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Rebel with a Stalled Cause


How GetHuman.com, a customer empowerment crusade, lost steam

Paul English was one of the original consumer vigilantes.

Frustrated by the maddening state of call-center phone trees, the serial entrepreneur began harnessing the power of the Web in 2005 when he posted shortcuts to live people at call centers on his personal Web log.

As readers e-mailed him their own discoveries for navigating phone trees, his postings grew into a cheat sheet, and by 2006 the list had morphed into GetHuman.com, a grassroots crusade against bad customer service with more than 400 automated phone line shortcuts. (To reach a human at American Airlines (AMR): "Press 0 at each prompt, ignoring messages.") The movement turned English into a media darling, with coverage everywhere from People magazine to The New York Times, and a hero for weary consumers. That August he ramped things up even further, teaming with Microsoft (MSFT) and Nuance Communications (NUAN) to announce the "GetHuman standard," a set of 10 specifications for customer service phone systems that companies could adopt to promote their service.

NO TAKERS

Fast-forward to 2008, and the GetHuman movement has languished. Page views on the site have dwindled from about 40,000 a day in the spring of 2006 to some 4,000. The discussion board, while still active, has quieted down since 2006, when thousands of comments were streaming in. And 18 months after the "standard" was announced—companies that adopted the criteria would have earned the right to use an "auditory icon," or tone, that would signal to callers they had good service—not one company has registered.

What happened? English learned that no matter how effective online consumer crowds may be, full-blown change still takes the passion and energy of committed individuals. "If you're going to try to do a standard," he says, "you need someone who is really going to drive it." English admits his busy schedule as chief technology officer of fast-growing travel search engine Kayak.com played a part in the slowdown, but he never intended the site to take up much of his time in the first place: "I wanted the citizens of the Web to run this."

A little corporate muscle might have helped. Microsoft and Nuance, both of which develop speech technology systems, had said they would work to "drive adoption of these standards," according to a press release at the time. English says there was little follow-through: "GetHuman was so hot in the press right then you wonder if there was some opportunistic stuff going on: Gee, we want to take advantage of this press attention.'"

Both companies say that's not the case and that they got involved because they backed English's goals. Microsoft says it became less active when the standard expanded beyond software. In the end, Nuance thought the standard wasn't the best way to drive change. "If GetHuman had come up with slightly more general standards or more options in how companies could achieve them," the company wrote in a statement, "we might have been able to stick behind it."

Today, English is in the process of handing over the day-to-day running of the site, which he thinks should "help breathe some life back into the movement." He has recruited Walt Tetschner, the editor of a newsletter on speech recognition, to manage GetHuman.com. He hopes Tetschner will make it self-supporting with ads. "But if need be, I'll write him checks to make sure he's doing a high-quality job."

Even though the push for a standard fizzled, the site remains a treasure trove for consumers, with 500 shortcuts out of phone-tree labyrinths. Users of Kayak.com should reap the rewards, too. "Spending time on GetHuman...made me walk the talk," English says. He expects every one of his 50 engineers to answer phone calls and e-mails from the more than 30 million customers who use Kayak's site each month.

While English says it can be "scary to let nerdy engineer[s] talk to the customers," he knows that doing so can have a profound impact on how the site is simplified for users. He's developed a patent-pending system to distribute the queries that come in, and he posts response times on a monitor outside his office in Concord, Mass. "We don't have any customer support people," he says. "I don't believe in it."

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McGregor is BusinessWeek's management editor.

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