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SpinVox: MIR probably isn’t going to the HQ demo

Quick summary:

– We’ve been invited to attend the SpinVox open demo.
– I agreed; I then asked if I could take the camera and film the experience (and allow SpinVox editorial veto)
– I haven’t heard from them as yet; the demo is early next week, so I probably won’t be going

That’s the quick summary. Now the main post.

It’s time for yet another SpinVox post here on Mobile Industry Review!

After their completely ridiculous radio silence over the past week or so, somebody in the company has made a decision to actually open-up. I got a call from the always professional Jane Henry, Global PR Director, asking if I’d like to attend the company’s HQ for a demo and walk-through of their technology next week.

Here’s a summary point from the invitation:

I know you are interested in finding out more about how the SpinVox Voice Message Conversion System (VMCS) converts millions of voice messages to text, so I am pleased to invite you to our Marlow Headquarters for a technical briefing where you will see the VMCS in action and get to try it for yourself.

The concept being attendees will not only be able to send in demo messages and see them being converted, but that they’ll be able to operate the same equipment they use in the call centres. So we can see what messages are automatically transcribed (I imagine ‘call me’ and ‘hello’ are done by the system) and which ones are referred (in part) to human operators. Ideally we’ll be able to play the role of a human operator to really experience the system.

I’m delighted to receive the invitation. I’m delighted the company has finally reversed their idiotic let’s try and weather-it-out policy.

I asked if I could bring along the video camera. This was a loaded question for me. I wasn’t sure how much I could personally be bothered to help the company out. Taking along all the video equipment and documenting the demo experience, well… that is quite a bit of hassle.

Jane explained that the invitation would prohibit cameras and recording of any kind. The systems, interfaces and whatnot that we’d be witnessing are, of course, highly confidential.

“Ah, see that’s where I’ve got a problem, Jane,” I said. Or words to that effect. I explained that, unless you document the experience — the technology demo — and actually see people trying it out, I don’t think text reporting will be sufficient.

I explained that you could document the experience, by video, in a manner that would completely preserve the intellectual property of SpinVox, but also show off the process visually. I think being able to see me (for example) operating the SpinVox call centre UI (but filmed from a position where you can’t see the screen or the equipment — i.e. filming me front-on) would be highly illuminating to the viewing audience.

I think you need to see me making a phone call and then reading out the parts of the message that were automatically transcribed. You need to see me (or somebody else) leaving more complicated voicemails and seeing how the system adjusts and being talked through the process.

I think you’d completely accept that we couldn’t show the exact screens, right?

But I think you need to visually see this process. Without that, I don’t think the issues rest, ever.

I’ve taken quite a few calls from people asking if I’m going into the HQ and asking if I’ll be taking the camera. These calls have been from many MIR readers and mobile industry executives (including one chap from an extremely large mobile operator that chose not to offer SpinVox to it’s customers). I think video is the only way ahead.

(The other issue, which isn’t being addressed, is the quality of life for the SpinVox call centre teams. This is one that’s making quite a lot of first-world people worry about whether they’re completely exploiting third-world labour. What, I think, these people want to see is that the folks doing the work are at least content. Are getting cash that they can use to benefit themselves and their familes. That it’s fair-trade, essentially. I think somebody independent needs to fly to a call centre and film the experience for SpinVox. Do a Nike and demonstrate that the SpinVox teams aren’t, ‘sewing footballs with their teeth,’ to quote an episode of West Wing.)

Jane at SpinVox didn’t think it would be possible to agree to film the experience. She said she’d check but not to get my hopes up.

It’s actually the other way around.

Send the BBC chap. Rory. He can go in, experience it, and if he writes something positive, brilliant. I’ve saved myself a trip on the Marlow Donkey.

Alas, I understand Rory is on vacation. So send Robert Andrews from PaidContent.

I’ll read his stuff, link to it and we’ll be good. Because I think the SpinVox system is ok. I’m sure it will be a good demo. My real beef is the stupid, stupid management who thought keeping schtum for days and days on end was the best way to handle the PR crisis surrounding them.

My secondary beef is the fact the company can’t, won’t or couldn’t possibly tell us the percentage of voicemail transcriptions processed by humans. Keeping quiet led me to severely, severely doubt the wider performance of the system. Have they got 300 agents per market or 3,000 agents per market? Working 24/7? I don’t think there’s a problem admitting to this. But then, if you’re trying to raise capital, in a down market, and you’re trying to do so based on the fact you’ve got a brilliant, instantly scalable platform independent of human intervention, then I can see the issue.

And my third beef are the conditions in their call centres.

So I think, at the minimum, the experience needs to be captured on film.

Here, then, is the reply I sent to Andrew at Porter Novelli (SpinVox’s PR) on Friday afternoon.

I’d be delighted. I’ve taken a straw poll of the audience and they’ve specifically asked for me to take the video camera to record the experience.

