Amtrak to Add Voice Response to Call Centers

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Amtrak will roll out interactive voice response technology this fall that it expects will improve the service in its call centers and eventually provide a means for consumers to purchase tickets by telephone without speaking to live operators.


The Washington-based railroad company sees the system, in which customers navigate the IVR using spoken commands, replacing its keypad-based IVR technology. It also expects the system to reduce the number of calls that require the intervention of a live agent and to reduce the time customers spend on hold when they need to speak to an agent.


The move is partially the result of the rapid growth in the use of cellular phones, which make it more difficult for customers to use keypad-based IVR systems. Cellular phone customers who encounter touch-tone IVR systems have to go back and forth from listening to the phone to holding it in front of them to push the numbers.


Touch-tone IVR systems are widely employed by direct marketers and other call center operators to route calls to appropriate agents and, in many cases, to eliminate the need for the intervention of a live agent altogether. However, some companies - particularly in the travel and financial services industries - have started embracing spoken-voice technology to replace or enhance keypad-based IVR systems.


Amtrak said it hopes the spoken-command technology will resolve most of the 30 million calls it receives annually on its 1-800-USA-rail number.


"The idea is that we can cut down on the simple, monotonous everyday tasks of the agents," said Roslyn Roberson, manager of telephony technology at Amtrak. "That will enable agents to handle more complex tasks, such as booking sleeper cars or long-distance trains."


By reducing the number of calls requiring agent assistance, the company expects to reduce its hold times, which Roberson estimated now range as long as three minutes.


The technology supplier for the voice-based system, SpeechWorks International Inc., Boston, has been working with Amtrak agents to compile a roster of their everyday tasks so it can create logic-based routing solutions for the simpler tasks that will be taken over by the IVR. In the meantime, Amtrak has been building the back end of the system so the status of train delays can be made available to customers in real time.


Amtrak will preserve its IVR hardware, supplied by InterVoice-Brite, Dallas, which will provide the backbone for the new system.


The system will be rolled out slowly: at first, only train status - whether on time or delayed and estimated time of arrival - will be available. That portion is expected this fall. By January, callers will be able to get schedule and fare information. Three months after that, consumers will be able to make reservations and purchase tickets.


Roberson said Amtrak is studying the potential security issues surrounding the use of the system to deliver credit card information by voice over the phone. SpeechWorks president/CEO Stuart R. Patterson said voice-based systems could incorporate layers of security, such as allowing customers to enter their credit card numbers on the keypad.


"There are three or four different ways to address the security concerns," he said. "Usually, when people are going to be making frequent transactions, we recommend that they set up accounts."


Accounts could be accessed by speaking a code into the phone, similar to the personal identification number consumers enter when accessing their bank accounts from automatic teller machines.


Amtrak decided to pursue the new technology after a 1998 study by GartnerGroup found that the process of entering city names through the touch-tone IVR systems could be simplified by switching to a voice-based system.


"It's kind of hard, for example, to be on a cellular phone and hold it in front of you, or if you are driving a car, to enter the first three letters of a city," Roberson said.


The company expects to resolve a higher percentage of calls using IVR technology without the use of live agents, and its goal is to have 50 percent to 60 percent of calls handled through the system. It also may incorporate some customer relationship management tools so that when agents do need to intervene, they will have access to the individual call's history within the IVR system.
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