- The Washington Times - Monday, July 15, 2002

You don't know Darby Bailey, but you may have 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 stock quotes.
Voices like Mrs. 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 fake 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 during less-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.
Decades of research have improved speech recognition technology enough that some analysts predict the voice one day will become our sole means for interacting with machines.
But hold on to your keyboards and phone pads, because the technology is not foolproof.
Although major providers such as SpeechWorks International Inc. and Nuance have reached 90-plus percent accuracy rates in recognizing speech and generating correct responses, systems still have difficulty understanding thick accents or callers on bad cell-phone connections.
People who prefer speaking to a live person may find computerized voices annoying, so most companies offer a way out. Pressing the zero key typically will direct the caller to a human. Also, when automated systems can't understand or handle a request, they usually route callers to a live person.
Companies already sold on voice automation are 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 sounded like a thirtysomething male business banker.
"We thought our customers might like some fun in the system, but they told us, 'No.' They just wanted someone professional," Mr. LaCentra said.
Wells Fargo, which led efforts by banks nationwide to reduce transactions handled by tellers, soon will test its speech-automated phone system in select markets and next year hopes to expand it nationally.
Early adopters say voice automation pays off in consumer satisfaction.
Since June, when online travel site Orbitz upgraded to a voice-automated system that allowed customers to receive confirmations or cancellations, calls solved without an agent rose from 3 percent to more than 15 percent, said Eliah Kahn, Orbitz's vice president of customer experience.
Voice systems can shorten phone calls, especially for impatient customers who end up punching numbers that lead them into telephonic blind alleys.
Charles Schwab Corp. installed a system in 1997 that would allow callers to speak rather than push buttons. Today, its clients can 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.
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.

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