Union Pacific to provide voice-activated technology

Beginning in August, Union Pacific Railroad Co. plans to broaden its e-commerce offerings by providing its customers with voice-activated technology that will make it easier and faster to return a rail car after it's been unloaded.

Using speech recognition, text-to-speech and speaker verification software from SpeechWorks International and its partner Veritel Corp., Union Pacific will let customers use their voices to complete certain transactions they now do by fax, telephone or the Web.

"Currently, when a customer has finished unloading a rail car and is ready to return it to us, he has two options: He can go to our Web site and alert us so we can pick it up or he can call a customer service person in the call center and let them know, and they can perform the routine function," said Paul McGee, senior manager at Omaha-based Union Pacific's system development division.

Customers make about 10,000 calls per month for this service, according to McGee. These calls come from customers who don't have immediate access to the Internet or who are using a cell phone or traditional telephone. By using the voice-activated technology, McGee said the company hopes to reduce the number of calls by 20% to 25%.

The new speech application is part of the railroad's desire to provide customers with multiple channels for conducting business transactions, he said.

McGee explained how the service will work.

Union Pacific customers authorized in advance to release rail cars by phone would call the company and select the speech-enabled system from a menu. Their voices would be verified by SpeechWorks' SpeechSecure speaker verification technology. Callers would then give the rail car initials and numbers needed to release the car. The system would route the data immediately to back-end systems to authorize the release of the car back to Union Pacific. The rail car would then be put on a schedule for pick up.

The data on the release of the rail car would be provided through SpeechWorks' technology and would also be displayed on Union Pacific's Web site.

"By using this technology, we are able to free up our [customer service] agents to do more productive work," McGee said.

Union Pacific is also planning to use SpeechWorks' voice-activation technology to let drivers who are picking up loaded containers to request the information necessary to remove a container from the yard, he said.

According to McGee, Union Pacific plans to pilot the speech recognition system with about 12 customers beginning in July and deploy it on a full-scale basis in the third quarter.

In addition, he said, the railroad is planning to add more applications, such as for tracking and tracing and bills of lading (the legal documents used in shipping freight) next year.

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