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My ramblings on the stuff that holds it all together
I don’t know about you but I tend to treat my mobile (USA:cellphone) phone as my personal contact device, in that I use it to manage both my inbound and outbound communications and plug that into my daily work/life workflow.
Because I travel about a lot for business (and in my spare time also) I give everyone my mobile number, rather than a fixed line as its far more likely to reach me and I don’t have to track numerous voicemail/UM numbers, I also gain a unified call log and history on a single device so I can refer back over time to find numbers I would have otherwise lost.
I have a fax to email service for the same reason for the odd occasion I need to receive a fax… I can get it anywhere and file it electronically.
However the fact that people have my mobile number does not (for me at least) set the expectation that I will be at their beck and call, or answer on demand – I make use of caller ID to screen my calls, I’ll make no secret of that; I manage my workflow during the day and quite often other people’s sense of “urgent” is different from my own [unless you are actually my boss of course – when your calls will usually be answered directly], and at the end of the day I need to balance the needs (…of the many) people who want me to do something for them, and my ability to actually do so and carry on with my day to day workload.
So for example people that ring from lines with withheld numbers will almost always be allowed to go to voicemail, unless I am expecting such a call; I know most people have no control over corporate switchboards but I’ve never understood the logic of withholding caller-ID, especially from a large organisation as you can make the number almost anything, even a central or local office switchboard number if you don’t want to expose people’s regional DDI’s. it also works to their advantage as I’ll be better prepared to speak to them if I know what they want to know – clever as I am I don’t always know everything off the top of my head!
This often means I have a fair number of voicemail’s building up to listen to, and unfortunately more often than not the spare time I have to listen to the messages is whilst on a train or car when I don’t have a pen handy to jot down that number – or am more likely to leave the number written on the copy of the metro on the train.
Now, this is where I’ve found Spinvox really useful in the last couple of weeks; it’s essentially a paid-for service that you use to replace your normal o2/Vodafone/etc. voicemail service. you change your divert on busy/unavailable settings to point at an assigned geographical number (in my case in 0208 one, so it’s inclusive in any bundled minutes your tariff includes rather than a national rate 0870, 0845 etc.).
It offers the normal voicemail features where you can call a special number (again geographical, rather than national-rate etc.) to listen to the actual messages and set your greeting message etc.
But the advantage of SpinVox is it’s ability to convert the speech into text, which can be delivered to you either as an SMS text message or an email (my preference).
I was a bit skeptical at first, but I was very, very impressed after using the 7 day free trial. so much so that at one point I doubted that there was any technology behind it at all and that they were employing a large battery of English speaking monkeys to listen in and type it all up… their website assures me that this isn’t the case and they use a tiered architecture of several speech-text engines depending on the content as some are better at number recognition etc. (can’t find the original link to that article so will keep digging)
It also does an excellent job of transcribing phone numbers and extracts the caller-ID from the caller if it’s available so no hunting around for that elusive pen!
If there is a word in the message Spinvox can’t transcribe or has made a guess at it marks it with a “____” or (?) and if you want to hear the subtle intonation of the person who left the message, each message includes a quick code so you just dial the Spinvox retreival number and key in *03 for example and it will replay the message – a godsend compared to the usual next, next, next drudge with most voicemail systems.
For example – here is a real message left for me.. (names and numbers changed to protect the innocent, but if you really can do my extension cheaper than they can – please do call :)).
You received a new voicemail from +4420812312312:
“Hi there Vinf my name is Bob. I’m calling from a company called XYZ Construction. We received your details via our website regarding your extension. I was wondering if you could give me a call back when you get the message. My telephone no. is 0800123123, in order to discuss the project further. Thank you, bye.”
– spoken through SpinVox
Message received at May 8, 2008 1:25:55 PM
If you wish to listen to this message, call your voicemail on +44207xxxxxxx and press *08
So, back to the point; email delivery of the text content of voicemail messages into my Outlook Inbox allows me to flag, follow-up, set reminders, file, delete etc. and integrate them into my normal daily workflow so I ensure I can manage any resulting actions.
Previously I’ve found where I have had a large number of unheard voicemail messages (due to holiday or long meetings) it takes longer than I’d like to listen to them all; as they often overlap or are irrelevant due to the elapsed time and let’s be honest people (myself included) tend to ramble when they are leaving information in brain-freewheeling mode on an answer machine, or just say it’s X – call me back, which isn’t all that helpful.
So dealing with such a pile of messages, especially when compared to the quick gratification of dealing with normal emails – where you can scan, easily re-read and file, mark for follow-up etc. means dealing with voicemail often fell to the bottom of my priority pile. This, in turn means I risk missing that one important message or take longer to respond to people (yeah I’m a fickle sort of guy – make my life easier and I’ll get back to you quicker… I’m sure I’m not the only one)
In meetings, it’s also ideal – because they’re delivered as SMS or email they also turn up on my Blackberry so I can glance at them during the meeting and make a value/balance decision on wether I should step outside to respond. Doing this in 1:1 meetings might be a bit rude as someone is dedicating their time for your use. But for larger meetings or conferences where you are not always involved or contributing to everything it’s a discrete way of making a judgement call on what requires your current attention.
