Archive for October, 2010

The World is Calling — and Asterisk is *Taking* That Call!

David Duffett, Myself, Jared Smith -- who definitely has the Smith Power!

 Astricon — the yearly convention of fans, developers, coders, implementors and re-sellers of Asterisk (in case you didn’t know: the Open Source PBX which also happens to be the fastest-growing telephony platform in the world) has come and gone for another year; and from what I could glean from an informal poll taken in the hotel lounge (as are most polls taken in hotel lounges are prone to being), The Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center — which hosted the event — was hands-down everyone’s favourite venue by far.

Matt Florell & I

Or maybe it was the convention itself — apart from the location — which seemed to strike most attendees I sampled as the reason why it was the “Best Astricon Ever”. (Although, as one regular attendee said – most aptly – “Every year I think it’s the best Astricon ever.”)

Juan Carlos of Bellvoz

Firstly, this is the seventh Astricon, and I can tell you that there was more free discussion; more passionate discourse, and more buzz about the various session topics and speakers than at any previous Astricon – there was an energy and an almost palpable enthusiasm for what was going on which has not been seen to this extent previously. Fewer tracks, speaking topics which seemed to genuinely strike a chord with attendees, and some very gregarious speakers made for an amazing conference, where people were actually conflicted about which talks to attend.

Taking a Break from Conventionating in Old Town Alexandria with Julie & Mike from Digium

And secondly: I, of course, derive a slightly different “payoff” by attending Astricon every year. The benefits of why I would even attend the convention in the first place became evident the very first year, and continue to prove themselves year after year: for someone who earns her living voicing customized prompts – a significant share of those prompts for the Astrerisk community – the meeting of clients I only know via e-mail/telephone is immensely satisfying (and goes a long way to solidifying relationships); the introduction of myself to those with whom I am unfamiliar is especially

The Guys Who Synthesized Me -- Cepstral!

golden – and the most pronounced moment of satisfaction comes when I get to see these wonderful, familiar faces of people whom I’ve known for years; whose children and spouses are known to me, and whom I look forward to seeing and reconnecting with every year.

Tim Panton and I

There was Juan Carlos Castañeda from Florida, implementing telephony solutions across South America for Bellvoz, Claude Patry, an amazing Asterisk wonk from Quebec, Tim Panton, who we all look forward to making the trip from the UK, Matt Florell (one of my “IVR Dojos”) who gave a great speech about Asterisk on Hold (which gave us the idea to possibly do a co-talk next year…) meeting my guys at Cepstral (who market the Cepstral Allison TTS Voice), Sandro Fauchi from Malta, who gave a riveting talk about security and Asterisk,

Me and Sandro Fauchi

The concrete evidence of Astricon’s viability and longevity – attendance at Astricon continuing to increase every year – and exciting news always being officially launched at Astricon (this year’s announcement of Astricon SCF — Scalable Communications Framework — being the big topic of discussion) – the undeniable fact stands that for networking, troubleshooting, workshopping theories…..and for an unbeatable environment of unbeatable non-stop round-the-clock Astrigeekiness – where there is no such thing as talking too long or too much about all things associated with the workings of Asterisk – nothing beats our yearly gathering.

David Duffett, The Incorrigible Mark Spencer, and Matt Fredrickson

It was mentioned that I should try to find a tiara for next year – to fully exemplify my ersatz title of “Queen of the Geeks” – a title I wear with pride.

Watch for next week’s blog entry, where I will delve into the use of IVR in the airline industry — its strengths and weaknesses!

Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment on this or any of my previous blogs.

Where Have All The Operators Gone?

They could be indentified by the bizarre round bruise on their upper chests...

It’s all my fault.

Well, actually; as easy as it is to strike guilt with me — it’s not *all* my fault. The obsolescence  of the telephone operator  is as a result of ever-emerging technologies which were already spinning well out of control by the time I came on board as a well-known voice of automated telephone prompts. Virtual Switchboards — which use IVR’s to sort callers and connect them to their destinations swiftly, around the clock, and cheaper than posting an actual human at the controls, was inevitable. I just came along at the right time in history to fulfill a need for uniformed, consistent, easy-to-use automated voices which never register disappointment, fatigue, and keep their emotions in check — and never ask for time off. It used to be that operators were essential if you needed anything other than calling telephones across a shared party line. Gradually their necessity faded as phone systems became more sophisticated.

