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SpinVox: it’s made of people

By Matthew Stibbe on 24 July 2009

image BBC technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, reported yesterday that SpinVox was using call centres in South Africa and the Philippines to do much of the work of transcribing voicemail messages instead of the company’s much-vaunted D2 voice-recognition software.

The complaint rests on two charges: that the company wasn’t doing what it said it was doing and that using overseas call centres is a security and privacy issue.

The company has published a statement [Update 17.9.12 - broken link] which explains everything. However, like Nixon saying “I am not a crook” this statement is protesting too much. I can’t help wondering whether a different approach to PR, communication and writing might not have prevented the problem in the first place.

If they had been a bit more upfront about the extent to which they used humans in the process and where those humans were located, the BBC would have had no story. I am pretty sure that they could have spun human intervention and quality control as a benefit.

In practice, I don’t think this revelation will deter potential customers but it is an object lesson about the importance of candour.

I wrote at some length on this topic in my earlier post: Writing as branding.

As a writer, I think there are some lessons for me in this story. When writing for clients, it’s important to:

  • Source properly. As a writer, it’s important to do the interviews and research. It’s also important to keep track of the data that supports the claims you make for your clients. (See my earlier post: What’s the source.)
  • Be straight with readers. Trust is won by repeated, consistent, predictable acts but you can lose it overnight if you get caught in a lie. What you say about yourself must reflect what your customers perceive.
  • Get the whole story. It’s important to understand the whole thing. Spinvox knows the proportion of messages that need human intervention, even if it’s a secret to the rest of us. They could have calibrated their message about their voice recognition software accordingly.
  • Have integrity. Push back if clients ask you to tell porky pies. Put your best foot forward but don’t forget the other one.
  • Don’t hide the skeletons. If you assume that people won’t find out your secrets, you’re betting against human curiosity, greed and fear. And against time.
  • If you get caught, confess and apologise. Even if you think you haven’t done anything wrong, when a story like this breaks, the best way to defuse everyone’s indignation is with an apology and some visible change. For example, Spinvox could have said “We’re sorry that we weren’t clear about the proportion of messages that go to humans for transcription. It’s about xx% and it’s a fundamental part of our quality control, customer service and it helps to train our software to do a better job. We take great care to protect our customers’ privacy and anonymity and although this story implies otherwise, you can be sure that it is safe to trust us with your messages.” You can support this with a longer, point-by-point rebuttal but keep the basic response short, sweet and humble.

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