Before his half-dozen TV interviews in December--including a few glorious minutes on the Today show--Paul English seemed an unlikely standard bearer in the war against automated phone systems. After all, the company English co-founded, travel search engine Kayak.com, is based on automating the process for making travel reservations. But after a few bad experiences with dial-by-number systems last spring, English began posting 800-number shortcuts on his personal blog, paulenglish.com/ivr. The site, which now lists some 200 companies, has become a media cause célèbre and attracts hundreds of thousands of unique visitors per month. The blog's popularity "just cracks me up," says English.
Purveyors of automated phone systems, understandably, are less amused. Michael Zirngibl, CEO of Angel.com, which sells interactive voice response, or IVR, systems to small businesses, went so far as to buy a Google keyword so that queries for "Paul English" produce a pro-IVR ad. Zirngibl believes that automated support, when done well, helps more customers than a staff of real people can. He also argues that tricking an IVR system is counterproductive because most systems are now programmed to improve as their pool of customer data grows. "It is true that some early systems weren't optimal," he allows, but speech-recognition software "has made enormous steps."
English remains skeptical. "People are trying to cut costs," he says, "but if you mistreat your customers, they won't come back." So what kind of phone system does Kayak.com use? Calls are routed to engineers, who answer most questions and complaints personally. "It keeps us honest," says English, "because when we screw up, people beat the crap out of us."