Voice Recognition Technology Use

By Kim S. Nash  |  Posted 2002-09-13 Print this article Print

United Air Lines saved $25 million through voice recognition. But it'll need a lot more projects like this in order to survive.

Voice Recognition Technology Use

Heavy accents, background noise or an unusual tone of voice also can trip the technology. The systems must sort and interpret a huge vocabulary. Think how many ways there are to express a day: Wednesday, next Saturday, the day before yesterday, the 24th and so on. But United's computerized male persona sounds calm and eager to please, especially when the exchange isn't going well. A mumbler gets these cheerful responses:

  • "Please enter or say the United flight number. Or say, 'I don't know it,' and we'll get the number a different way."

  • "Sorry, I didn't understand you... OK, I'm going to ask you a few questions so we can find the right flight."

  • "I think you said, 'Boston, Massachusetts.' Is that correct? Please say 'yes' or 'no.'"

  • "Say the departure city one more time. You may want to say the city and state."

    Though other airlines have tweaked the persona of their voice systems—American changed from serious to peppy in its five applications—United has kept the same one since inception.

    United worked with SpeechWorks consultants to build guard rails into the system, to keep callers from leading the software astray. It will frequently prompt callers to say "yes" or "no," for example, to avoid having to understand responses such as "that's right" or "nope." It also can react to common errors. For example, people often say "Chicago" when they mean "Illinois." Another boundary: The application only handles requests about flights within a two-day window. Customers can't check on their flight next week or month, which limits what the system needs to know.

    Bongiorno wouldn't say exactly how well or badly United responds to incoming calls on the whole. But the number of calls answered within 20 seconds of the first ring is "in the 80%s," he says, up from about 60% a few years ago. A good part of that overall improvement is because the voice system never leaves people on hold.

    United doesn't actually run the system itself. InterVoice-Brite, a customer-service technology company in Dallas, hosts the application. InterVoice-Brite is a close partner of SpeechWorks, accounting for 19% of SpeechWorks' $44 million in sales last year. However, United intends to end the hosting deal and bring the system in-house by the end of next year, a move it believes will eventually save it money. United plans to put the application on Intel-based servers equipped with telephony cards and Microsoft's NT or XP operating system. The airline wanted to take control of the application sooner, but the stagnant economy stalled that project, and others. "After 9/11, everything was stopped. Now we're selectively starting things up," Bongiorno says.

    Any big company close to bankruptcy should be tracking expense items monthly and stop all technology work, save for two or three critical projects, says Dave McNally, a principal at AlixPartners, a business turnaround firm in Southfield, Mich. McNally recently finished stints as a turnaround chief information officer at Kmart and Burlington Industries, and specializes in fixing bad information-technology processes.

    United discovered last year that the airline business doesn't track the gains and dips of gross domestic product in the U.S., as had historically been believed, but instead rises and falls with the profits of corporations. That means, McNally says, United should launch targeted data mining projects to quickly create marketing programs aimed at business travelers—which account for the largest part of United's revenues. Data-mining projects are generally a good bet for companies in poor financial shape, looking to technology for quick payback, he says.

    This year, United wants to start building two much more complicated voice applications—a Japanese flight information system and, in the U.S., a fare-finder and booking system.

    Paperwork has been resubmitted to get the booking system project restarted. If it's approved, the application could be done by the second half of next year, Bongiorno says.

    It's ambitious. Shopping for airline tickets is more open-ended than asking what time a flight lands in Cincinnati. Programming voice software to manage booking requires anticipating and responding to more variables.

    "It's harder to do," Bongiorno acknowledges. But he adds, "You can always start it with voice and if it gets into trouble, send it to a live person." The payback in that situation would not be as great as that from having a computer complete the whole transaction, but it would still be enough, he says.

    But Chris Fletcher, an analyst at Aberdeen Group in Boston, says United is perhaps too optimistic. Voice-recognition systems generally can't handle complicated transactions well, Fletcher says. "They're still kind of bumbling their way along."

    Continental Airlines, which also uses SpeechWorks software, has no plans for anything similar. "With speech applications, you have to be careful not to have too many prompts that will slow everything down and turn the customer off," says Continental e-commerce director Chris Frawley.

    SpeechWorks says its software can do it, though. United plans to hire consultants from the vendor if the airline's senior executives OK the project.

    Voice-response booking may be risky, but the $25 million saved using the technology already makes it too tempting not to try. "As flying traffic comes back, you don't want to grow head count with it," Bongiorno says. "It's an opportunity to avoid hiring." That is, if United's financial problems don't first force it to utter a response of its own, in bankruptcy court: "Uncle."

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    Senior Writer
    Kim has covered the business of technology for 14 years, doing investigative work and writing about legal issues in the industry, including Microsoft Corp.'s antitrust trial. She has won numerous awards and has a B.S. degree in journalism from Boston University.

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