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IVR search: a ‘Google’ for phone menus?

We’re putting together our Voice & Messaging 2.0 report, which includes a directory of all the interesting companies in the space we’ve come across. We’ll be presenting some of this at our event next week of course. But in the meantime, we’d like to tell you about one new company that’s extra-interesting.

When we speak about Voice & Messaging 2.0, we’re usually thinking in terms of services, software, or devices that offer… voice or messaging! But it doesn’t have to be limited to this. Our conception of the “ultimate communications experience” doesn’t imply that we’re looking for a killer app, a single, perfect integrated client; it could as well be provided by a school of independent, specialised but interoperable components. They might be within a common user interface, or might not.

So as well as new forms of telephony, we’re also interested in new auxiliary technologies. What, for example, is the new telephone directory? Web search engines are already great at digging out telephone numbers, but then again, numbers themselves are getting less important. When we’re using the phone to interact with an organisation, rather than an individual, anyway, the phone number is not particularly important. What we need to find is a function.

Many of the technologies we champion — BT Web21C, VoiceSage, NMS Communications’ VoiceXML — are there to address the need for a way of binding voice into the functions of a business, an organisation, or a machine. That’s all very well for the supply side, but what about the users? Search is a great way of finding more efficient paths — from your point of view — through the bureaucracy to the information you’re after. It’s pretty good at finding your way to the function you’re after, although it could be better (surely there’s a niche for a search engine for Web applications?). And even if you’re planning to invent something of your own, search is vitally important in finding the bits.

Nothing like this exists for user-to-organisation voice. IVR, the current voice interface, is a byword for user-hostility. So what if there was a Google for phone menus?

Turns out there is. We ran into Fonolo at this year’s eComm. It’s a genuinely brilliant idea. The rise of VoIP means it’s much easier to write programs that deal in telephony. And Fonolo wrote a web spider that visits large companies’ public phone numbers, and iterates through all the options on all the IVR menus from all the numbers, logging everything it finds.

Then it’s just a matter of plotting it all on a directed graph, and making the whole thing searchable and available on the Web. And then the bit we like. You click on the bit you want to get through to, and their system uses the map to dial and navigate the IVRs for you, thus “deep dialing” the user directly to the point in the IVR they need. Every time someone dials through Fonolo, they use the interaction to re-validate that path through the IVR. The search terms that users submit tell them which companies they need to go spider.

Better yet, Fonolo’s users (their few, lucky users - it’s still in closed beta) can note what happened at each menu and each number when they called it, so you can keep track of your interaction with the organisation behind them. So the website is also your notebook that you were promised a call back, or that the quoted price is $86.99, or the goods are out of stock.

What will be really interesting, though, will be what happens when they let their users share their experiences through the system itself; unless they can pass the Turing Test, there’s no way the spiders can find out what happens when the operator picks up the phone. Fonolo plans to let users annotate the call tree, and then they can share all these notes, Web2.0-wiki-social-media-style.

It could be a powerful tool for online activists. And it will probably have a profound effect on how call centres and voice-enabled business processes are organised. At the moment, customers are forced to be stupid. Being all channelled through the front-of-house phone number, they have to be forced through a succession of IVRs that only exist to classify and reroute them, precisely because the organisation won’t say which is the shortest path to the functions they need.

Further, incredibly, it’s still very rare for IVR systems to tell customers how long they can expect to hold, even though every call centre in the world considers this a key management metric and measures it in software. Fonolo, we predict, will either measure this or get its users to report it. (It reminds us quite closely of the super-2.0ish OrbitzTLC service giving real-time feedback from the public on the travel situation on the ground.)

We recommend you put the data you’ve got out as an API and come clean. IVR search, like Web search, will alter the balance of power between you and your customers. Don’t be on the wrong side of it.

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