For nearly two years Amazon’s voice-recognition product Echo has let people play music or turn lights on without getting off the couch. As of next week, you may also be able to order a plumber, a handyman or even a lawyer just by speaking your request out loud.
The capability comes from a partnership with a Maryland start-up called TalkLocal, which says it has connected millions of calls to service providers through a smartphone app since its founding in 2012. The company will now provide the service through Echo and its alter-ego Alexa.
“That’s what [Apple’s] Siri should have done from day one,” said TalkLocal chief executive Gurpreet Singh. “Alexa can do it because it’s open and installed and can move forward.”
No money changes hands between TalkLocal and Amazon, but it gives the young company a new group of customers to draw on as it tries to proliferate across a crowded and cut-throat consumer marketplace. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns the Washington Post.)
Here’s how it works: Customers alert the Amazon Echo to “Ask TalkLocal” what they need as if they’re leaving someone a voicemail. Talklocal’s voice recognition software automatically scans the recording for keywords, and checks it against an internal database of 200,000 vendors, which pay TalkLocal for connecting them with potential customers. When it finds a match, the service automatically contacts a vendor that may be able to complete the request, and then routes a call from the vendor to the customer’s phone.
Singh declined to disclose the company’s revenues, but said it has connected more than 3 million calls since its founding in 2012, with vendors paying about $15 a call. About 80 percent of those calls are for basic household services like heating, plumbing, roofing, window repair, and appliance repair.
TalkLocal doesn’t guarantee an hourly rate or finalize a deal, it just gets connects the customer to the service provider. Singh says the median connection time is 168 seconds, with some of the longer calls taking five or six minutes. The service is available in select locales nationwide; Singh said TalkLocal has completed matches in more than 10,000 Zip codes.
Say “the toilet is overflowing” on the app, for instance, and the service calls a plumber. Say, “a window just broke” and it calls someone who can repair it. Talklocal co-founder Manpreet Singh, the brother of CEO Gurpreet Singh, says people have even used it to connect with a lawyer specializing in drunk-diving cases.
Singh says the company wants to build expand its customer base through partnerships with other companies rather than focus on its own brand.
“Initially the traffic won’t be material to business, but [Amazon echo] is becoming a part of everyday people’s lives,” said Singh. “We also think that voice in general is becoming very, very hot.”
The Singhs’ eight-person company was founded in College Park and has a new office in California. The company has a team of call center operators in the Philippines and Bolivia that act as a back-up connection when TalkLocal’s automated system fails to find a match.