For English, press 1. For a human, try Fonolo.

After telemarketers, the most excruciating phone experience is dealing with interactive voice response systems. That’s what the industry calls those things that I call phone mazes and most people just call damned annoying. Unlike telemarketers, IVRs are hard to avoid.

Enter Fonolo, which won top prize at Om Malik’s Mobilize 08 conference. Fonolo “crawls” these systems and provides a visual interface to them. Go to the Fonolo Web site (or iPhone app), select the business you want and visually browse through the interface until you find the menu option you want. (My bet is on “agent.”)

Fonolo then calls the business and listens through each prompt, entering the appropriate tones. When it reaches the right prompt, it calls you.

It’s unclear whether Fonolo will also wait on hold until an agent comes on the line before connecting you. That would be the killer app for me — I never again want to hear a recording tell me that I’m a “valued customer” and that they “know your time is valuable” while they keep me on hold for 20 minutes.

Fonolo allows you to keep a log of your calls, record the calls and even take notes. Perfect for when the agent tells you one thing and does something else.

The service drew a lot of admiration from the crowd at Mobilize. Of the demos I saw, this is the one that had me saying “I want! I want!” The judges agreed: Fonolo’s was the only demo to get a 10. One VC on the panel was ready to open his checkbook. Ryan Block, editor of GDGT.com, said it best: “I want to give that guy a hug.”

The business model is unclear. You could sell switch ads: “Fed up with your current bank? Try Bailey Building & Loan.” Or use the data gleaned from calls and sell it to companies that actually care about improving customer service.

Fonolo is in closed beta right now. I’m looking forward to seeing it in action. Actually, no, I don’t want to have to use it. But it has the potential to make a really painful task a lot easier. In the meantime, I’ll have to rely on Get Human for any customer service needs.

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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2 Responses to For English, press 1. For a human, try Fonolo.

  1. Doris says:

    Wait a sec. Fonolo records the call from its end? Is that cool with the company you’re calling? I can see this being a potential legal morass if the exchange is actually trotted out as proof of something that was promised but note delivered.

  2. I think recording is an option. I haven’t gotten into the beta yet, so I don’t know for sure.

    Legality of recording phone calls varies by state. In some states, only one party needs to know that a call being recorded. In other states, both parties need to know. (This is what caused Linda Tripp grief.)

    Seeing as many companies you call say that “this call may be recorded for quality or training purposes,” it’d be a bit hypocritical to claim that callers can’t record.

    Fonolo could make for some amusing content, like the Vincent Ferrari case.

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