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ROBERT KUTTNER

Virtually annoying

ARE YOU ONE of those people who loves voice-recognition software -- a machine posing as a virtual person -- when you are trying to change a flight, straighten out a bill, or get your phone line fixed? American business is training consumers to follow this routine -- and like it.

If anybody should know how to get the technology and the customer psychology right, it's the phone company. ''Voice recognition does work," says Jim Smith, of Verizon's media-relations office.

Smith cites Verizon's customer focus groups. These show that consumers are initially skeptical, he says, ''because they're afraid they're going to screw it up." But once they get used to it, Smith explains, people like it because voice software is faster and more efficient than waiting for an operator. Since 1999, Verizon has gradually expanded voice recognition from directory assistance to billing inquiries to repair.

Well, not this consumer.

The first difficulty is that if your problem is the least bit complex -- let's say the repair office messed up your order -- Ms. Voice-Recognition can't solve your problem. And if you have a directory-assistance request for a name either too common or too unusual, let alone a business with multiple locations, she often gets it wrong.

Ms. Voice Recognition is also disingenuous. She'll pretend she just noticed something, even though the whole spiel is pre-recorded. ''Oh, just so you know," she coos, as if suddenly remembering an important detail, ''We're currently experiencing heavy call volume."

I don't know about you, but if I have to deal with a machine, I'd prefer that it didn't impersonate a human.

The most irritating thing is her slightly hurt tone of disapproval if you insist on a talking to a person. Ms. Voice is disappointed in you for not working with her. ''Please hold and I'll transfer you to a repair representative," she says petulantly, after you've jilted her and jabbed the O key for the fourth time.

Verizon is a little disingenuous, too. Their options-tree doesn't let on about punching O -- you have to figure out when in the tree you get to do that. Why don't they just tell you? ''That would defeat the purpose," says Smith. ''The customer would get no benefit of saving time, and we'd get no benefit of saving costs."

Saving Verizon costs is of course the whole idea. But saving consumers' time?

Many people get so annoyed that they deliberately sabotage the system. ''I just say gibberish," confides a friend. ''Just a moment," replies the directory assistance droid, plainly miffed. ''I'll get an operator to assist you."

In case you wondered, the Verizon voice you hear is not computer-generated. It's the voice of a real person, a ''voice-model" named Eryca Dawson, who regularly fine-tunes her recorded persona and script, in response to Verizon's market research.

Someone at Verizon apparently decided to give Eryca's voice-recognition character a distinct personality -- perky, but no-nonsense, distinctly Northeast-corridor with a touch of attitude, and inclined to toss her curls when she doesn't get her way. I feel like I went to high school with her.

Yes, I know -- I should be doing all this through the Internet, without benefit of humans, real or imitation. And the Web is great for booking flights, buying stuff, paying bills, and of course for looking up phone numbers. But when it comes to something off-script, you still need a real person.

According to Economics 101, if an industry has a lot of competition for customers, you can expect the vendor to be very customer-friendly. For instance, when you call to book a hotel room or to a mutual fund company or to the sales office of an auto dealer, you can get a human being, pronto. But when you call a monopoly, you are likely to get the machine or to die on hold.

Thanks to telephone deregulation, you do ''have a choice of local and long-distance carriers." Verizon still has about three Massachusetts customers in four that it dearly wants to keep. And as a student of voice-recognition excess, I've noticed some salutary changes in Ms. Voice's attitude lately.

Verizon has evidently been paying some attention to its customers. The software gives up a little quicker and turns you over to a human when it can't help. There's a little less condescension.

But in the service economy, virtual humans are still a plague. So if you feel you spend too much time on hold or talking idiotically to a petulant machine, talk back -- and not just to the phone company.

Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, can be reached at kuttner@prospect.org. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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