Hearing is Believing

By Dr. Jon Anton

Ask people to cite a successful application for speech recognition and the name Amtrak invariably comes up. The implementation of “Julie,” the voice of Amtrak at 800-USA-RAIL, quickly made a huge difference in both caller satisfaction and Amtrak profitability. Here’s how it happened.

In April 2001, the rail carrier began a two-and-a-half month pilot of speech recognition for customers who called 800-USA-RAIL to verify with Julie whether trains were running on time. Callers could find out if trains were available at the stations and times they mentioned and could hear the status of arrivals or departures at stations for certain routes.

The success of Amtrak’s first application paved the way and provided the necessary justification for additional speech services. Today schedules, fares, and reservations speech solutions have been implemented, with well over $13 million saved so far.

When we tried out Amtrak’s system, we found that it prompted us if our answers were ambiguous. For example, when we said “Penn Station” or “Newark,” the system asked us to say which Penn Station (we could have referred to New York, NY; Newark, NJ; or Baltimore, MD) and which state we meant for Newark (Delaware or New Jersey). When we mentioned times, the system reminded us if we forgot to say “AM” or “PM.” Unlike touchtone prompts, the speech recognition system lets callers ask for clarification; if they have problems using the system, they say, “help.” Callers can also say “agent” to speak with a CSR (customer service representative).

Departing from its traditional, formal approach with its customer dialogs, Amtrak opted for a more casual, conversational approach, one that would put callers at ease. Today, Julie greets all callers in a warm and friendly manner and provides regular reassurance as she navigates a caller through the speech service. For instance, callers hear phrases like “no problem,” “okay,” “hold on” and “got it” to confirm the system understands what they say before the system checks schedules.

The results are powerful. Since Amtrak’s speech-enabled 1-800-USA-RAIL launched in September 2001, automation rates have increased by 61 percent. In addition, not only has Julie received nationwide recognition on National Public Radio, she has also increased Amtrak’s self-service telephone bookings by 71 percent.

Amtrak is not alone in its success. In the interest of improving customer satisfaction and reducing costs, a variety of industries including travel, finance, retail, telecommunications, government, healthcare, transportation, Internet, and utilities, have seen handsome returns on their investments in speech recognition systems. Here are some of their stories.


McKesson, the world’s largest pharmaceutical supply management and healthcare information technology company, knew that it needed a cost-effective, convenient solution to enhance its information and transaction services. Seventy-five percent of the calls to McKesson’s customer service line are routine questions and order placement related.

McKesson selected a commercial ASR (Automated Speech Recognition) solutions provider to provide information delivery capabilities. Now using the automated speech service TeleStock II, stores that sell pharmaceutical and healthcare products, such as Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Rite Aid, can place and check orders, and access other customer service features simply by speaking over the telephone. Callers can say for example, “I would like to check stock.” The system replies: “Please say the item number and quantity.” Depending on the result, the system allows the caller to order the item, check another item, ask for and receive automated help, or connect with a live customer service representative (CSR).

The speech system enables automated responses to routine calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week allowing McKesson’s live CSRs to handle more complex requests. TeleStock II handles over 40,000 calls per week and, since its implementation in August 2001, has received over half a million calls. [Source: SpeechWorks (now Scansoft)].

American Airlines

Customer service has always been a priority for American Airlines (AA). It’s the largest scheduled passenger airline in the world, carrying more than 100 million passengers each year, and servicing upwards of 44 million members in their AAdvantage frequent flyer program.

In 1998, AA began upgrading its touchtone systems with an automated speech recognition solution to power its flight information line and frequent flyer lines. AA also tapped voice interface designers to create the persona that callers interact with over the phone. This friendly and energetic voice helps enhance the caller experience and improves call completion.

Callers to American’s Dial-AA-Flight (800-223-5436) get automated flight information simply by speaking their flight number or their arrival and departure information. Their AAdvantage members are now able to access their accounts or an appropriate service representative by just saying their membership number.

AA has reported improved customer satisfaction, driven primarily from ease of use and faster access to information. In the frequent flyer program, a full 70 percent of callers accomplish their task, such as requesting an award or upgrade or obtaining their mileage balance, without requiring the assistance of a live representative.

Charles Schwab

In 1996, leading brokerage firm Charles Schwab & Co. deployed the world’s first large-scale commercial speech recognition system to improve customer service and satisfaction and to reduce costs. In September 1996, Schwab introduced its stock quote application using commercial ASR software. Clients simply dialed the toll-free number for VoiceQuotes (800-435-4000), said the name of the stock or fund, and heard the quote. Shortly thereafter, Schwab launched a voice trading application.

These days, Schwab’s VoiceQuotes handles more than four million calls a month, cutting calls handled by CSRs by over 50 percent. More than 80 percent of Schwab’s users consistently give the system a high rating, making for excellent customer satisfaction and convenience. The system leaves representatives free to provide consultations or advice and makes the entire system extremely cost-effective.

Sprint PCS

Sprint’s PCS division has grown to become the nation’s largest all-digital wireless network covering a population of nearly 249 million people, or over 87 percent of the country. Known for superior customer service and innovative service offerings, Sprint turned to a commercial speech recognition systems provider for ways to improve both in 2001.

Utilizing speech recognition software, the system greets callers with an open-ended prompt, allowing them to speak freely and naturally to get real-time access to the information they need. The customer care system isn’t the only voice-driven service available to Sprint PCS customers. Sprint PCS’s nationwide voice-activated dialing service enables callers to place calls, access directory assistance, and update their address books simply by speaking into their cell phone, and it’s available from any Sprint PCS phone.

Value-added services such as voice-driven customer care and Voice Command, allow traditional and wireless carriers to maintain a competitive advantage and increase revenues, while at the same time dramatically improving customer satisfaction and convenience. Hands-free services such as these also provide additional safety measures helping mobile phone users to keep their eyes on the road, not on their phone.


As shown, companies from a whole slew of industries – transportation, travel, finance, retail, and telecommunications – have adopted self-service speech recognition solutions to better serve their customers. The organizations that successfully implemented speech solutions have seen improved customer satisfaction and reduced costs. In the process, these cutting-edge companies have raised the bar on what customers expect from automated speech solutions.

Dr. Jon Anton is the director of benchmark research at Purdue University’s Center for Customer-Driven Quality. He has published 24 books and 117 papers on customer service and call center methods. Dr. Jon can be reached at: DrJonAnton@BenchmarkPortal.com.

[From the April/May 2006 issue of AnswerStat magazine]