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September 11, 2004 12:34 AM

Broken: Voice-activated (IVR) phone service

When I call a toll-free 800 number to get customer service, I want to use the phone's touch-tone buttons to make selections. Instead, increasingly I have inane conversations with phone-bots: "Please speak the option you want." "Operator." "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that..."

How hard would it be to just say, "Press 0 for operator" and let the caller dial their response?

A New York Times article from Sept 9 talks about the state of the technology today. In one example, saying "That's it" was mistaken as "Athens, Greece." Broken.


Not to mention that the system only wants a particular pronunciation of "operator"-- if your accent's just slightly different than what it expects, you're totally out of luck.

Posted by: codeman38 at September 11, 2004 09:05 PM

Microsoft's product activation number has this. The problem I've had is that after reading in the 30 odd numbers it gets to the end and has to transfer me to a live operator because it couldn't do it automatically. What makes that even more broken yet is that after getting transferred to a live operator I have to repeat that whole string of numbers.

Posted by: Peregrine at September 11, 2004 10:33 PM

Argh. I don't even want to think about doing product activation over the phone-- letters and numbers can be REALLY hard to distinguish with all that distortion, even for humans, and especially for those of us with poor hearing. ("Was that 'D5B' or 'E9C'?")

Posted by: codeman38 at September 12, 2004 10:05 PM

I've found that repeatedly hitting the 0 key usually gets me to a live person.

Posted by: JayK at September 13, 2004 02:01 PM

I've found that repeatedly hitting the 0 key usually gets me to a live person.

Posted by: JayK at September 13, 2004 02:02 PM

Not to mention that it sucks for those of us with speech problems. :~(

Posted by: Jacques Troux at September 13, 2004 04:57 PM

I tried to tell a recording to "shut up", and it said something like, "Did you say, Karab, Saudi Arabia?"

Posted by: Dan at September 13, 2004 05:27 PM

Our Bell phone service, apparently when you start using vulgar language, it will connect you to complaints :P

Posted by: Shadyman at September 14, 2004 07:09 PM

I recently encountered similar problems with a cable company's system. I found that "customer service representative" worked better than "human" or "live person", both for the cable company and the phone company I called soon after.

Posted by: Rob Drimmie at September 15, 2004 01:45 PM

I guess these telephony engineers/designers think that on some subconscious level we'll assocate computers with real operators if we can just speak to them. But I just feel weird doing that, even if it worked 100%. That's why I never bothered with speech recognition on my computer. When I want to interact with a machine, pushing buttons is just more natural.

Posted by: Michael at September 15, 2004 02:20 PM

Another disadvantage to requiring verbal input rather than touch-tones: Any amount of background noise makes it much less likely that the interpreting software will understand correctly. Many airlines now have the "cute" computer personality that you can speak to so it feels less impersonal. Only problem is that when I'm calling it to get current arrival/departure info or similar, I'm usually either in the noisy airport, or in a speeding car wondering if I'm going to miss my pickup. Either way, I'm screaming non-sequitors into the phone and still being misunderstood. The ones that do/did accept touch-tones allow me to put the phone on mute (look ma, no background noise!) and just hit touch tones, which works admirably. Some of these systems now allow either voice or touch-tone, which I think is perfect. It allows anyone happier with the voice option to still use it, but doesn't force it upon those of us who don't wanna.

Works for anyone out there still using a rotary phone too. ;)

Posted by: yada at September 21, 2004 03:06 PM

Incidentally, two posts from comp.risks about issues with automated voice-recognition systems expecting a particular pronunciation of "operator":

Heck, given how many times I'm misheard by actual *humans*, it'd probably be easier for me to plug the expected response into a speech synthesizer and have the computer say it instead! :-p

Posted by: codeman38 at October 13, 2004 01:29 PM

What bugs me about entering numbers into the phone is that you almost always end up telling the person what you just typed in! Didn't your (s/n, ID#, etc.) get recorded when you typed it??

Posted by: Ben at March 16, 2005 02:53 PM

You can key in your number on Microsoft Activation. Was this not an option about a half a year ago?

Posted by: David at April 19, 2005 06:12 PM

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