Virtual Phone Reps Replace The Old Touch-Tone Menus
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This section of our technical library presents information and documentation relating to IVR Development and custom IVR software and products. Business phone systems and toll free answering systems (generally 800 numbers and their equivalent) are very popular for service and sales organizations, allowing customers and prospects to call your organization anywhere in the country. The PACER and WIZARD IVR System is just one of many DSC call center phone system features..

What is Interactive Voice Response?. An Interactive Voice Response (IVR) processes inbound phone calls, plays recorded messages including information extracted from databases and the internet, and potentially routes calls to either inhouse service agents or transfers the caller to an outside extension.

Contact DSC today. to learn more about our IVR services and IVR application development software.

Virtual Phone Reps Replace The Old Touch-Tone Menus


Meet the new face of customer service: perky, unflappable -- and entirely virtual.

From Amtrak to Sprint PCS , a growing number of companies are ditching their automated service hotlines and replacing them with "virtual agents" that answer customer calls and e-mails. The phone characters are essentially talking computer programs with human voices -- and, in some cases, names and personalities -- that ask callers to speak rather than push buttons.

Using speech-recognition technology, the systems try to mimic the experience of talking with an enthusiastic human rep. Yahoo Inc.'s Jenni, who reads e-mails to customers through Yahoo by Phone, says, "Got it!" after nearly everything and quips, "Wow, you're popular!" to callers with crowded in-boxes. Julie, who books Amtrak tickets and offers schedule information, is designed to sound increasingly stressed out each time she misunderstands a customer's speech command.

But many callers aren't entertained by the anthropomorphizing gestures. "It's more annoying to talk to a computer pretending to be a person than just to talk to a computer," says Matthew Vogel, a Boston research analyst. One problem: The characters sometimes don't hear callers correctly. Since the software programs behind the characters match what callers say against a dictionary of possible responses, background noise or a spotty cellphone connection can throw off the entire conversation.

The virtual agents represent the latest push by companies to make customer service more efficient. For more than a decade, the touchtone menu has ruled the call-center landscape. But the new technology allows companies to automate more-complex transactions. And the speech-recognition calls are 40% faster on average than touch-tone calls, according to Kelsey Group, because customers don't have to listen to lists of menu options. The latest systems understand hundreds of accents and recognize multiple synonyms for common words. (Simon at United Airlines, for example, responds to "mm-hmm" and "yeah, baby" as variations on yes.) And, while speech systems are more expensive than touch-tone automation, they still offer cheap labor. On average, a customer-service call handled by a speech system costs about $2.50, compared with $5 for a call taken by a human, says Gartner Research.

As the technology improves, companies from Aetna to Merrill Lynch are scrambling to replace their touch-tone menus. Total spending on speech-recognition technology in the U.S. topped $680 million in 2002, up 60% from the previous year, according to Kelsey Group.

But the virtual reps aren't popular with some customers, and already, some companies are starting to tweak their agents to make them less annoying. Sprint PCS's Claire has infuriated customers by sounding overly enthusiastic when they call with frustrations like billing or service disruptions. "She sounds completely and utterly thrilled to hear that I have a problem with Sprint," says Carrie Bancroft of New York City. In response to customer complaints, Sprint PCS President Len Lauer ordered phone rep Claire to undergo a personality upgrade, which included making it easier to reach human help through the system. In recent weeks, Claire has stopped introducing herself at the beginning of each conversation. "We're de emphasizing her character," says a spokesman for Sprint PCS, the mobile unit of Sprint.

Katie, the flirty "virtual skin-care assistant" on the Dove soap Web site, had to be reprogrammed after she was deemed "too aggressive" in her efforts to collect visitors' email addresses, according to NativeMinds, the San Francisco company that built the system. Now, Katie requests an e-mail only if you ask her for free products or coupons.

Katie has plenty of company online. Customer-service "Verbots" or V-reps" now populate Web sites at companies including AT&T Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Coca-Cola Co. These tiny talking heads -- usually represented by photos or digital cartoons -- lurk in the corner of the Web sites, baiting site visitors with "ask me a question!" The faces front for computer programs that can scan the text of a typed question and generate a response from a dictionary of frequently asked questions. The resulting "chat" sessions mimic an instant message exchange.

Online V-Reps are often more cute than helpful. Some seem more knowledgeable about their personal histories than the company they work for. Hank, the V-rep at, can answer questions about his sexual orientation but can't tell you where to buy New Vanilla Coke. But since the technology is new, companies are constantly adding new information to character's answer dictionaries. Ford, for example, employs a small staff devoted to maintaining the online V-rep, Kate. Currently, she can answer at least 8,000 questions.

Some companies create extensive biographies for the characters that include everything from SAT scores to hobbies. Yahoo's Jenni is a free-lance artist who once played guitar in an all rock band. "Melinda," at the Internet provider Tiscali, is a British advertising assistant with a glittering Notting Hill social life.

Virtual reps -- and the companies creating them -- face a formidable challenge: Not all customers are seeking friendship when they call a customer-service line. "I don't want a relationship with a character," declares Sam Berkow, an acoustic designer in Manhattan. "I want an efficient system for buying a train ticket."

Jim DiCamillo, an Amtrak passenger, agrees. When Amtrak's Julie starts booking train tickets, unexpected itineraries sometimes begin to unfold. "I say Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she gives me Billings, Montana!" he says. "She almost convinced me to go there."

Despite the troubles, some customers seem to enjoy their interactions with some of the characters. Lourdes Ayala, a lawyer from Silver Springs, Md., frequently books train tickets through Julie and considers her a friend. "I know what she's going to say before she says it," says Ms. Ayala. "Julie asks all the right questions. She knows me better than my boyfriend."

Write to Jane Spencer at

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