The Electronic Eavesdropper on the Line

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Ever wonder where your voice goes after you hear that ominous warning, "Your call may be recorded . . ."? Ever doubt that it goes anyplace at all? Well, in today's hi-tech, computer-driven world, there's a place for everything.

They're taping your calls.

But you knew that. Unlike the federal government, which admitted to eavesdropping after its cover was blown, companies with 800 numbers and electronic phone menus as impassable as the Himalayas admit it upfront.

Dial the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, the United States Senate Federal Credit Union -- even, yes, The Washington Post -- and hear it: "Your call may be recorded for quality assurance."

The truth, Eyal Danon says, is that most businesses have no time to listen to those recordings themselves. If you're like the 73 percent of Americans who say they have experienced "customer rage," you probably figured as much.

To lift some of the burden off the poor corporations, the company Danon works for -- NICE Systems, an Israeli firm behind many call-monitoring systems -- has put some feeling into it.

NICE came up with software that makes the screening easy by dissecting and extracting the pleasantries, clashes and verbal gut punches exchanged during customer service calls.

It acts as a sort of client heart rate monitor, capturing a caller's mood at the outset and mapping mid-call tone and tempo to detect, as Danon boasts, "minute changes in your emotional state."

Consider FedEx. Danon, a NICE vice president for global marketing, says the shipping giant used the program to determine that a top-notch call often involves a caller who displays a "heightened emotional state" and voices the word "wow." Now the ablest of call takers, having been schooled in the steps to that kind of customer service nirvana, are asked to lead you and your feelings on a path to "wow."

The software also culls recordings for specifics: Too many utterings of the word "cancel" could convince a cellphone company to improve service (okay, we wish). A routinely sassy call taker could get canned.

So while NSA nosiness might have chilled your chatter, this gives license to let your phone fury loose. Go ahead, it tells you, indulge your inner toddler or foul-mouthed sailor. Tantrums and curses can get you places!

But this being big business -- NICE says three of every four Fortune 500 companies use its products -- it's not all about empowering the customer.

Your emotions, captured on computer, can be handed over to marketing folks who manipulate them to lasso you in.

And if the cable company rouses your litigious hackles, remember that your words, recorded for quality assurance, can and might be used against you.

Be careful, then, how you vent.

-- Karin Brulliard, staff writer

© 2006 The Washington Post Company