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Forget phoning a business, new app sends a text instead

By Natasha Baker

TORONTO (Reuters) - Customers who are annoyed by automated voice prompts and music when they contact a company for information about a bill, price, product or service can send a text instead.

A new app, TalkTo, lets users interact with any business in the United States via text messages sent from their iPhone, Android phone or Web applications. Its creators say it is convenient and efficient.

"Imagine you could text the front desk of a hotel to find out if they have a room available, or a sports store to see if they have lacrosse equipment for kids," said Stuart Levinson, the CEO of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company TalkTo.

Retail shops, restaurants and services are the most popular businesses on the app, which allows users to perform tasks like place an item on hold, book a table at a restaurant, or make an appointment.

Texting a business is similar to texting a friend. Users simply start typing the business name and then select it from a directory that includes tens of millions of businesses.

If the business has signed up for the service, one of its representatives will respond directly to the request. For companies that are not on board, TalkTo has put together a team of agents that will dig up the information, make the required phone calls, and then relay the response via text.

The average response time is 5 minutes, according to the company.

Levinson said the inspiration for the app came from observing the decline of phone calls and the increase in texting.

"People not only don't want to make phone calls but they'll get home from work and say 'I meant to call that store or take care of this' but then the business is closed and it's not happening." Users can also send texts to businesses after-hours with the app.

Levinson said that businesses benefit through more engagement with customers and lower costs.

"Large businesses do everything they can to get voice communication into a textual basis because every bit of research shows that it saves them money," he said.

Companies and consumers can customize how they would like to receive responses - through the app, email or SMS.

The free app works with any business in the United States, according to Levinson, adding that his biggest challenge is convincing consumers to change their habits.

"Think about every time someone contacts a business, we want people to realize that they don't have to make those phone calls." (Editing by Patricia Reaney and Matthew Lewis)

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