Recently, a potential Amtrak customer called the companys automated phone system to get fare information. Heres how the conversation went:
"Hi!" exclaimed a recorded voice infused with welcoming, patient positivity. "Im Julie, Amtraks automated agent. Lets get started. What city are you departing from?"
"New York," the customer said.
"Hmm. I think you said Newark," Julie said. "Is this correct?"
"No," the customer said.
"Okay," Julie said. "Lets try again. What city are you departing from?"
"Manhattan," the customer replied.
"I think you said Meriden, Connecticut," Julie said. "Is this correct?"
Eventually Julie gave up and put the customer through to an actual human being.
While its true that speech recognition systems have improved steadily over the past two decades, it has been a painfully slow progression. Often their use in call center applications seems specifically designed to annoy rather than to serve. Touch-tone systems are maddening enough, but trying to converse with artificially unintelligent digital drones can send a customer right over the edge.
Some experts say the reason why speech recognition has earned its bad reputation is that consumers have unfair expectations of what the software can do.
"You say speech recognition, and consumers automatically expect HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey," said Art Schoeller of Yankee Group Research Inc. And companies that use the technology tend to over-promise and under-deliver on that expectation; they create realistic personas to make customers feel as if they are speaking to a live agent.
So why would any company want to use this floundering technology? The answer is simple: to cut costs. Automated customer service (often referred to as "customer self-service"), whether speech-enabled or touch-tone, costs a fraction of the price of staffing call centers with live agents. And voice systems are designed to handle more complex transactions, such as travel reservations.
According to Forrester Research Inc., customer service calls handled by automated systems cost an average of 20 cents per minute, compared with $7 per minute for live help.
But the Web has proven an even more effective tool for those complex kinds of customer interactions, and the speech recognition market has suffered as a result.