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Speech Recognition Cuts Amtrak's Call-Center Costs

SpeechWorks software reduces number of calls that live agents handle

InformationWeek Staff

November 30, 2001

2 Min Read

As travelers look for alternatives to airplanes following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many are turning to Amtrak. That's created call volumes at the railroad's customer-service and reservation centers that are among the highest in Amtrak's 30-year history.

Upgraded customer-service systems that feature improved speech-recognition software are handling the load and reducing the number of calls agents have to answer. Amtrak implemented the software for calls about train schedules and status just before the Thanksgiving rush and plans to integrate it into telephone reservation and ticket-sales systems by the first quarter of next year.

Amtrak receives about 2.7 million calls a year, an average of more than 7,300 a day, from people checking the status of trains. This year, call volumes peaked at 22,000 on the day before Thanksgiving. In the past, about three-quarters of callers exited the automated telephone system in favor of a live agent, adding to Amtrak's call-center staffing costs. With the new software from SpeechWorks International Inc., more than 70% of callers use the speech-recognition system to get train information without talking to an agent.

The software is designed to make the automated phone-response system sound more like a live agent. A customer who calls to check the status of a train can speak the train's number into the telephone. If the system doesn't recognize the number, it will respond: "That's OK. Let's see if we can figure out the train another way." It then asks for the station and approximate time of arrival or departure.

"One motivation to implement SpeechWorks was to make it easier for customers to get the information they need," says Vince Zagorski, director of call-center telephony for Amtrak. "The other big factor is that our call volume is growing. We're trying to make the self-service channels more robust so we won't have to continually grow the call-center staff."

Zagorski won't say how much the software costs or how much money Amtrak is saving. "The bulk of the savings," he adds, "will come in when we automate reservations, fares, and ticketing."

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