Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. is working on a virtual assistant that would eliminate the phone tree that customers now must navigate when they phone the company's contact centers.

The technology is being readied for selective rollout in the fall, with an end to the phone tree envisioned in the spring of 2019.

"Next year, for sure, our prompts will be long gone," said Royal Caribbean vice president Carlos Leyva.

Phone trees, formally called interactive voice response systems, have been around since the 1980s and were a breakthrough in customer service, allowing callers to find representatives specializing in the reason for their call.

But they have come to be seen by many as distant and mechanical, forcing callers through a long series of prompts and choices before they can speak to a representative. 

The virtual assistant would still be an automated system, but with a human-sounding voice programmed to use natural language to respond to caller questions. There would also be a human backup that would step in to help the virtual assistant in cases where it becomes confused or doesn't understand an answer, RCCL said.

Callers would hear the sound of computer keystrokes while the virtual assistant is processing answers.

Although it will be launched with the trade, the virtual assistant eventually will be available to consumers calling direct, Leyva said.

Currently, many customers punch buttons almost randomly to get to a live representative, defeating the original purpose of the phone tree, Leyva said.

The virtual assistant is one of several call center technologies under development at RCCL, which on Thursday introduced a chatbot function for travel agent inquiries through CruisingPower.com.

Leyva said text messaging, a preferred mode for many people, will be launched in the fall, beginning with customer-service functions.

Next year, RCCL plans to add video interaction to the mix, so that callers and call center reps can see each other in real time, if desired. Another function slated for next year is co-browsing, in which a representative can jointly navigate a web page with a customer.

RCCL is also incorporating speech analytics to analyze recordings of customer interactions and automatically assess the main purpose of the call and the tone and sentiment of the call, to relieve representatives of some tasks and help supervisors follow up quickly on calls that were flagged as problematic. 

Behind all of the technologies is a goal for the RCCL contact centers to develop "omni-channel" capability, in which customers can interact with the company through their preferred method. 
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Correction: The Royal Caribbean executive quoted in this story is Carlos Leyva. The executive was misidentified in a previous version.

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