Did you know that — casting against type — the very first telephone 0perator was actually a male by the name of George Willard Croy (in 1878)? And that the first female operator — Emma Nutt — put in place a few months after Mr. Croy — and hired by Alexander Graham Bell himself, if you don’t mind — reportedly could remember every number in the telephone directory of the New England Telephone Company? It’s also interesting to speculate on the fact that teenage boys were widely employed as telephone operators (due to their ability to shimmy up ladders to the higher jacks on the early floor-to-ceiling switching boards — they were, however, universally phased out due to their “unacceptable attitude and behavior”. That sounds about right.)  Back in the 1870’s, telephones were rented in pairs and could only talk to each other. It was not uncommon for small towns to have the switchboards installed in the operator’s home so that the operator could answer calls on a 24 hour basis. It took until the 1960’s for men to again be routinely hired for the job.

The nuts and bolts of the technology used to be painfully manual — when a call was received, a jack lamp lit up on the back panel and the operator responded by placing the rear cord in the jack and throwing the front key forward. The operator could now converse with the caller and find out to where they would like to be connected. If it was another extension, the operator placed the front cord in the associated jack and pulled the front key backwards to ring the called party. After connecting, the operator left both cords “up” with the keys in the normal position. Lamps alerted the operator when the conversation was finished and the parties went “on-hook”.

Being in complete control of calls, operators were naturally in the position to listen in on private phone conversations. With the advent of DDD Systems (Direct Dial) in the 20’s. labor costs were reduced and ensured greater privacy to the customer.

In her book “Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us”, (an oft-quoted tome in this blog) Emily Yellin explains the meticulousness with which telephone operators were hired: “…They were required to be unmarried and usually between the ages of about eighteen and twenty-six. If they were married, they were let go. Dress codes meant they had to look prim and proper always, even though no subscribers would see them doing their jobs.”

Of great fascination to me is the elocution training given to operators as part of their rigorous training. Yellins explains: “They were taught to draw out certain words for clarity because early telephone lines were noisy. So the word please would be pronounced “pleeeyaz”. The number nine became “niyun” and the word line turned into “liyun.” What I always thought of to be a regional “tick” (or stereotype) was actually borne out of necessity to overcome the sound issues of early crude telephony lines.

The use of speech recognition, recorded  speech, and/or speech synthesis in modern directory assistance systems enables the entire call to be handled without live operator intervention — most systems recognize location and listing. If recognition confidence is high, the best result is played to the caller. If confidence is low, the caller’s request is played back to a live operator — as a last resort — who locates the correct listing. Directory Assistance charges can range from $1.25 (Local Directory Assistance — having the operator look up a number local to you) to $7.95 (getting the operator to dial Internationally on your behalf.)

Like most professionals which have gone through paradigm shifts as a result of newer technology taking over, the telephone operator has become almost an anachronism; a signpost of times which have come and gone — and I, for one — even earning a living working with the technology which essentially killed them — feel more than a pang of sadness to see the end of the “Hello Girls”. And just as they epitomized the reputation of gossipy, overly-involved members of their communities — privy to vast amounts of information they probably shouldn’t even know about — they humanized the medium of telephony. That personable, accessible “feel” is what IVR designers are after me to re-create every day that I voice phone prompts. “Just pretend you’re talking to your friend next to you,” they always urge; inviting me to capture that warmth and personability of a bygone day when the phone was actually answered. By an actual someone. And as an added bonus: someone who likely actually knows you.

Next blog will be early — likely Wednesday or Thursday of this coming week, as I blog live from Astricon in National Harbor, MD — Open Source Telephony’s biggest and most significant gathering of developers, coders, bug-killers, re-sellers, and general fans of Asterisk (of which I’m proud to be “the voice”) — I’ll be interviewing attendees and recapping the events that make this convention a “must-attend”!

Allison Smith is a professional voice talent, specializing in the voicing of telephone systems. Her voice can be heard on platforms for Bell Canada, Vonage, Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Asterisk, and Hawai’ian Telcom. She is an avid yoga practitioner, and lives in Calgary, Alberta. Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

The Legend of the “One Take Wonder”

It's not a Spectator Sport, People!

