There’s been a lot of commentary in recent years about the demise of voice and how much more millennials in particular prefer texting to talking on the phone. In 2015 alone, Forbes, Business Insider, and Inc.com all published some version of the “millennials don’t like phone calls” story. And it’s not just millennials anymore: The Chicago Tribune ran an article this week titled “Americans Prefer Texting to Talking,” citing research from mobile data tracking firm Infomate.
It turns out reports of voice calling’s death are greatly exaggerated. According to CTIA, US mobile users made 2.46 trillion minutes of calls in 2014, down from 2013, but up considerably from 2008 levels. The volume of text messages rose slightly last year but was still down from its peak in 2012. Despite an explosion in data usage, voice calling remains a popular activity among mobile users.
A lot of those calls are going to local businesses. As CallRail reported in June 2014, SMBs across the U.S. and Canada experienced a whopping 24 percent increase in the number of inbound calls in a 12-month period. The trend is holding steady in quarter-over-quarter call volumes this year as well.
Across every industry surveyed — salons, auto repair shops, dentists, medical clinics, contractors, home improvement professionals, retail businesses, and more — call volumes have risen over the last two years. This increase in phone calls is critical for local businesses, as studies have shown that calls are 10 to 15 times more likely to convert to revenue than web forms or emails.
CallRail isn’t the only company observing this uptick in phone calls. BIA/Kelsey projects that business phone calls driven by mobile search will grow to 73 billion by 2018. As these numbers show, calls already are and will continue to be an important part of the mobile path to conversion.
So what’s behind the resurgence of the phone call in the age of mobile messaging and data usage?
More than ever, we expect instant answers to questions on our mobile devices. Unlike in decades past, more inbound phone calls now are originating on these devices. A Google study found that 70 percent of mobile searchers had used click-to-call technology to contact a business directly from search results. Over half (57 percent) of those who called said they did so because they wanted to talk to a live person. Local services was the most popular niche for click-to-call.
We’re calling for a variety of reasons, from finding out business hours or getting directions to a store to checking whether a particular product is in stock or to make a service appointment or reservation. Some of these tasks could be easily accomplished on the website; others, not so much. As it turns out, emails or online searches aren’t replacements for the phone call; they’re just supplements.
It’s clear that people are turning (back) to the phone to find answers. What’s less clear is why. The Google report poses one interesting theory. The top reason given for using click-to-call, chosen by 59 percent of respondents, was “to quickly get an answer/accomplish my goal.”
The current device-driven culture prioritizes instant access to information. Mobile searchers are starting to realize that sometimes — especially when it comes to local businesses that may not prioritize their web presence — the answer isn’t always online. Although social media may be a great way for consumers to vent their frustration with a brand, it’s not known for giving instant answers. Consumers who want quick replies are going back to the phone because they know they’ll get the information they want right away when they call a business.
The rise of the voice assistant also has gotten younger users accustomed to interacting with their devices by voice. For these users, it’s a short leap from asking Siri to check the bank’s hours or having Google Now find an eye doctor in their neighborhood to actually calling the service provider themselves.
Voice searches may excel at finding specific pieces of information, but a voice search can only retrieve something if it’s posted on a business’ website in the first place. When the online information is incomplete, a call becomes a way to bridge that gap quickly and efficiently.
A study commissioned by Google found that 55 percent of teens and 41 percent of adults use voice search more than once every day, and claim that doing so makes them feel tech-savvy.
With smartphone keyboards still cumbersome for many users and auto-correct functions changing text inputs, some users find it simpler and more accurate to speak their query instead of type. Improved speech recognition technology has cut Google’s error rate from 25 percent down to just eight percent, which paves the way for more widespread user adoption of voice search.
Search results are delivered faster and on demand in the form of a direct answer via virtual assistant, relieving the searcher of the burden of choice and accommodating mobile device users who may be unable or unwilling to type their request. This focus on direct answers is an attempt to improve the search user experience.
It makes sense that voice searchers would then choose to make a phone call to a local business instead of browse web content on their mobile device. Tech-savvy teens and busy professionals alike desire more ways to automate common tasks, from social media management to internet search.
By offering a way to streamline search and the instant option to connect to a business with a phone call, mobile search and voice assistants are introducing more of a human touch back to digital culture. Local businesses that take note of this growing preference for instant answers over the phone and plan accordingly will fare better in 2016 than those who ignore the trend.
Mark Sullivan is director of analytics for CallRail, a call analytics company currently integrated with Slack and HipChat for a complete SMB dashboard. He is passionate about arming small business owners and agencies with the right tools to create exceptional sales success in an extremely tough and often treacherous online environment. He can be reached via Twitter.