SpinVox’s James Whatley set the record straight

On his first day back, James Whatley at SpinVox has been hard at it by all accounts.

I just caught the blog post a moment ago here. It’s pretty extensive and — as I thought he might — James has tackled the issues head on.

I don’t know why SpinVox couldn’t have done this last week.

On, then, to the good news.

We’ve got clarity from Mr Whatley.

I zoomed along his blog post to see what he had to say.

I was, like many, hunting for that figure — the answer to the ‘X percent of messages are referred to humans’ point — and whilst James does indeed deal with the issue, he politely refuses an answer, citing commercial interest. Well, I am ok with that.

Here’s the relevant paragraph:

4) “How many messages are referred — in any way — to human operators during the transcription process?”

Well I’ll be honest with you folks, I’ve been wrestling away with this one most of today. I wish I could tell you, really I could. But this information is so business critical to our operation that we simply cannot share it.

I’m not kidding when I say that it would be the equivalent of Coca-Cola publishing their exact recipe up on their own blog.

This question sprang up from the mysteriously panicked behaviour of the central management team. Filled with doubt, I felt I wanted — nay, needed — an answer to it.

That said, if it’s commercially sensitive, so be it. I don’t necessarily agree with this — given the shenanigans of the past few days but I understand that the company has a right to decide what it defines as commercial interest.

I’m surprised how positively I feel about the company once again after reading James’ post. I feel the lights are on.

What do you think? What’s your position on SpinVox in the light of this news?

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

14 replies on “SpinVox’s James Whatley set the record straight”

Big fan of Mr Whatley, however did this situation highlight the fact that SpinVox too reliant upon his services?

About a year or so ago, just after SpinVox announced their big funding round and whilst I was still working for Vodafone, James and I had an interesting chat on IM about big companies, their inability to 'get' social media and use it intelligently.

Long story short I was frustrated and really envious of SpinVox; they seemed to embody the new generation of telecoms / technology company. Online savvy and happy to let James build a genuine online personality for the company. They were nimble, inventive and approachable in a way that the big guys didn't appear to be able to get to grips with.

I guess what this episode has shown is that it really doesn't matter how big or small you are as an organisation; the ability to communicate effectively – especially through social mediums – is still a rare skill. One that companies and organisations increasingly cannot do without in this fast moving media age.

I love Spinvox and would struggle to operate effectively without it. Frankly if a bunch of guys or gals in a call center somewhere are making a living from texting that my dinner is in the dog then I feel I have contributed to slowing world hunger. 🙂


I guess you didn’t read about those call centre people not getting paid and going hungry. Don’t trouble your little mind… out of sight, our of mind

I originally thought the idea of offshoring the recognition was *cleverer* than banging one's head against the limitations of arbitrary voice recognition. (As a technologist, I would never of thought of using, gasp!, humans.)

Therefore, I always wondered why SpinVox were so evasive about their approach. You don't actually have to have 'secret sauce' to win – a brilliant process or business model executed well will also suffice (and are patentable, more or less.) Users still love it, however it works!

So I suspect the Mechanical Turk dug itself into a bunker, and found it hard to be forced to emerge, blinking into the harsh light of scrutiny.

As for the blog, James is clearly stuck between a rock and a hard place: wanting to be open and friendly to the social media world whilst the company's culture tailspins (for this and perhaps other reasons) on the inside. Not enviable.

Having a few employees (rightly) put their company's activities so personably into the public eye seems to mean that crisis management becomes that much tougher for everyone else in the company. That itself might be an interesting correlation to debate.

Ewan, I posted this on the Spinvox blog as a comment, but it also resonates here – so have cross posted it.

James, welcome back, you are certainly earning your money this week!

I have been following this growing story with interest – not just because I know the company and some of the players, but because in years to come this episode will be a case study in social media courses and textbooks.

The interesting thing is how the story panned out last week vs this week with you back on board. What it has shown is that to really harness the power of social media, you have to be open and honest and transparent as possible, because now everyone is watching.

The best parallel I have from the “old world” is the hotel industry. When you have a problem, you go downstairs and speak to the front desk , who are trained to use the phrase “not a problem” in the response. You need to show empathy and be a little humble sometimes (look at how many times Barack Obama has already said he’s screwed up – and he runs a company bigger than most). If you are open and honest with people (as you have done in this post as best you can) then there is nowhere to go. You can’t keep flogging the same issue once you have agreed, yes there is an issue, or presented the facts to counter a position.

I too was going to post a comment about “question 4” but I think in the last post above where you reference the Guardian article you have explained why it would be an issue to share the number – and you have been as open as probably you want to be – hats off. Your response actually changed my opinion of the company – something social media has the power to do – and it was via just one person.

Other companies will find soon that they too need a “James Whatley” at their company – not just some dude straight from University who’s on twitter – but someone like you who understands the fine balance between engaging with your audience with the relevant tone versus the commercial interests of the company.

As the events of last week have shown, the old style PR approach to things no longer works – we all need to look at how social media has changed the landscape forever (not just PR, but business planning, product development, research and even recruitment) – embrace it and learn from events such as “Spinvox 2009” which will help us become better at what we do.

Keep on doing what you’re doing – we are all learning from you.

Andrew Grill
@andrewgrill on twitter

It's a good post by James (as you'd expect from Whatleydude). He's humanised the company while working within the constraints of what he was given. It's not his fault he can't answer question 4 – to be fair he probably doesn't know the answer – no doubt company policy is not to say and James has to stick to that.

I still think that after the comments from SpinVox last week that attempted to either blame ex-employees or confuse with statistics, James has his work cut out.

I'm not sure it's down to social media per se as Andrew suggests in his comment, but I do agree that much more of a social media attitude is needed within the company – ie understand how to be human and engaging in your communications. It shouldn't be that James is the only person that can do it (but thanks God for them he can).

I agree whatleydude did a better job but I dismmiss the commerical claim. Unlike coca cola the recipe is already in the public domain via their patent online.

If you read it its clear that they started out with a huge reliance on human transcription on the whole message. Since then no doubt they've added as much automation as possible to scale the business. But the challenge is huge with this technology as language continuously evolves and mobile telephony is noisy.

Lets face it, the reason of non disclosure is because the is more human involvement than they would like to disclose. It may not be important to you as the subscriber but to callers who arent subscribers it could be, especially if they are unaware they are being recorded.

Set the record straight? As straight as anything this company can I guess.

They can't tell you the number of messages referred to humans, because that would show the business is not scalable, and the carriers and investors would cut their losses and run for the hills. It has nothing to do with being undercut by competitors – what competitors? It will be 5 years before an automated system can truly start to cope with this – so they have none till then.

But they won't make it that far, the CEO will have spent all the investors money on self promotion and parties by then.

I don't actually really care how Spinvox translate my messages because its not a real buisness, it solves a problem that doesn't exist bar a very small niche and even then its slightly irritating and a little bit smug…James is a good guy though, he should find a new home.

Nothing new. Nothing about a share of human conversion, nothing about business “ethics” of the management. As they said, it's a recycled PR.

Nothing new. Nothing about a share of human conversion, nothing about business “ethics” of the management. As they said, it's a recycled PR.

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