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SingPost Launches Speech-Enabled Helpline

In a move to provide better and faster services to callers who want information on the 6-digit postal codes of any building name or street addresses in Singapore, the Singapore Post (SingPost) has launched an easy-to-use, automated speech-enabled 'Postal Code Helpline' system today.

The 6-digit postal code was introduced nation-wide in 1995 to replace an older 4-digit postal code system. Although a directory was sent to all the offices and households throughout Singapore, it is common for the public to call the helpline for assistance as some may not have the directory with them at a time when they need to post a mail. Others may simply find it a lot easier to pick up the phone.

There are more than 122,000 postal codes in Singapore. Each day, SingPost received about 550 enquiries on postal codes. Thirty percent of these enquiries are handled by a touchtone system, which has since been phased out with the launch of the new system. The remaining 70 percent of the calls are handled by five operators (working on one shift) who also attend to enquiries on postage rate and speed post (fast delivery service).

The organization decided that it needed a 24 x 7 system that can handle a higher volume of enquiries at a shorter time while freeing its operators to handle enquiries that are of a more complex nature.

With the speech-recognition system, powered by SpeechWorks, all the caller has to do is to tell the system whether he/she wants to search a postal code by building or a combination of street name and block, building or house number. Once a street name has been spoken for instance, the system will double confirm the information with the caller by repeating the name. The caller is expected to respond by saying 'yes' or 'no' to that. If the answer is 'yes', it will come back with the correct postal code. If it is 'no', it will prompt the caller to repeat the name.

"The new system eliminates the need to key in all the alphabets of a street name as required by the touchtone system and allows you to obtain your postal code information within 30 seconds, " said Arthur Goh, general manager of SpeechWorks Asia Pacific.

When asked what the main challenge was in installing the system, Goh said: "This being a first-of-its-kind project in Asia, it is of a very high-profile and it must work with no room for failure."

According to Tan Swee Guan, SingPost's senior director, eBusiness and Engineering, it took the organization nine months to evaluate and install the system and it was piloted in December 2001.

During the pilot, SingPost selected a good mix of people from various ethnic background to ensure that the speech-recognition system could understand their pronunciations on the street names and buildings that may not necessarily be of an English word origin: such as Ang Mo Kio, Bukit Batok, Hong Leong Building or Hitachi Tower.

Callers' feedbacks were also obtained to gauge their sentiments of the new system.

"We found that several callers were not used to speaking to a machine. When they dial into the speech-enabled helpline, they expected a recorded message to alert them as to what number they should key in first in order to receive the information they need as experienced with the touchtone system, " said Olivia Chua, SingPost's director for retail business.

If the speech-enabled system does not receive any spoken requests or for some reasons cannot understand the spoken requests, they will route the calls to an operator. To minimize this, SingPost had fine-tuned its processes twice to make the system, accessible at 1800-842-7678, as simple as possible for a caller to understand how it can best serve their interests.