Need information? Dial `0'

Menu: Verizon hopes to free operators for directory assistance.

April 11, 2001|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

Sometimes, the first idea really is the best idea.

In news that harks back to the traditional phone operator who requested in a nasal tone, "Number, please," Verizon Communications announced yesterday that Maryland callers will soon get to dial "0" for a menu of information services.

Called "Easy 0," the service is already in use for 14 million Verizon customers in Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, New York and New Jersey. By dialing "0," callers will receive a menu of seven options, from collect-call connections to answers about billing inquiries.

The phone company introduced the system to help deflect calls that tie up operators unnecessarily, spokesman Jim Smith said.

The phone company hopes that "Easy 0" will enable it to shift another 250 operators from "call completion" duties to help meet the demand for directory assistance. Already, 90 percent of Verizon's 10,000 operators from Maine to West Virginia concentrate on directory-assistance calls. The new system will help redirect unusual inquiries that still fall to the operator, such as requests for information on how long it takes to cook a turkey or the number of eggs needed to bake a cake, according to a Verizon release.

The first menu option provides an immediate connection to emergency services for someone who dials "0" instead of 911.

After a successful trial of the free "Easy 0" service in Wheaton in Montgomery County in July 1999, Verizon expanded the system. Other phone companies have rolled out similar systems in the South and West. Patent protection for "Easy 0" is pending.

Phone users have become less accustomed to speaking with a live operator with the proliferation of electronic menus, but the operator has long been ingrained in the phone's development.

"The quiet voice, pitched high, the deft fingers, the patient courtesy and attentiveness - these qualities were precisely what the gentle telephone required in its attendants. Girls were easier to train; they did not waste time in retaliatory conversation; they were more careful; and they were much more likely to give `the soft answer that turneth away wrath,'" Herbert N. Casson wrote in his 1910 "History of the Telephone." To operate the phone system in New York at the time, he wrote, required "an army of more than 5,000 girls. ... And merely to give these girls a cup of tea or coffee at noon compels the Bell Company to buy yearly 6,000 pounds of tea, 17,000 pounds of coffee, 48,000 cans of condensed milk and 140 barrels of sugar.

Automation and high turnover among operators long ago diminished the "personal touch" older customers recall, said Steve Chambers of SpeechWorks, a Boston company that develops speech recognition technology. In fact, his company builds software that forwards a caller to an operator if they say "live person."

As for dialing "0" to access information, Chambers said, "It's not a new idea."

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