net.wars: The robot in your phone

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 06 May 2005

One day soon, you will look back nostalgically at the days when you could phone customer service and get a human based in an exotic foreign country with a shaky command of a written script from which they were not allowed to deviate.

Wendy M Grossman

This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago at an event run by   ScanSoft where they were doing the hard-sell on speech recognition systems. If you believe them, all of today's touch tone-driven systems will soon be replaced by voice-driven interactive systems. This has already begun to happen in the US, where friends complain about being forced to recite their credit card numbers or answer questions when they'd really rather quietly punch a key.

Speech recognition had been rather quiet since 2001, when the owners and CEO of the then market leader, Lernout & Hauspie, were arrested and charged with fraud. Like a lot of others, the company had gone public in 1999 and its market cap had been merrily going up until one day in August 2000 when, led by reporters from the Wall Street Journal, the business press began  questioning L&H's sales numbers.

A year later, the company was bust, amid fears that some of the best speech recognition technology had vanished with it. The story of that software's creators is ultimately rather sad; but Scansoft, a Xerox spinoff, was its buyer.

People have always expected   absurdly great things of speech recognition. At one time or another, it was supposed to make computer-human interfaces revolutionarily easier and completely get rid of keyboards. (In response to the first of those, I seem to recall   Donald A. Norman commenting that a badly designed interface was a badly designed interface, no matter how it was driven.)

If you want to wander around your office with a radio headset dictating into your computer, I have no quarrel with you and your virtual secretary (vecretary?). It's all the other stuff. Several of the Scansoft demonstrations showed off flawless telephone interactions between customers and an automated system.

The voice on the other end did indeed sound (mostly) lifelike, though there was always a hint of failed intonations to give it away. The transaction was indeed flawless.

But you just know that somehow that's not what it's going to be like in real life: users, the principle of designing software goes, always use your products in ways you never imagined. People write letters in spreadsheets and use word processors to create A3 calendars, and they call airlines to ask all kinds of crazy questions, from which terminal their international-flight-that-stops-domestically goes from to whether they can carry their  nyckelharpa on the plane.

I'm sure these voice systems works just fine as long as you don't stray from the simple scenarios the designers have envisioned. Probably the AT&T me-Jane / you-worthless-customer phone robot I tangled with a year or two ago was designed perfectly to answer simple queries about billing and service problems. What it couldn't do was tell me which plan the house I was staying on was on so I could find out how much it would cost to call London. It never occurred to the designers that anyone wouldn't know their own billing plan.

And is there anything more annoying than a confident robot saying, "I can help you with that?" before whirring itself into glitch mode and asking you if you'd like to start over?

But the key thing I learned from Scansoft - and it's not fair to pick just on them, because I'm sure their   competitors are just as happy to make the same argument - was that the companies buying these systems do not care. I made the argument to one of the salespeople about how frustrated people are with today's customer service. This is just another way for companies to further distance themselves from their customers, I said. Long-term, don't companies want customer loyalty any more?

She looked at me as if I were slightly mad. Companies, she said, shouldn't waste their time on people who only spend, say, $15 a month buying phone service. Those people should be dealt with as quickly and cheaply and automatically as possible, saving the company's resources for dealing with the big spenders. The better customers.

Well, I'm a frequent flyer, and I've been gold preferred, and I know exactly how much difference it makes to be a bigger spender and how much nicer they are to you, but that's not the point. The point is that the guy who spends $15 a month on his mobile phone this year may next year be the $1,000 spender - and if you've already pissed him off, why will he choose you to spend it with? The point is also that the same guy may, in another role in his life, be the guy who specifies mobile phone service for a major company - and again, why will he choose you?

Granted, she said. But the fact remains that if you only spend a small amount you don't deserve service.

Thus has the world changed.

I used to complain that they promised us speech recognition and they gave us voice menus. You know what's going to be worse? Getting speech recognition.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).