Birmingham Council spends £11m on voice recognition phones… that don’t even recognise Brummie accent

November 5, 2012 | by | 0 Comments

Fed-up Birmingham residents have slammed an £11 million council-run automated phone system – after it failed to recognise the brummie accent.

Members of the public are demanding the voice recognition system for the Rent Arrears department – which features a woman with a Geordie accent – is scrapped.

Labour councillor Mike Leddy also revealed he spent 30 minutes trying to get through when he rang up on behalf of a constituent.

Birmingham City Council, which has spent £11m on a voice recognition system that doesn't recognise the Brummie accent

Birmingham City Council, which has spent £11m on a voice recognition system that doesn’t recognise the Brummie accent

Cllr Leddy said he got so frustrated he gave up and telephoned a human operator instead.

Dozens of Brummies have also rang up the council complaining that their accents are not being understood by the computerised answering service.

Cllr Mike Leddy, Labour group chief whip, said: “I am a proud Brummie and most people can understand me when I am talking to them.

“But I was trying for half-an-hour to deal with an issue for a resident.

Cllr Mike Leddy, who has complained about the new system

Cllr Mike Leddy, who has complained about the new system

“It just didn’t recognise my voice, it kept saying ‘can you please repeat’.

“I gave up and ended up calling the strategic director to sort it out.

“If you phone the rent arrears line it’s voice recognition.

“You have to give a reference number and an address but that was proving impossible.

“That’s the real worry. Some of the people I have to deal with in my area haven’t got a landline and are some of the poorest in the city.

“It’s a landline number to call but even using a pay-as-you-go mobile to call it for half-an-hour isn’t cheap.

“It’s ridiculous that a five minute phone call is taking half-an-hour.”

Members of the council’s Governance and Resources Scrutiny Committee said they also had problems being understood by the voice recognition system.

The council splashed out £11 million on the controversial voice recognition service which was introduced in July last year following the axing of 55 call centre jobs.

Capita Service, which runs the phone service, charges the taxpayer an astonishing £4 for every call answered.

Birmingham-born Josh Rickard, 34, a sales assistant, said he was left waiting for 15 minutes while the voice recognition system struggled to recognise his Brummie accent.

He said: “It was ridiculous, I called up to sort my rent and the phone system asked me to state my address but it just went into meltdown and just kept repeating the question.

“I tried every accent under the sun, I even tried to give it my plumiest posh voice but it didn’t make any difference.

“You would have thought, or hoped, a Birmingham call service would recognise the accent of the vast majority of the people who live here.”

The council is attempting to make it easier for people to contact the right department by developing a phone app and encouraging more email use.

But council deputy leader Ian Ward admitted: “Our performance is a long way short of where it should be.”

The Brummie words which the council’s own voice recognition system failed to understand were simple one digit numbers.

Councillor Mike Leddy said: “You have to state a reference number before you can then say your address but the system would not recognise it when I said the numbers one, seven, four, three or nine.

“It is ridiculous, I have a Brummie accent but it’s soft in comparison with a lot of people.

“It seems absurd that the voice recognition system has not even been tested so Brummie accents, let alone stronger one like Scottish or Irish ones, are understood.”

Chrissie Maher, founder of the Plain English Campaign, blasted voice recognition systems – branding them “stupid.”

She said: “The millions of pounds which goes into building these systems is just stupid.

“Anyone calling a rent arrears department will be anxious and upset anyway but to then have their voice not recognised because of their accent is awful.

“The Brummie accent is instantly recognisable and should be celebrated. You can bet the people who developed these systems are posh or from London.”

* It’s not the first time a Brummie accent has proved too much for computer systems to handle.

In 1999, engineers working on the Mercedes S Class drafted in soldiers to help perfect its voice-activated controls.

Recruits spent 40 minutes speaking into the system in a range of accents after Mercedes officials admitted the Brummie twang, along with the Scots and Geordie dialect, caused the machine to malfunction.

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