I discussed this briefly with Jane yesterday and I understand SpinVox’s commercial concerns. To this end I am prepared to do the following:

– allow SpinVox full editorial veto to all aspects of the video. I know how concerned the company is about its IP. They may demand I remove any shots from the final cut.
– leave the original raw video tape with SpinVox
– use SpinVox external hard disk to produce and manipulate the video footage, so I take no unedited raw footage with me when I leave
– bring my edit equipment to SpinVox so I can edit live and produce a master copy in collaboration with SpinVox PR.

If we can agree this then I’d like to capture the following:

10 minute transcription demo video
– illustrating how the SpinVox system works in theory without
specifically showing confidential screens/systems

10 min Q+A with SpinVox senior management representative
– to answer a series of agreed questions

I think we all need to look into the eyes of the SpinVox team. We need to see genuine outrage that their system’s performance has been called into question (and, that their management have let rumour and conjecture spread around the planet, so much so that the chaps at China Mobile are reading MIR wondering what’s going on).

Or we need to see that they’re afraid, hiding, nervous.

I think we need to *see* this.

Which is why I made the above offer. It’s a sodding arse, let’s be clear. I’m a busy guy, I’ve got things to do, people to meet, and filming to help dig SpinVox out of their hole isn’t entirely a positive thought. My wife thinks I’m nuts.

But I think this is what’s needed and I thought I should offer it. Some of you may object to the fact I offered to allow SpinVox full editorial veto of what’s included in the video. There’s no other way of putting their mind at rest, I don’t think. So if I accidentally film a full-frontal shot of their system, they don’t feel the need to break the camera into tiny pieces. So that, if there are some shots I’ve included in the final edit that they wholly, wholly object to, they have the opportunity to get me to remove them. Not, of course, without an argument from me. Indeed I would, obviously, hold final veto. I wouldn’t publish the output unless I was completely content with it.

I also agreed to leave the original tape at the HQ and use their own external HD drive to hold the temporary raw footage whilst I edit on my sooped-up MacBook Pro at the SpinVox HQ.

Yes it’d be a total unmitigated *arse* to do. A total hassle. But I would at least be able to bring the MIR readers — and the wider industry — a visual representation and perspective of the company’s technology without compromising the company’s IP.

I think this is an overly fair offer. I certainly wouldn’t ordinarily cede editorial veto — but I think you’ll agree if this gives SpinVox enough comfort that their IP will be protected, then it will be worth it to be able to at least get a visual description of how their systems work without actually *seeing* them.

I also included ’10 min Q+A with SpinVox senior management to answer a series of agreed questions’. Questions agreed in advance — again, to put them at their ease. However the actual questions would be direct ones. Why the silence, why can’t you tell us a percentage, what are the conditions in your call centres like?

I think the major problem we’ve got with SpinVox is that they’ve been creative. They’ve dodged or not entirely answered issues, siting IP or commercial sensitivity issues. Or they’ve simply kept quiet.

I think there’s a potential trust issue. Particularly given the gloss/spin over some of the backgrounds of founders. Even if you get the founders on camera answering questions, I think that needs to be tied together with video evidence supporting it. Otherwise the copy produced by the journalists and bloggers heading to the SpinVox HQ will be doubted and pulled apart.

Indeed the more I think of it, the video demo I’m proposing probably won’t be enough to silence the raving masses. I think we need to get Daniel or Christina on camera, taking us to a call centre and talking us through the process and meeting the call centre agents, staring at the whites of their eyes, and seeing-for-ourselves, on an unrestricted basis.

So it’s perhaps academic. I don’t think I’ll be going to the HQ. I don’t think they’ll agree to video as I described. If they don’t, then that’s not a problem. There’s not a lot of point in me going along just to look. I think my public reputation is good-enough to assist the company, but whatever I publish will be undermined by the ‘sweatshop’ allegations. Just having a chap on screen saying ‘no, we don’t do that’ isn’t good enough. Not when the company’s spent so long either half-answering/spinning answers or keeping quiet. You, the reader, then has to rely on my reputation to believe what’s being said. And my reporting and perspective will be based on answers from their executives that have already been ridiculed across the planet.

There are plenty of other people going along to have a look though, to participate in the demo next week. I’ll read their stuff.

I’ll read the coverage produced by the like of Ben Smith and Dan Lane at The Really Mobile Project (who’re going along, obviously, SpinVox’s James Whatley won’t be participating in the coverage). Ben and Dan are good honest chaps. I’ll point to their excellent coverage and I’ll think ‘ok’ (in the context that there’s at least been an answer from SpinVox). And I’ll get on with my life.

But it won’t fix the matter entirely, I don’t think. I doubt SpinVox will agree to our video proposal we made and I think the other publications will do a good job with text reporting so I don’t think there’s much point in MIR attending too.

SpinVox have screwed up their previously smart reputation over the past few weeks. The more I think as I write this post, the more it’s clear that unless they video the demo (with allowances made for IP, etc) and video the call centre, preferably being shown around on camera by one of the company’s founders, the rumours, the conjecture, the allegations of the ‘real truth’, it’ll all rumble on — and SpinVox will continue in it’s newly defined role as the fallen star of the mobile industry.

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