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Computer will find number, but don’t mumble

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Ever heard of "Hem-haw," Utah? That's the mysterious burb the new US WEST Communications computer tries to locate when callers to directory assistance mumble incoherently.

The new system uses voice-recognition technology - which means it tries to interpret everything you say and match it to a locale in its database.You might want to watch your ums, hums, uhhs, duhs and huhs since each sound you utter potentially sets the system off on a diligent but fruitless search.

US WEST switched to the system in September, and while kinks are still being worked out, it's generally getting high marks from telephone employees and most customers, says Doug Erickson, manager of the Operator Service Center in Midvale.

But to get the most out of the system - technically known as "directory assistance plus" - you should now something about how it works.

US WEST adopted the new system for several reasons: it's faster, which saves time and thus money, and allows the company to offer national directory information.

AT&T also is offering its long distance customers access to listings anywhere in the country through its "OO INFO" service; it is trying to differentiate its service by using live operators.

At the Midvale center, one of several US WEST operates in its 14-state territory, 180 people work around the clock taking directory calls for six states: Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Washington and Oregon.

The computer and live operators actually work in tandem to process 1-411 calls.

The computer records the customer's request for a city and compares it to similar voice patterns in an ever-growing database.

If it finds a match, the call is routed to the appropriate directory office and displayed on a computer screen monitored by an operator.

Say "Provo" and the call comes to Midvale. Say "New York" and it's shunted off to one of three national directory centers.

If the locale is unintelligble, the system will take its best shot at a match or shuffle the call to an operator without filling in a location.

Here's something you should know: the operator can hear whatever you say to the computer, every little hem or haw or curse about having to deal with machines.

"I think (some people) mumble on purpose," said Heather Passey, an operator at the Midvale center. "I'll come on and say `What city?' and you can tell they're not real happy. They'll say they don't like automation."

The operator is also listening while you request a specific residential, business or government listing. As you speak she or he taps in the first few letters of the requested name.

Possible matches are displayed on the computer screen. Next to each listing is a letter; punch the right letter and the call is routed back to a computerized recording that recites the phone number.

Because the computer automatically fills in the location, it spares operators from having to type in "Provo" or "Salt Lake City" or any other city name.

That's a lot of saved keystrokes since each operator typically handles 1,000 calls a day.

The computer's getting smarter day by day, too, as it amasses thousands of voice prints.

When the system first started operating, it had trouble distinguishing between similar sounding cities like "Nephi" and "Lehi."

The computer is getting the hang of those names now.

"We don't get half as many confused cities," Passey said.

Here are some tips to make the system work more smoothly:

- If you want to speak directly to an operator, say so. Remember, he or she is listening.

- You can give the computer and operator as much information as you'd like after the computer asks for the city. You can state, for instance, that you want two listings, a street address, a specific government office or whatever.

- Be as specific as possible. If you're searching for a listing for an professional individual - an attorney, doctor or accountant - say so: I want Dr. John Hope or Attorney Ron Yengich. Or, I need a business listing for so-and-so.

- And, of course, no mumbling. Speak slowly and clearly.