Five Tips to Escape Voice Mail Jail and Reach the Person You Want

"I'm away from my desk right now. Please leave a message after the tone."

Anybody who works in the U.S. is all too familiar with (and usually frustrated by!) how difficult it has become to reach a live person by phone. Today, most U.S. executives barricade themselves behind high-tech phone systems and caller ID. Bombarded by messages from all directions, they feel little obligation to respond to in-bound calls from people they don't know.

This is especially hard for Japanese business people, who come from a culture where many companies still answer the phone in person. I recently talked to a Japanese company that had diligently researched scores of potential clients, with the hope of arranging a few days of in-person meetings. After days of leaving messages and sending e-mails, the team was able to arrange only four appointments.

Fortunately, by following a few simple approaches, you can learn to navigate around these gatekeeping systems and even reach people that you are calling cold.

First, find the best path to your contact. If possible, get a personal introduction or reference from somebody who knows the prospect. Social networking websites like LinkedIn and Facebook are exceptional tools for finding mutual acquaintances.

Lacking a personal connection, you can also catch a prospect's attention by mentioning your relationship with somebody he or she would know, such as a competitor or industry resource.

Second, use multiple channels, beginning with electronic approaches. Most business people view email, text messages, and social network messages more quickly and often than voicemail. A brief introductory email can help provide enough background that the contact will schedule a time to talk or pick up the phone when you call.

Third, strive to reach the person live. Call multiple times before leaving a message. Call early in the morning and after office hours, and try both land and mobile numbers. If you can reach an assistant, ask his or her advice about the best time to call. If you can't seem to reach anybody, try calling the sales department and asking for help. (Salespeople will generally answer the phone on the chance that it is a customer.)

Fourth, craft a short, well-worded message – and write it down ahead of time. The goal is to capture the contact's interest and create a chance to speak further – not tell them your life story. Messages that request someone's help, or that offer something of value are more likely to get answered. For example, you might mention that you've helped a company in the same industry achieve strong results, and would be glad to share some lessons learned.

Finally, if you must leave a message, minimize the friction for a response. Have a fluent English speaker call from a U.S. number, or, better yet, state the time you will be calling back, and make sure you call on schedule.

While these steps won't guarantee a response, they should help reduce your time in voice mail jail. One more thing – don't forget to prepare what to say once you get them on the line!

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