I’ve seen it happen many a time.

I’m hired to do a voice-over at a public studio — a two-hander with another voice talent. We introduce ourselves, pleasantries are exchanged, and we’re led into the booth. We’re asked for levels, so each of us gives the engineer some sample lines — and we launch into the first official take (which, I can tell you — unless one of us stumbled over our words or mis-pronounced the client’s or product’s name — that first take will typically be pretty darned awesome).

The talent director of the studio will usually say that the first take was, in fact…solid — but then offer up suggestions of ways in which the next take (s) will be even better: “Rick, on your line when you hear the wife at the door, can you sound more startled, like you’re hiding something? And, Allison, your lines when you make your way down the  basement steps need to build more in suspense so that payoff when you discover it’s a new furnace he’s hiding is funnier…”

Subsequent takes are done, hopefully taking into consideration the direction which was just given (and, for bonus points, keep what was “working” from all previous takes) — it’s just a natural part of how audio tracks are crafted; the give and take between the director and talent. It’s the director (or engineer’s, or ad agent’s) job to make the talent clear on the material’s message, to keep and use what the talent naturally brings to the table, and to gently guide and shape the performance into something they can use and which will ultimately make the client happy.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen it all too often: with every additional take being asked for; with each suggestion being offered; it’s not unusual for the voice talent’s confidence to become eroded. The pressures of redo after redo (especially if — in their estimation — the talent perceives that they are being asked for multiple changes with every take, and the other talent seems to receive minor direction, if any)  — take their toll on the voice actor’s performance. They imagine (hope) that the last take they did was “it”; they’re dismayed and little shaken to find out it wasn’t.

Especially if they have in their mind the image of the “One Take Wonder.”

We’ve all heard about the voice talent who breezes into the studio, walks up to the mic, delivers their piece flawlessly, holds briefly for the applause of everyone there, and drives off in their car; engine still warm. While there may be actual moments like that in every announcer’s life (“Yep. You nailed it. Get out of here”), the reality of doing voice work is that you’re there to create something with a bunch of other creative beings — much like a jam session. Your job when you’re there is to collaborate — and this involves multiple takes. It’s not a theatrical performance, like a stage actor striding out on stage and having one chance to hit their mark, and say everything correctly and flawlessly.

Here are some concrete reasons why you should shed the image on the One Take Wonder (and put more than 15 minute’s worth of change in the parking meter the next time you arrive at a V/o session):

Time Isn’t Money

Ok, yes it is. Especially when it comes to ad agencies and recording studios and purchasing air time in which to play the spot which you’ve voiced. But the people who have the studio booked to record the voice-over are not interested in you doing a “drive-by” voice-over and nailing it in two minutes. They would have an impossible time justifying to their bosses why they used up ten total minutes of an hour of expensive studio time. They’ve hired you and the other voice talent in the spot; they’ve paid for the engineer’s and studio’s time; they’ve included reps from the ad agency, writers, and occasionally the client themselves to sit in on the session — they’re going to make use of you. In the most optimal way they know how — which is having you do the spot over and over — with you listening carefully to their direction, responding to it as intuitively as you can, and giving them as many options as possible. (Be warned: the more people attending the session — especially the greater the number of people from the ad agency attending — the longer the session will take. Everyone there needs to justify why they’re there; everyone needs to offer their input — even if it flies in the face and directly contradicts what you’ve just been told by another member of the team. The “Mad Men” want to show the clients that they know how to direct and that they’re good stewards of their product, which they’ve been entrusted to market.) I am reminded of a particularly laborious session when I was voicing the radio spots for a national grocery chain and was put through some 15+ takes of a spot, at the request of an ad exec who was literally stretched out on the studio sofa, grateful for the hour or two out of the office, and somewhat making a sport out of recommending take after take. When take #15 was in the can, and she requested playback, the engineer played back — what I knew to be — if not the first, a take from very early on in the session. I almost started to point this out, when he gave me the “shush” signal. After listening to the spot, the ad exec yelled over the studio mic from her repose on the sofa: “That’s the one! Finally!”)

You’re Human

Get used to it.

