to sift through later (when you’ll likely be just as busy).  The term “voice jail” usually refers to callers trapped while trying to reach someone, but it’s also applies to anyone forced to constantly check voice messages lest something (or someone) important be kept waiting.

Imagine if you were required to open every piece of paper mail you got -- in exact order in which you pulled them out of the mailbox. That’s pretty much the way most voicemail systems work-- with the exception of the iPhone – which makes checking messages an inefficient and time-consuming process.

Look, Don’t Listen

Voicemail transcription, sometimes referred to as voicemail-to-text, tames the time-consuming linear nature of traditional voicemail messages. Instead of spending your time-- and maybe your wireless plan minutes, too-- dialing into your voice mailbox, voicemail transcription lets messages come to you as text; via e-mail, SMS, or both. With voicemail transcription you can read your voice messages instead of listening to them, and you get to deal with them in any order you want, rather than just sequentially.

Some mobile carriers offer voicemail transcription an optional feature, but there are also number of independent firms, including CallWave, PhoneTag (formerly Simulscribe), PhoneWire and YouMail, offer it as a service you can use no matter which mobile provider or phone you use. SpinVox also offers a voicemail transcription service, but in the U.S. you can only get it through Alltel (now owned by Verizon) or bundled with other services from UReach. Voicemail transcription’s also a big part of the recently-launched Google Voice (nee GrandCentral), which is still in closed beta and not yet available to the public.

How it Works

The recent proliferation of voicemail transcription services is mainly the result of advances in speech-recognition technology and the low cost of computing resources -- like the disk space and processing power needed to analyze and store messages. Transcription service providers generally aim to convert voice messages into text with little or no human intervention through the use of sophisticated recognition software.  

The technology isn’t quite foolproof though, so some services also have humans standing by to help transcribe the messages, or parts of messages, that the computer can’t handle. For its part, PhoneWire’s “people powered” transcription service avoids speech recognition technology, saying that human beings are better able to deal with things like audio gaps, heavy accents and background noise.  

We haven’t used PhoneWire’s service, but we recently tried the ones from YouMail and SpinVox and were impressed with how well they worked. There are a few things that can throw transcription technology a curve ball-- homophones (mail, male) and initialisms (CEO, HTML) especially-- but we never had a situation where we were left scratching our head wondering what the heck the caller was talking about.

Even if a transcribed message does turn out to be unintelligible, you can still call in when necessary to listen to the actual message. Many of the services also give you the option of receiving the message as an MP3 e-mail attachment.

What it Costs

Voicemail transcription service for your mobile phone can cost anywhere from a couple of bucks a month to a couple hundred, depending on the level of service. Some providers charge by the minute or by the message, and YouMail has several sub-$10 “Saver” plans that transcribe only the first 10 to 15 seconds of a message. Given that it employs real people rather than computers, PhoneWire’s service is one of the priciest; though prices start at $29.99 a month, its high-end plan costs a whopping $199 a month.

Aside from the transcription service fee, you should consider other costs such as the price of a mobile data plan if you don’t already have one (otherwise you can only read your messages from a PC). You also need to factor in how much your carrier charges for text messages—remember that they’re limited to 160 characters; long voice mails may require several texts to transcribe fully.   

Convenience and Caution

One of voicemail transcription big conveniences is that once you’ve got a message in text form you can forward it to one or more co-workers. The flip side is that it potentially allows for the wide distribution of messages to unintended recipients. That’s why the decision to forward a voicemail should always be made with discretion, and anyone leaving a voice mail these days should consider the possibility that his or her message may be heard or seen by people other than the intended recipient.

Cost and etiquette issues aside, voicemail-to-text service can be a real productivity enhancer that any mobile professional should consider.

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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