CONSUMER CONFIDENTIAL

Press 1 if you hate talking to a device

As the man generally regarded as the father of the automated switchboard, Peter Theis knows he has a lot to answer for.

"I'm the guy who did it, yeah," 70-year-old Theis said. "I am ultimately to blame. I'm Dr. Frankenstein."

It's a bit more complicated than that, of course. The technology that many consumers believe serves no purpose but to prevent them from reaching a living, breathing service rep is in fact an electronic stew of a variety of systems.

But it was Theis who, in the early 1970s, cobbled together the nuts and bolts of what's known today as interactive voice response, which is what allows a computer to respond to touch tones or spoken words with seemingly endless corridors of automated options.

"When I invented it, I knew this would be huge," he told me. "My goal was to improve the efficiency of call centers. I never thought that people would misapply the technology."

I've been wrestling with automated switchboards as I try to set up phone service, TV service, Internet service and every other service for our new house in Los Angeles (a.k.a. the money sponge).

Time Warner Cable's machine hung up on me no fewer than three times before I finally got through to a human being who could answer a few questions.

Verizon's automated switchboard pummeled me with about a dozen questions before connecting me to a real person, who then asked me to repeat the exact same information.

And for a textbook example of how automated switchboards can be so bamboozling that callers may hang up in frustration before getting anywhere close to a human being, try dialing the L.A. city clerk's office at (213) 978-1133.

Don't you just love how virtually every recorded message begins with a warning that the menu has recently changed, so don't do anything until you sit through the whole spiel? Or how the system is invariably programmed to not offer access to an honest-to-goodness service rep until the very end of the process?

So what dark corner of hell is responsible for this diabolical technology? That would be Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

This is where engineers at what was known as the Collins radio division of Rockwell International -- today it's part of a company called Aspect Software -- faced a challenge from Continental Airlines to come up with some way for passengers' calls to be more efficiently funneled to reservation agents.

Continental reportedly first brought its request to AT&T in 1972. The telephone giant said it would take at least eight years to build such a system. So Continental went instead to Collins, which did the work in just two.

What the engineers at Collins came up with was a system called automatic call distribution, which places calls in a queue and routes them to particular destinations. Collins' system is what makes call centers in India and elsewhere possible. It's the backbone of the modern automated switchboard.

"It really revolutionized the industry," said Gary Barnett, chief technology officer of Aspect Software, which has grown into a leading provider of both automatic call distribution (ACD) and interactive voice response (IVR) systems. "ACD is about getting you to the right person to talk to."

Before Collins' breakthrough, Barnett said, more primitive systems existed to route calls to company reps, but they did little if anything to streamline the process or improve a caller's experience.

"The significance of ACD is that it was much more intelligent about calls when they came in," Barnett said. "It could also glean information about you as a caller from data in the back-office system."

Although ACD set the stage for automated switchboards, it was IVR -- the interactive "face" of such systems -- that created the electronic black holes that all too often define consumers' experiences with the technology.

A recent call-center industry survey found that one of the things people hate most about automated switchboards, aside from deliberately being kept from reaching a human being, is having to repeat the same information, first to the machine and then to the service rep.

A quarter of all consumers who were asked to repeat themselves as a result of using an automated switchboard say they'll do less business with the company, the survey found.

I told Theis, the inventor of interactive voice response, how displeased many people were with his creation. He said it was not his fault. Instead blame the companies that use automated switchboards to hinder, not help, communication with customers.

"These companies are flat-out saying they don't give a damn about callers," Theis said. "That's just plain wrong."

His company, ConServIT in Lindenhurst, Ill., is trying to remedy this with new technology that's designed to make automated switchboards sound more lifelike. But Theis isn't optimistic that companies want to make things easier for consumers.

Just the opposite, in fact.

"I don't see things getting any better," Theis said. "It's corporate arrogance."

He added wistfully: "This wasn't what I intended."

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Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays, and frequently in between. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com. To see recent columns, visit latimes.com/lazarus.

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