Think about how many times — in normal conversation — you get tongue-tied; you trip over your words; your brain gets ahead of your mouth. Voice-over requires an “Eye-To-Brain-To-Mouth” coordination, which, quite frankly, doesn’t work well sometimes. Mistakes — in everyday conversation — are normal. So will they be in front of a mic — especially compounded by the eager faces on the other side of the glass watching you bring their words to life. I know of a well-known and extremely successful voice talent — who also happens to be dyslexic. It’s a condition that he has worked hard to overcome — especially with his chosen career path — and he doesn’t make a big deal about the extra takes he may need to “knock it out of the park”. And knock it out of the park he *does*. He arrives well prepared, and refuses to take it personally when asked for multiple takes. There’s a good lesson there.

I, personally, have dubbed myself the “Ella Fitzgerald of Voice Over” — it’s not enough when I mess up to simply stop, take a breath, and start cleanly again: I draw out the mistake in kind of a scat-singing flourish: “Please enter you pin number… fllollowed…..scobbededoooo….wahhhhh!” Like a Viking Funeral, I go out big. I recently had a client request a re-do of a really basic prompt — one that I could probably do in my sleep — “Please hold for the next available agent”. How many times have I read that exact prompt? Hundreds. I asked what the problem was, and he just e-mailed cryptically: “Have a listen”. And there it was, plain as day: “Please hold for the next available Asian.” I also frustrated myself into a tizzy just the other day, by saying — three times in succession — “We apologize for any convenience.” For some reason, the word “inconvenience”  — “convenience”‘s tricky cousin — eluded me. We can’t ponder why the brain “hiccups” when called upon verbally — we only need to accept that it’s a normal human glitch and move on.

This Almost Never Happens To Me When I’m At Home

Those of us with chushy home studios have the best of all worlds — an international clientele at our fingertips, and we could greet them — if we chose to — in our cowboy pajamas. It’s a whole different dynamic when you’re running the show from your own setup….and it was soon after I established my home studio (about twelve years ago) when it really dawned on me how absolutely unimportant it is to get things exact, correct, and perfect on the first take. Clients never know how many takes get scrapped, they never need to know which fragment was brought in from which other random take, or how much editing actually goes on. Even in a phone patch session while recording from home, there is still less inclination to turn the whole thing into a performance piece, and much less nervousness arises when thing do go awry. Editing software is gloriously easy to use; it’s not hard to learn to splice digital files absolutely cleanly; and personally, my best performances come with the state of relaxation attained from clients who explain what they need, and then let me “do my thing”.

My advice to journeyman voice artists who are prone to the jitters in front of a mic at a public studio: come prepared (try to get ahold of the script ahead of time), arrive well rested, well hydrated, and completely focused on the task — and learn to invite — nay, encourage — numerous takes. They’re your way to stretch personally and see how far you can go. Rather than feeling “beaten up” in the studio, be grateful for the opportunity to be sent in direction in which you might not ordinarily go.

Look on the bright side — you could be the guy in the sound file below….actually, it’s Colonel Harlan Sanders, in a recording which makes its way virally among audio people from time to time. He voiced his own radio spots throughout the success of his empire, and continued to do so — some say — long after he probably should have. Cringeworthy, yes. Difficult to listen to, certainly. But it never fails to make anyone in front of the mic grateful that their session — as laborious and stressful as it might have been — didn’t go in the direction of this one (click below):

Col_Sanders

Next week, I’ll blog about telephone operators — their rich history, and how the technology is sadly making them an anachronism.

As always, huge thanks for reading!

The Mighty CJSW

One of the first things I did after getting settled into University life — as soon as my courses were squared away and my name was on the audition sign up sheets for every Drama Department Production being launched — was to somehow get involved with CJSW, the campus radio station at the University of Calgary. Sequestered into a back corner of MacEwan Hall, it looked as unassuming as all the other offices operating there — except for the hundreds of record-industry promotional stickers all but obliterating one’s view into the station from the side windows — and the seemingly endless stream of the hippest, most fascinating people I’ve ever seen entering and leaving the station. I knew I had to be a part of it.

