Voice Mail Run Amok And Robot Pitchmen: You Call This Progress?

The chief financial officer of a San Francisco Bay Area company called his voice-mail system supplier in a panic. Working over the weekend, he had prepared for a few other top executives a voice-mail message on a layoff plan, but by pressing the wrong button on his phone he had accidentally sent it to every voice mailbox in the company. The unintentional broadcast could have embarrassed the CFO and demoralized the publicly identified layoff targets. Fortunately, the supplier was able to erase the digitized message from the memory of the voice-mail computer before Monday morning, and no one was the wiser.

That near-disaster several years ago is the kind of horror story that is spurring a backlash against voice processing. While many people have made the technology part of their daily routines, others reject it as too hard to use, too impersonal, or both. Many systems don't deserve such slams. But enough do that the whole industry has an image problem to contend with.

At the top of the enemies' list are automatic dialing machines that sequentially call every number in an exchange and play recorded sales pitches. Even after an irate consumer has slammed down the phone, the recording can keep playing, tying up the line. According to congressional testimony, a New York woman whose child had collapsed couldn't get through to an ambulance because an auto-dialer had seized her line. In West Virginia, an errant automatic dialer hogged the airwaves of a paging system on three occasions for three hours at a time, preventing a thousand subscribers, including hospitals and police, from receiving messages.

Thirty-two states have passed laws re- stricting or banning auto-dialers, and Congress is considering federal legislation. The Direct Marketing Assn., a trade group that includes the leading telemarketers, says it supports a crackdown on indiscriminate auto-dialers. But it argues that the leading House bill would unnecessarily restrict person-to-person telemarketing, too, making life hard for live salespeople.

DIAL 0. Unions representing telephone operators hope to capitalize on the public dislike of auto-dialers to keep phone companies from using voice processing technology to replace operators. Several local phone companies, such as Michigan Bell and New York Telephone, already use machines to process collect calls, and AT&T began a test in May with selected pay phones at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

So far, operator jobs at the phone companies have been cut through attrition rather than layoffs, but operators remain concerned. They insist that a human at the other end of the line can make a critical difference. "If a child who's hysterical reaches a machine, the machine is not going to be able to talk the child through," insists Indiana Bell Telephone Co. operator Susan Baxter-Fleming, a Communications Workers of America local president.

Phone companies say they aren't about to leave their customers stranded. The system that American Telephone & Telegraph Co. is testing automatically turns a call over to an operator if it can't understand what's being said or if the caller dials O or says "operator."

Between the threat of more regulation and continuing consumer concern, voice processing is bound to become more sophisticated. It can't happen too soon for people like the hapless San Francisco CFO, who like the convenience of voice processing but hate the confusion.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE