Giving voice to customer service

Recent advances in speech recognition enable computer telephony systems to serve customers on their own terms.
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It's 4 o'clock on a Friday afternoon. You're in a meeting with your biggest client, and she has just hinted that she would like to be wined and dined tonight at a trendy, uptown restaurant. How do you find a table for two on short notice--without making dozens of telephone calls to snooty and unsympathetic maitre d's?

Tom Infantino and his colleagues at Inc. believe they have a solution: A system that uses computer telephony integration (CTI) to enable anyone to reserve a table at a participating restaurant by calling Foodline and responding to automated voice prompts. First, you tell the speech recognition system that you want a table for two at a fancy French restaurant in New York City at 7:00 p.m. The interactive voice response (IVR) system presents you with a list of restaurants and gives you the option to listen to reviews. Your call is then transferred to the restaurant of your choice, allowing you to place your reservation with a live human being.

"The biggest issue we have with the telephone [system] is the cost of hosting the calls," says Tom Infantino, CTO and COO of
With this telephone system and a companion Web site (, the Boston-based startup is attempting to revolutionize the way people dine out. Similarly, other companies, both small and large, want to capitalize on recent advances in speech recognition, computer telephony, and customer service. Whether the corporation is trying to shave a few seconds off millions of calls to their customer service call center or to enable employees to dial colleagues simply by saying their names, recent advances in speech recognition may make implementation of this technology possible.

Why are corporations beginning to take telephone-based automatic speech recognition (ASR) systems seriously? Speech recognition--the automatic conversion of a stream of speech into discrete, digitizable words--requires elaborate processing of large volumes of audio data in real-time. So with PC clock speeds doubling every year or two, "the hardware platforms have really made speech blossom," says Judith Markowitz, president of J. Markowitz Consultants, an Evanston, Ill., firm specializing in speech recognition. Also, "the algorithms [for processing speech] have become much better, and accuracy has improved dramatically over recent years," Markowitz says.

With the technology improving rapidly, sales of telephone-based ASR will top $1 billion in 2003, according to Voice Information Associates Inc. of Lexington, Mass. And there are a number of big-name vendors getting into the speech game. Joshua Walker, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., says the key players include Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products N.V., Nuance Communications Inc., and SpeechWorks Inc. Other important vendors are Dragon Systems Inc., IBM Corp., Periphonics Corp., and Phillips Electronics N.V.

But the real business driver behind widespread adoption of enterprise speech recognition systems is improving customer service. By sidestepping the slow and awkward telephone keypad, speech recognition systems allow companies to give their clients a better experience. In addition, speech systems can help companies save money by reducing the need for human telephone operators.

The company: Boston's Inc. is a provider of reservations systems for restaurants and their customers.

The problem: This startup needed to expand its appeal to restaurant-goers by implementing an automatic speech response telephone system to complement its Web site.

The solution: A telephone system based on SpeechWorks Inc.'s SpeechWorks 5.0 speech recognition software was designed with the aid of Artisoft Inc.'s Visual Voice Pro 5.0 development platform.

The IT infrastructure: The system is hosted on servers leased from Automated Financial Systems Inc. of New York City. Foodline's ISP is Digex Inc. of Beltsville, Md.

The potential benefits of speech recognition don't stop there. "Speech recognition lets companies take a pool of data from the Web to the telephone," says Walker. And that's what Tom Infantino at Foodline set out to do.

Back to the groaning board

Not that the implementation of the telephone restaurant reservations system was a cakewalk. In 1998, "we first worked with Lernout & Hauspie to implement a speech recognition telephone system in Boston," says Infantino, Foodline's CTO and COO. Lernout & Hauspie of Burlington, Mass., helped Foodline install and configure its ASR1500 automatic speech recognition software on two Dell Computer Corp. dual-Pentium 400MHz servers.

But the voice interface confused and frustrated users, and Foodline's performance fell short. Users often didn't understand how they were expected to respond to the voice prompts, Infantino says. "We went back to Lernout & Hauspie, but they couldn't help us" with the user interface problems, he says.

Foodline went back to the drawing board in 1999 and found a new speech vendor. The company partnered with SpeechWorks of Boston in May 1999 to build a speech-driven restaurant reservations system from scratch using SpeechWorks 5.0 speech recognition software. "SpeechWorks bowled us over with how they could bring the technology to fruition," Infantino says. SpeechWorks proved much more adept than Lernout & Hauspie at fine-tuning the wording and enunciation of the voice prompts, according to Infantino. The vendor's solutions services department helped Foodline plan the all-important call flow, which was designed with the aid of Artisoft Inc.'s Visual Voice Pro 5.0, a development platform for telephony applications. The call flow is the script that leads the customer down a hierarchy of voice prompts to elicit the information required to query Foodline's restaurant information database.

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