Have you ever tried to call someone at Microsoft or Google? I have. I’ve even memorized Microsoft’s number but won’t give it here cause I’d hate for Jeff Sandquist to get a ton of crank calls. Anyway, both Microsoft and Google have switchboard numbers. Today I called someone (or tried to, anyway) at Google and found the experience to be far less useful than when you try to call someone at Microsoft. By the way, at both companies all you need is someone’s name. Yeah, calling Bill Gates or Eric Schmidt probably won’t prove fruitful, but try someone deep down in the bowels of the company and you’ll probably get right through.
Anyway, Microsoft has a really cool voice-controlled system. You dial the number, an electronic voice answers and asks you for the person’s name you’re trying to reach. You SAY it. “Jeff Sandquist” and then it comes back with a recording of Jeff Sandquist so you know you’re going to the right place. “Are you looking for ‘Jeff Sandquist, Channel 9′”? Why yes I am! The call goes right through. If it doesn’t, or you hacked Jeff’s name, it prompts you for a whole lot of other things. “Do you know the email address of the person you are trying to reach?” Etc. Etc.
But compare that to Google’s switchboard. When it answers it immediately prompts you for that person’s extension. That’s not nearly as human as Microsoft’s approach to “Welcome to Microsoft. To reach a specific person just say their name at any time.”
I didn’t know the extension of the person I was trying to reach. So, the voice on the phone says to push 8 to reach someone by their name. I entered in the first few digits of the person’s last name I was trying to reach. It immediately sent me to the voice mail box of someone completely different without prompting the way Microsoft’s system does to make sure I entered the person’s name right.
Why is Microsoft’s system so good? Because they’ve been working on speech stuff for a long time. It’s also why the acquisition of TellMe was so interesting. Imagine if Microsoft just focused its search efforts on voice and gave up the attempt to clone Google.com. Now THAT would be a winning strategy.
Imagine calling a number and saying “Starbucks, San Francisco” and getting routed to the right answer.
Maybe Microsoft’s search engineers should call the switchboard to see just how to beat Google and move the goalposts to a new game?
UPDATE: Richard Sprague, who runs the speech team at Microsoft, says Google can buy its solution if it wants to improve its switchboard.