Established in 1955, CJSW had already had a rich and turbulent life by the time I had encountered it (the station survived a secret vote to shut it down and a lockout attempt by the Student’s Union  in 1980, and then a complete withdrawal of the operating budget in 1982) — its struggles and tenacity have only added to its underdog, “maverick” status.

The station was small, cramped, and smelled vaguely of clove cigarettes. The furniture looked like — and likely was — once-glorious decommissioned pieces from a faculty lounge which underwent renovations in the late 60’s.

And the record library. Not unlike the folkloric fashion storage vault at Vogue Magazine, the CJSW Record Library was awe-inspiring; a religious experience. One had to just silently take in its floor-to ceiling row upon row of vinyl brilliance with reverence.

As interested as I was in the music, I knew that my passion would be to try to revive radio drama as a viable medium — not an easy task, as reinforced by the Drama Department’s lack of support (especially in their refusal in rewarding participation in such a venture with some credit towards grades). Attempts to air radio dramas — both pre-recorded and live — were only moderately successful in the past (and apparently have been attempted since my tenure there with negligible success) — I was involved with trying to resurrect a long-forgotten medium; an anachronism. While still pre-dating the jaded internet and DVD era, the entertainment-consuming public of the early ’80’s was still not inclined to gather ’round the radio and listen to “stories” anymore. This hindered me not for a second. Clad with the mis-guided confidence and full-on bravado of a first-year University student, I felt completely up for the challenge.

I thought it would be a true homage paid to the art form of radio drama to resurrect the original “Shadow” radio series — I secured the scripts and excitedly collaborated with my tireless and incredibly tolerant engineer, John Hedemark,  over the right atmospheric music and sound effects –grossly underestimating the challenges of rounding up already time-stretched and stressed-out full-time drama students to fill the roles (and encountered the strange phenomenon of  “mic fright” — ordinarily gregarious and extroverted student stage actors withering under the pressures of performing in front of a mic — even pre-taped, and especially live, which we did frequently.)

Compound that with the added challenges of time constraints (many sessions were delayed or shelved completely due to another show needing to get into the studio after our allotted time) and the technology of the time — with the necessity of literally splicing out bad takes from reel-to-reel with a razor blade– makes recording and editing with our current digital formats a blessing which shouldn’t ever be taken for granted.

Some highlights from “Hold This Radioactive Briefcase” (what we eventually named the show after holding a contest to name it — and yes, surprisingly, *that* was the winning suggestion):

1. After casting “12 Angry Men”, I experienced a mass exodus of cast drop-outs (I scheduled the taping, without thinking, near mid-terms) — in fact, due to only being able to assemble *three* men from the drama department (and by “assembling” I mean “lured with beer”), we managed to tape it with our remaining trio of actors, who — amazing as they were (are), still had to pull off scenes where they actually had to “object to” and “overrule” — themselves.

2. I adapted the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” into a radio drama, and was convinced that the detailed, dramatic description of the highly visual “shower scene” would translate well over radio. I was mistaken. An excellent way to kill Hitchcockian suspense and his trademark implied and largely unseen violence is to deconstruct it and try to describe it in painful detail.

3. We often departed from the radio drama format — often to our detriment. We did a beatnik-inspired jazz poetry reading — with live bongos — in one take. (That reads WAY more flaky than I thought it was going to…) We set our sights on doing an all-Haiku show, and John, again, came to our rescue by finding stunningly beautiful nature noises (a babbling creek) to play softly in the background. All was going glowingly until the distinct sound of a fly fisherman’s reel being cast out interrupted our beautiful minimalist Haiku reading — what would authentic ambient noises of a stream be, if it didn’t incorporate the unmistakable”ZZZZZZ!” of fishing line flying? It made us all hit the floor at the same time; after the giggles were over and we regained our composure; subsequent perfectly good takes kept getting ruined by the repeated sounds of that *farkakta* fishing reel being looped over and over every ten minutes or so…well, we just started getting mad. Which doesn’t pair well with Haiku. And made us all very grateful for the pub being serendipitously situated right next to the radio station.

