We ran a Page 1 story on Feb. 16 [Travelocity outsources call centers] about Travelocity pushing some of its call-center work to India. We reported that the company said that "advanced" customer-service functions would remain in-house.

I recently learned that one such service is an automated agent that books one-night hotel reservations for World Choice Travel, a subsidiary of Travelocity, over the phone. Apparently one-night hotel stays aren't profitable when handled by human agents -- even when those human agents are paid in rupees.

A spokesperson for Alameda, Calif.-based Voxify, the company that developed the automated-agent technology, said the machine-driven reps carry on a conversation "in much the way you or I would," and that conversion rates are similar to those with humans -- about 20%.

I decided to try the system. In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I am not a fan of voice-driven phone menus. I often come away feeling that the company has saved money at the expense of my time.

But I was pleased to reach a disembodied voice that identified himself as "Ron" after only one fork in the menu. When I told Ron where I wanted to stay -- Chicago -- it took just one step longer than it would have taken with a live agent (Ron needed to know what state Chicago was in). And Ron always confirmed my choices, adding, "Say, 'Go back,' if I got that wrong."

All was fine until he offered to read me a list of hotel chains to choose among. Ron had excellent diction -- I particularly liked the enthusiasm with which he said "Chicago" -- but he relegated the reading of the list to a truly digital agent, whose pronunciation will drive brand managers crazy. "Inn" -- as in Red Roof Inn or Holiday Inn -- became a lazy suffix attached to the preceding word, so I was offered a chance to stay at a "Dazin" or a "Comfortin." He pronounced "Travelodge" to rhyme with "grave-dodge."

One of the offerings sounded like "acker," which I thought might be Accor. So, as instructed, I interrupted him and said "Accor."

"OK. Four Seasons. Say, 'Go back,' if that's not right," Ron said.

"Go back." I heard a noise that sounded like a tape being rewound.

The list was read again, and this time I said, "Acker."

"InterContinental. Is that right?"

"No. Acker."

"Hmmm." Ron was apparently thinking.

I decided it was time to carry on a conversation "in much the same way you or I would," and I interrupted him in mid-thought.

"Ron, I'm trying to figure out what 'acker' is."

"I'm sorry, could you repeat that check-in date?"

"Ron, I didn't give you a check-in date."

"Please give me your check-in date again," he said.

"Go back," I commanded.

I heard the hotel list again and decided to let Ron choose the hotel. He found an off-brand, which I accepted.

He asked how many adults and how many children would be staying. I answered 15 of each. He quoted me a rate of $199, which is not bad for 30 people.

I think that if I truly had intended to book a one-night hotel stay rather than play with the system, my only challenge would have been deciphering the pronunciation of the hotel brands.

And, truth be told, I've worked with live travel agents who have mispronounced everything from the names of hotel chains to decent-size cities in the U.S.

It may be due to my bias against phone-menuing systems in general, but if I found out tomorrow that my company decided to use Ron as our new corporate agent, I think I'd request -- no, I'd plead -- "Go back."


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