A Low-Tech Upgrade for 411 Creates Efficiency

Bell Atlantic rolls out a semi-automated directory assistance

If you think you're conversing with a computer when you dial 411 in the mid-Atlantic region, think again: You're actually talking to a tape recorder.

Bell Atlantic recently modernized its directory assistance service. When you dial 411, after being welcomed to Bell Atlantic by the booming baritone of James Earl Jones, a synthetic voice asks you for the city and then the listing you are trying to locate. After a brief pause, a real operator comes on the line and asks you to hold for your number, after which the machine takes over again to recite the number and offer direct dial service for an additional 30 cents.

Contrary to what one might think, this process does not employ voice-recognition technology. That much-discussed but little-deployed technology is not yet able to accurately and consistently discern various dialects, accents and other subtle nuances that comprise human speech.

Rather, the Bell Atlantic system is actually based on a recording and compression device that captures the voice, compresses the call to filter out the pauses, "umms" and "ahs" and then plays it back to an operator, who punches the number up on a computerized database.

The process, said Bell Atlantic spokesman Michel Daley, saves operators an average of 1.4 seconds per directory assistance call out of a typical 24-second call. So why bother? From Bell Atlantic's view, if you multiply the 1.4 seconds by 850 million, the amount of directory assistance requests the company receives every year, you're talking real time and real money.

"From our standpoint, it provides greater efficiency in handling directory assistance," said Daley, who also said the new service allows operators to field more calls per day. The system, developed by BellCore and already used by US West and BellSouth, he added, also eliminates the monotony for operators who no longer have to ask the same question more than a thousand times a day.

And how well does it work? If you ask for an unusual or extraordinarily long listing, the system will sometimes asks you to hold for an operator, as it does if you answer the voice prompts with silence.

Daley said the system does what it was designed to do, and has been well-received by more than 95 percent of surveyed Bell Atlantic operators and customers. And callers who prefer human interaction, he pointed out, have the option of pressing "0" at any time to connect directly to an operator. An overwhelming majority of callers, he said, choose not to exercise that option.

Besides helping improve Bell Atlantic's bottom line, the new directory assistance system is novel in that it represents a rare instance of technology deployment not leading to unemployment.

"This system is not designed to replace operators, it is designed to help them do their jobs better," he said.

However, Daley added, Bell Atlantic plans to fire or ease out 5,600 people in its 75,000 workforce over three years, cuts that will hit the approximately 4,500 operators as well. While this particular technology won't generate any pink slips, Daley said the company intends to deploy voice recognition systems when technology permits, a move that will further, if not completely , automate the directory assistance process.

"We have had to find ways to create greater efficiencies - we are facing more competition," said Daley. "We're not a monopoly any more."


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