4. As well as doing a live phone-in fashion dilemma show (this was the 80’s — lots of sartorial uncertainty abounded, including how many safety pins is considered gauche? Fingerless lace gloves, a’ la Madonna, or full length satin gloves, a’ la Belinda Carlisle?) we also did a Kraft Dinner special, where a fellow-on-air host (and self-professed KD connoisseur) insisted on setting up a hot plate in the studio and divulging his secrets to making the ultimate mac n’ cheese…..people actually got the rare opportunity to tune in to literally hear water boil. An amazing amount of people (OK — 3 or 4) called in to offer additional cooking tips or to offer ways in which we should be catapulted off the air. And the Drama Department wasn’t going to give me credit for producing this show? This was *gold*!

Actually, doing the show was primarily a laugh-fest: it’s a miracle anything made it to air. As my co-producer (and one of the more willing and reliable voice talents I used) Jane Cassidy  mentioned when I interviewed her for this blog: “When I was growing up in the UK…my family and I listened to lots of radio drama. It was some pretty serious stuff for the most part. I guess what I didn’t realize…was that actors were in hysterics every time the mic was off. I don’t think I’ve ever, ever laughed so hard.”

John adds about how CJSW was the perfect atmosphere in which to develop and grow: “You can learn to be experimental before you ever go to a school which may not afford you such a luxury. (With university radio) you can meet people with different backgrounds or age spectrums before you ever have to go out into the real world and do it there.”

My career trajectory into voice-over was no doubt made much easier for my experiences at CJSW — it taught me an early ease in front of the mic, and inspired me to channel this passion for announcing into a viable career. And it’s quite possible that it enabled me to get most of the really bad stuff out of the way early on.

Chad Saunders

Reminiscing about CJSW prompted me to make contact with the present station manager, Chad Saunders — at the helm longer than any other station manager there — on a quest to find out if CJSW has proven to be a good training ground for launching other broadcast careers. As busy a man as he is (I made contact right at the onset of this year’s fund-raising season — again with that impeccable timing of mine), Chad was responsive and had many interesting updates: “CJSW Alumni have gone to work at the CBC locally and nationally — key alumni from the 70’s helped create CBC Radio 3,” added Saunders. In addition: “Alumni have gone on to work both in front of and behind the camera, and to be heads in the entertainment industry, mainly in music but also as lawyers and talent buyers in the US and Canada.”

I marvelled at the complete and total freedom (sometimes daunting) that on-air people at CJSW got — I remember being mystified at the thought of being live, over the public airwaves, with essentially nobody standing over us. I asked Chad if there are more measures in place now to monitor/police/provide accountability over what goes on over the air. “I would say more freedom is granted to our programmers now as society seems to be more afraid of dissenting opinion,” explains Saunders. “The CRTC has stepped back and has tried to get stations to create their own guidelines to discourage racist, homophobic, and divisive remarks/songs/opinions on-air.”

So why the lack of interest in radio drama?

Chad sheds some insight: “Radio dramas are intense productions. You need lots of people to voice the roles, a well-thought-out plan for editing and finding sound effects, and you need patience and time.”  He does offer an encouraging postscript: “I am hopeful that the podcast will be the new medium for radio dramas….able to to be downloaded and played where one can listen to it when they wish to hear it; room to start and stop.”

I concur that the podcast and the radio drama might just be a marriage made in heaven — but who knows if it, as a medium, will ever snag the interests of an essentially visually oriented public?

Only the Shadow knows.

Contributions to CJSW’s annual funding drive are welcomed and very easy to make: simply go to http://cjsw.com/funding/pledge.html.

Next week: I’ll address an issue which has squashed the confidence of many a promising voice talent: this belief that things need to be done perfectly in one take; that one must knock it out of the park on the first try or forever be branded as a “bad” voice talent. I’ll expose the Legend of the “One Take Wonder”!

Telephone Banking

I recently witnessed my mother in law pay her first bill online, after gradually getting comfortable with her new iPad — a gadget which I was convinced she would eschew and only use — if it all — to play Sudoku or Scrabble. I saw, at first, fear at the idea of her releasing her confidential information into cyberspace. Then came the skepticism — that the payment would actually go to the correct source; that it wouldn’t just “float around” aimlessly and she wouldn’t have documentation or “credit” of her actually making the payment. When proof of the payment instantly showed up in a brief check of her bank balance in another screen, then came the inevitable sense of amazement — that all this was done without leaving the comfort of her lounger, and that it didn’t involve a physical trip to the bank, the lining up, and the lag-time for the payment to register through a teller-processed transaction. She’s sold on the process — as we all are.

