FreshMeat #13: The Name of the Game is the Name

FreshMeat #13 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh                  
                \\/  Meat

Gimme gimme gimme! Gimme FreshMeat, Gimme FreshMeat!

Over the last couple of years, the Safeway grocery chain
has attempted to improve their quality of service by
addressing customers by name. You see, if you use their
loyalty card, or if you pay by debit or credit card,
they retrieve the text of your name and print it on
your cash register receipt. Checkers are required to
thank you by name, which they read off the receipt,
before they hand it to you. This doesn’t work so well,
because it takes more than a few seconds for some
checkers to read some names, and that delay at the
conclusion of your service is intolerable. Add to that,
an increased likelihood of having one’s name mispronounced,
and you’ve got a customer service failure. I mean, if I
had a dime for every time they’ve called me “Mr. Portugal,”
well, I wouldn’t have to shop at Safeway!

(This customer service problem was parodied by Saturday
Night Live back in 1992. You can read a transcript of that
sketch here.)

Recognizing the long-frustrating problem of
mispronunciation of names during commencement ceremonies,
schools like Baylor and Worcester Polytechnic Institute use
the web to collect phonetic spelling info from their grads.

The need is clear, and the technology is ready. Products
like Espeech and Orator II can begin to solve this problem.
The technology that translates text to speech actually
builds a sequence of phonemes (the basic speech sounds
used in a language) that could be spoken (by a speech
synthesizer) or output as phonetics. Just add another
field to all those databases of customer names. Let the
software take the first stab at guessing how to pronounce
the name. Checkout clerks and telemarketers would be
shown a pronunciation key at the appropriate time. If
the customer offers a correction, update the field.

If the companies that consumers do business with (airlines,
grocery stores, phone companies, banks, etc.) are going to
be addressing them by name, is it really so crazy to spend
some money getting those names right? Safeway obviously has
an inkling that they could deliver better service and forge
the right relationship through judicious use of their
customers’ names, maybe they need to step up their efforts
just a notch or two, and get it right.

If you are interested in ideas for products and services,
check out (updated daily, as
the name implies, or available as a daily email), or (looks cool, but kind of
impenetrable UI.)

Received February, 2002 from Steven A. Burd, Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Office of Safeway, in response to a faxed copy of this issue of FreshMeat.

Dear Mr. Portigal:
Thank you for suggesting that we use some of the new software that translates text into speech, in conjunction with our ongoing customer service initiatives. We appreciate your interest as a good customer whose name has been mispronounced occasionally by our clerks.
It’s an interesting idea, one we have considered before – but using voice recognition technology, the opposite of what you propose. To be honest, we haven’t pursued this since our initial research, because the applications available at the time were expensive, slow and ineffectual. While we have similar concerns about the technology you mentioned, our industrial engineers may wish to visit the two web sites cited in your newsletter.
Meanwhile, we’ll review our stores in your area to be sure any employees who are having difficulty thanking customers by name receive remedial training. If our clerks are unsure of how a name is pronounced, they are to ask the customers. Admittedly, this is a low-tech solution, but it seems to work well.
Thanks again, Mr. Portigal. We value your constructive criticism, and the friendly spirit in which it is offered.

As we automate our lives, swallowed in a bottomless maw of voice-mail, it’s hard not to heed that little voice telling us to listen

Susan Sward
Sunday, October 18, 1998

Mother used to say that by the time people die, the world around them has often changed so much that death does not seem so terrible. I thought about her comment off and on when I was growing up — partly because I wished that the world where I had played in the 1950s would remain unchanged forever.

Soon enough, I realized that wouldn’t happen. There were the darkened, tree-lined streets of Santa Monica, for example, where my sisters and I ran barefoot chasing after the neighborhood boys. The magic of that mysterious realm was lost forever when the city installed street lights and switched them on one evening. Lately, though, my mother’s observation has been haunting me — because I fear the inexorable march of the machine.

News item: Bank says it will introduce cash-dispensing machines with new software to recognize customers’ faces.

News item: Three industry giants are pioneers in using speech-recognition technology for services such as quoting stock prices over the phone, switching a caller to the right department and reporting the whereabouts of a lost package.

News item: Later this year, many callers wanting flight information from an airline will not speak to a person but to a computer that acts like one.

News item: The Mill Valley Public Library installs an electronic checkout system removing the need to deal with a library assistant when borrowing many of the facility’s books.


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