Overall I’m very impressed, sometimes I’ve seen it take up to 10mins to deliver a converted message (maybe there really are monkeys involved :)), and it’s a bit annoying that the caller (on my o2 network anyway) gets a “your call is being diverted, please hold..” message rather than just cutting to Spinvox as it does with o2’s own voicemail service – but I guess that’s a network feature rather than Spinvox and it’s not a huge deal.
The billing is interesting, and to be honest I think a little bit unclear, as you are basically signed up once your 7 day trial is finished and I’ve not really had any visibility of how they bill other than a message on the last day of the trial saying my account had been charged £5, call customer services otherwise. I can only assume it’s doing this via reverse-SMS billing – for me, this is handy rather than having to manage another subscription and set of card details, however I could see that bothering some people.
Note: I have a “company phone” and don’t always see the bills, so I’ll probably be expecting a call from accounts at the end of the month to query it!
Another use which I hadn’t thought of is for deaf and people with hearing problems, this is ideal as they often make heavy use of text and email to exchange information as they are often unable to call people directly as not everyone has a minicom type setup, I see they are offering text to speech services
They also have a variety of blog/social network interfaces on the way; I don’t think these would be much use for me, but you never know… it takes a while to type these things up, but I’m pretty sure it’s clearer if I’m forced to think about what I’m writing than if I were allowed to ramble at a translator 🙂
In summary it’s an excellent service, and one that I would be happy to pay for myself (even if the billing process is a little unclear, to me and the other user’s I’ve polled anyway) I wonder how long before this technology is adopted by the carriers themselves… it’s got to be the next step, everyone I know hates normal voicemail. most current Unified Messaging systems I’ve seen don’t offer this type of functionality, they’re still geared towards dealing with audio content.
Lastly, one feature that could be quite useful is a web based system for listening to the actual voicemail messages from a PC, rather than dialling into the Spinvox system – although I wonder if I really would use this, it’s so accurate in converting the audio!
Steve Richards blog on work/life balance has a good post on dealing with email overload, that could be extended to take on management of voicemail if you combined it with SpinVox as I mention above – it all ends up in one place which allows you to manage it… rather than drown in it.
I’m not the only one finding it useful, some further reading from other SpinVox Users…
My laptop is a Dell D620, I opted for the built in 3G data modem when I ordered it as my PCMCIA vodafone 3G card didn’t have Vista drivers available and I liked the idea of not having to have a great big card hanging out the side waiting to be snapped off.
I have been very impressed since I got it and I use it a lot on the train, hotels and on client-sites when I can’t get an Internet connection to my own laptop because of some company security policy about connecting non-corporate machines, sometimes it’s even more convenient to use it rather than the corporate wireless LAN!
It’s suprisingly cost-effective too (although full-disclosure I don’t pay the Vodafone bill myself) especially if you travel a fair bit and stay in hotels/use public hotspots. It never ceases to amaze me that here in the UK they want to charge so much for WiFi or broadband access in public places.
Hilton Hotels for example; I stay in a lot of Hiltons on business, they typically charge at least £110 per room per night even on a corporate rate, they then want £15 per night for wireless/BB access; they do a number of package deals but they’re still pretty expensive, and let’s not get started on the “tray charge” of £3.50 + the overpriced food… yes I guess I do have a choice to stay elsewhere, but they are convenient to where I usually work and have a good points scheme – so maybe I’m a sucker for familiarity whilst I’m away!
I see a fair number of BT Openzone, T-mobile Swisscom, wireless hotspots about the place but they all generally want you to take a subscription with them, some offer a complicated roaming deal but if you do the maths it’s not cheap.
Add in the limited coverage and highly variable quality of service (I lost count of the number of public hotspot’s I’ve used that either just didn’t work or were too slow to be usable – a fact you find out after you’ve given them your credit card details.
Now compare that against my 3G data card – I can use it pretty much wherever there is mobile coverage; granted it falls back to GPRS where there is no 3G coverage – but the mobile network has significantly more coverage than any WiFi at the moment.
It’s flexible, I can use it when/where I want and I’m not tied to a particular provider and the locations that they provide WiFi and the best part of all its about £40/month for an unlimited* data package, or to put it another way that’s the same price as 3 x 24 hr sessions a month in a Hilton, or most other WiFi hotspots – yes they offer pay by hour – but do you really want to do that?
3G speed is pretty good; I’m typically getting about 250kbs+ and that’s more than usable for email and general web browsing etc.
Will be interesting to see how some of the bigger carriers change this market space with their quad-play offerings, that may make mobile 3G data even cheaper if you take a TV/home phone/mobile/broadband package – I see a lot of people buying laptops rather than desktop, they could really clean up here.
However, I’ve been in Amsterdam for a couple of days now and have ben using it quite a lot inbetween conference sessions as the on-site free WiFi hasn’t been working – suspect I may get shot when the bill comes in at the end of the month as roaming data isn’t quite as cheap as doing it in the UK! I just discovered iTunes has been downloading about 150Mb of Podcasts as I typed this over my 3G connection, a figure of £4/Mb for roaming data seems to be at the back of my mind..ulp.
*Fair-use terms & conditions apply – from memory “fair use” is up to 1Gb/Month