Banking via telephone or online has opened up whole new vistas for the banking public who are now so used to being able to conduct business without the constraints of the bank’s business hours, we can scarcely imagine life otherwise. Want to check on the balance of your mortgage during a 3 AM insomnia bout? Ever get that 10 PM sniggling realization that the Visa bill needed to be paid before the sun set that day? No worries, now that we’re not at the mercy of when the banks have tellers scheduled to be cheerfully roosting at their kiosks.

With this accessibility comes a sad resignation that there is a certain amount of “hoops” which we must obediently jump through in order to have this “24-hour-at-your-fingertips” type of ease — and nowhere are the hoops as plentiful or frustrating as with telephone banking. We sacrifice the personal touch by having to be willing to navigate through countless steps to verify who we are; to authenticate that we actually have access to the account in question; and that you and you alone are authorized to make any changes.

The number of steps by which this information gathering/authentication is accomplished is key to customer compliance and even goes a long way to enhancing — or destroying — client satisfaction. Limiting and reducing the number of steps (or “levels”) that a customer has to navigate through in order to accomplish what they called about is *key* — and is the basis for the lion’s share of frustration encountered when trying to do relatively basic transactions. The fewer the steps; the less redundancy involved; and the simplest method used to “sort” customers into the right “department”. Why are they asking me to input my PIN number into the keypad — sometimes multiple times — *and then* the live agent asks for it again? Needless levels. Why, when they invite you to make a selection from a menu of possible options, it’s not uncommon to find that *none* of the options seem to speak to the reason why you called? And why, when you clearly intone a possibility which doesn’t happen to parse with their voice recognition utility, you’re shuttled off to a department which couldn’t *be* farther from the option you actually need (you say “MasterCard Balance” and the automaton comes back with: “OK. I think you said….SAFETY DEPOSIT BOXES. I’m transferring you now!”

The tone of most automated banking IVR systems — traditionally very straightforward and almost devoid of emotion — are now attempting to re-create the intimate, one-on-one feel of a customer-standing-at-the-window scenario: voice talent who are hired to voice telephone banking systems are given the cue to sound more accessible, candid, conversational — almost informal. Not unlike a relaxed, slightly playful bank CSR, bank IVR’s are moving away from the straightforward, yet cold: “Please re-enter your PIN” and more towards: “Sure. I can do that for you — no problem. I’m just going to get your PIN number off you one more time….whenever you’re ready.”

While I personally, as a voice talent, prefer the more relaxed, “human” tone of the latter example, it may not have its place in all situations: I am the voice of National Bank of Kuwait, where a certain amount of formality seemed more in fitting with the geography and the demographics of a middle eastern bank; an informal tone would be more readily embraced by Western financial institutions. There’s also a widely believed theory within the voice recognition community that there is a greater margin for error in matching up the customer’s spoken selection with a viable choice when the customer has taken on the “casual, relaxed” tone of the IVR — and they *will*, without meaning to — follow the lead of the IVR in demeanor and tone. A conversational, friend-like IVR means the customer answers in kind — and not always with the satisfying accuracy as if they had echoed back their choice — in a staccato monotone — in the tone of a more traditional IVR.

New technologies in voice recognition can even enable firms to detect if a customer is unhappy or angry — the area of Emotive Voice Recognition has huge capabilities and potential to flag customer frustration at the outset and transfer the caller to agents specifically trained to handle such callers. It can be argued that if callers were simply and efficiently managed to be begin with, a specialized “holding area” and specific “treatment” for the frazzled would be unnecessary.

In no other area of our lives can there be a stronger argument for simplicity of access than when it comes to our hand-earned money; and any system in place which acts as a gateway between us and our money — and  has the intention of making transactions easier; ensuring accuracy in our financial dealings, and ensuring accessibility to our lifeblood — had better deliver. An easy, straight, uncomplicated line from us to our money is all we ask.

Next week, I’m looking forward to blogging about CJSW — the University of Calgary student-run radio station where I got my first taste of being behind the mic.

Thanks for reading!