Voices a growing commodity in phone automation

By May Wong, The Associated Press
Monday July 15, 2002

MOUNTAIN VIEW – You don’t know Darby Bailey, but you may have already talked to her on the phone. 

Thousands of people hear her crisp and pleasant recorded responses every day when they call AT&T’s toll-free directory assistance or dial E-Trade for a stock quote. 

Voices like Bailey’s are in high demand as a growing number of companies employ speech recognition technology to save cash and combat caller alienation. 

Instead of unwieldy touch-tone tap dances, callers are engaged in faux conversations. 

“Touch-tone menus are very frustrating experiences – right up there with standing in line at the DMV,” said Mike McCue, president of Tellme Networks Inc., which sells voice automation software. 

With the financial services and airline industries leading the way, some companies use voice-activated systems to better route calls to live people. Others use them to replace some human agents altogether – except for complex transactions. 

“It’s more intuitive, more natural than using a touch-tone pad,” said Tom LaCentra, customer service director for the credit card division of Wells Fargo & Co. 

After decades of research, speech recognition technology has gotten good enough that some analysts predict the voice will one day become our sole means for interacting with machines. 

Hold on to your keyboards and phone pads, though. This technology is not foolproof yet. 

Major providers such as SpeechWorks International Inc. and Nuance have reached 90-plus percent accuracy rates in recognizing speech and generating correct responses. But systems still have difficulty understanding thick accents or callers on bad cell phone connections. 

People who prefer a live interlocutor may still find computerized voices annoying, so most companies offer a way out. Typically, pressing ”0” will get you a human. Also, when automated systems can’t understand or handle a request, they usually route callers to a live person. 

Having embraced voice automation, corporations sold on it are now upgrading their systems to lend them some personality. 

After months of market research, Wells Fargo’s credit card division decided on a young, hip but serious voice that sounds like a 30-something male business banker. 

“We thought our customers might like some fun in the system, but they told us, ’No.’ They just wanted someone professional,” LaCentra said. 

Wells Fargo, which led efforts by banks nationwide to reduce transactions handled by tellers in bank branches, will soon test its speech-automated phone system in select markets and hopes to expand it nationally next year. 

Early adopters say voice automation pays off in consumer satisfaction. 

Since online travel site Orbitz upgraded to a voice-automated system in June, allowing customers to get confirmations or cancellations, calls solved without an agent have risen from 3 percent to more than 15 percent, said Eliah Kahn, Orbitz’ vice president of customer experience. 

Voice systems can shorten phone calls, especially with impatient customers who end up punching numbers that lead them into telephonic blind alleys. 

Charles Schwab Corp. installed a system in 1997 that allows callers to speak – asking for quotes – rather than push buttons. Today, its clients can even trade stocks and confirm transactions that way. 

Most clients calling Schwab’s main customer lines choose the voice option over touch-tone, said Cecily Baptist, Schwab’s vice president of voice technology. Transferring cash, for example, takes 14 steps with the touch-tone method and as few as five steps via voice, she said. 

At least a quarter of Fortune 500 companies invested in voice-automated systems in 2001, up from 12 percent in 2000, and by 2007, the voice technology market will reach revenues of nearly $3 billion, up from $485 million this year, predicts the research firm Datamonitor. 

It’s been good to voice actors, who nowadays include telephone greetings and message prompts in their demo tapes. 

Darby Bailey’s work with Tellme is a far cry from the stilted, robotic responses of systems past. In a friendly, conversational tone, Bailey’s recorded voice – aided by a computer program that listens for key words and phrases and responds by piecing her words and phrases together – will ask callers to state their requests. 

She’ll then respond with “OK, here’s the number,” or, in E-Trade’s case, with the stock information. 

In April, AT&T eliminated 200, or nearly half, of its toll-free directory assistance operators after switching all of its weekend and evening services and part of its weekday services to speech automation. 

The National Weather Service thinks a new speech-automation system may even help save lives. 

The agency is converting from the “Schwarzenegger-sounding” computerized weather reports to the human voices of “Craig” and “Donna,” said Curtis Carey, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the weather service. 

A computer powered by SpeechWorks software uses the prerecorded human voices to compile phonemes – syllables and other word fragments – and distribute tornado and flood alerts more quickly and more clearly than ever before, Carey said. 

“Clarity is so critical during warnings,” he said. 

It’s only a matter of time before computers will be able to understand all manner of speech – perhaps even sarcasm or irony. 

AT&T Labs has developed a system called “How May I Help You,” designed to recognize not just what someone is saying but also the meaning, no matter how it is phrased. 

For instance, the new system now being tested could understand a caller who says, ’“There’s a phone number on my bill I don’t understand,”’ said Doug Shurts, a director at AT&T’s consumer division. 

A friendly female – automated – voice would then ask, “Would you like to look up a number on your bill?” After a series of questions and answers, the caller would be routed to a live person who would resolve the problem. 

The new system now handles half the center’s 1.5 million monthly calls and has cut routing times so dramatically that service complaints have dropped by 80 percent. 

“My prediction,” Shurts said, “is we will eventually get rid of all number menus.”