First you get the incomparable voice of James Earl Jones intoning "Welcome to Bell Atlantic." Then you get the machine.
"This is Directory Assistance. What city please?" inquires an artificial-sounding female voice. Utter "Baltimore" and back comes the electronic operator with "What listing please?"
This is the sound of dialing 411 in 1995. Since last week, telephone customers in Maryland have been startled to find themselves being spoken to -- and speaking back to -- a machine when they call for a number.
Don't be fooled. You're not really talking to a computer that's smart enough to recognize your words. There's an actual operator listening in and entering your information on a keyboard, said Bell Atlantic spokesman Dave Pacholczyk.
If you answer incomprehensibly, pose a tricky question, pause too long or have a surname such as Pacholczyk (PUH-hole-chick), a human being will come on the line, the Bell Atlantic spokesman said. And most callers will hear a fleeting "thank you" or "please hold for the number" from a live operator, but in some cases you can go through an entire call without hearing a live human voice.
The mechanized 411 system, which soon will work with long-distance information calls throughout Bell Atlantic's six-state region, is one of the more audible ways in which telephone companies are using technology to become more efficient. According to Mr. Pacholczyk, the automatic directory assistance system (ADAS) has increased the number of calls an operator can handle in a day from a range of 1,000 to 1,100 to a range of 1,200 to 1,400.
Mr. Pacholczyk said there was no direct link between the new system and recent layoffs at Bell Atlantic, including the recently announced elimination of 150 jobs when an operator center in Glen Burnie was closed. But he said the new system was part of a technological trend that is allowing the company to cut thousands of jobs.
Grace Leonard, state representative for the Communications Workers of America, hadn't tried the new system before yesterday, but when she did, she pronounced it "terrible."
"I don't think the customer's going to like it, and I don't see what time it's going to save," said Ms. Leonard, whose union represented the laid-off operators.
Mr. Pacholczyk said the company received a flurry of calls from curious customers when the system first went on line, but he said those have slacked off. He said he expects that even technophobic customers will get used to the system.
If Steve Eisner's first experience with the system is any indication, Mr. Pacholczyk is right.
"It was a nice computer voice. It was a little jarring, but I got used to it," said the president of Eisner & Associates, a Baltimore advertising firm. "I even felt compelled to say thank you."
He did have one caveat:
"You tell me to dial 911 and I get such a response, I won't feel the same."