Telstra fully computerises directory assistance

Has anyone else noticed that it can take considerably longer to get through to a human operator when you call Telstra (or Sensis) Directory Assistance?

We have heard that in some extreme cases you can be arguing with the automated directory assistance operator for several minutes before it finally gives in and puts you through to a human.

The reason according to Stephen Ronchi from Sensis is that the automated directory assistance operator (“ADAO”) has recently been upgraded to wait for it improve efficiency. The initial ADAO was commissioned back in 2001 and due to limitations in voice recognition technology was only able to provide the correct number if you happened to request one of the 2500 most popular business listings. Great if you wanted the number for Commonwealth Bank or QANTAS but not so useful if you needed to the number for your local fruiter.

The old system according to Ronchi “had a set list of names that it could recognise and if what you were requesting was outside that list you would be passed through to one of the operators who would help find your listing”. In other words if it couldn’t recognise the name you were put straight through to a human operator.

The new system which was only commissioned late last year has been upgraded to now recognise around 5000 business and “over the course of the next two or three years the service will be progressively updated to be able to recognise even more requests”. The trouble is you the callers will be the ones who will be used to train the system.

If the new system does not recognise the business name you have asked for you will be asked a series of questions to help the system improve its automatic responses. What that the business you were looking for? Well let’s try something else. Frustrated? Too bad because as Ronchi explains “Telstra are still in the early days of the new system and there is still plenty of scope for fine tuning.”

What this means is that if you happen to have a perfectly understandable accent and you are calling from a quiet location and you happen to be requesting one of the top 5000 or so business names you will be quickly given the number without having to tie up a human operator to answer your query. If not well you get to argue with ADAO.

What if you don’t want to play 20 questions with the ADAO? According to Ronchi “there is no way of short circuiting the series of the questions. A user must need to request and answer the questions. The further you get down the queue (in a process of elimination) the more likelihood the system will realise that it needs to pass you down to an operator.” At this stage the ADAO cannot process residential numbers but even so you will still need to answer that barrage of questions before you get through to someone who can help. Either that or the system will wear you down enough that you realise you probably didn’t need the number after all.

Of course there is always a way out if you are prepared to pay. As an alternative Ronchi suggests “If people really do not want to deal with Telstra directory assistance they can always dial a premium service such as 1234 and be able to speak directly with an operator.” Of course you can get more than just a phone number but depending on your call plan you could be paying dearly for the information.

So what about a WAP version of so that you can look up the number yourself from your mobile? According to Ronchi this is one of the projects that Sensis may be looking at implementing this year but until then you either play true or false with the automated directory assistance operator or pay for a premium connection service.

If your mobile phone has a basic HTML browser in it (and most do) you can bookmark and use the text only version of WhitePages.