If you’ve ever had the feeling that the customer service representative at the other end of the toll-free number was not really paying attention, you might be right. But they probably won’t get away with goofing off for much longer.
New call monitoring software is allowing companies to check up on their employees and identify those who are playing computer solitaire, job hunting or even viewing pornography instead of helping customers.
Reel-to -reel tape has allowed employers to monitor calls for years, but the new programs work at a much faster rate and don’t require humans to listen in. Software can be programmed to key in on certain words, such as obscenities or a competitor’s name, or keep track of call times and origins. A computer can even alert a supervisor to join a call if it becomes a bit heated.
‘‘I don’t believe there are limitations on what they can measure,’’ said David Spindel, an analyst at Datamonitor, a market research firm.
Sales of call monitoring software reached $323 million last year, up 16 percent from 2001, and are projected by Datamonitor to reach $538 million in 2007.
Financial services company Conseco installed a system in late 2002 to help analyze its 55,000 weekly calls and has revised its training of customer service workers as a result, said Don Papp, director of the life insurance and annuities call center.
‘‘We’ve been able to go in there and identify trends’’ so managers no longer have to make assumptions based on spot checks, he said.
The biggest provider of such computer programs is NICE Systems, an Israeli company with offices in Rutherford. Its products are used by hundreds of companies in about 60 nations, NICE said.
NICE accounted for nearly a quarter of the sales of call recording software, followed by Witness Systems and Verint Systems, according to Datamonitor figures for the first quarter, the most recent period available.
Witness, which does business in about 40 countries, is based in Roswell, Ga. Verint, which says its software is used in more than 50 nations, is based in Melville, N.Y., and is a subsidiary of Comverse Technology.
NICE’s big customers include FedEx, Carnival Corp. and the Federal Aviation Administration, which uses the system to record all conversations between pilots and air traffic controllers at nearly 700 control towers and radar rooms across the nation.
‘‘The advantage there, is you can go to any point on the digital recording to listen, and the quality is better’’ than the magnetic tape the FAA had used, agency spokesman Jim Peters said.
In many cases, customers are notified computermonitoring is in place by an announcement stating, ‘‘This call may be recorded for quality control or training purposes.’’
The increased recording of consumer calls has not prompted complaints to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group concerned with digital rights, senior staff attorney Lee Tien said. But he questioned whether the announcement at the start of calls is enough, since many call centers offer no alternative if callers do not wish to be recorded. Recordings also need to be secure, he said.
Software companies say the recordings are encrypted, cannot be altered and can only be played on special software. Most companies destroy the recordings after a few weeks, although in some cases the tapes are kept longer to comply with securities industry and other regulations.
For all their strengths, though, software data systems still require a human touch — and human interpretation.
Oscar Alban, a consultant for Witness Systems, recalled a company that wanted to determine if any of its sales agents were cursing at the customers.
Sure enough, the Witness software showed one woman was regularly using rough language — but in this case that wasn’t a bad thing. The saleswoman was the No. 1 seller of the company’s products, which were computer programs for law enforcement agencies.
‘‘She wasn’t swearing at customers, she was mirroring the type of communication that they were using, and they felt comfortable with her,’’ Alban said.
The saleswoman continued in her job, but not the agent at a financial services company whom the software red-flagged for his long calls with customers.
‘‘He was actually doing Web chat on the topic of pigs,’’ Alban said. ‘‘He was in the Web chat room, just going at it, and he refused to help the customer until he was done.’’