Press One for Me
Southeast China News – Thursday, 18 July, 2002, 12:00am
You’ve heard their pressing demands. Now you can put faces to the voices of those automated answering services. Hannah Lee reports.
‘PRESS ONE FOR this, press two for that . . .’ Like it or not, many of our telephone calls are picked up by automated answering systems – another ‘advance’ in technology that allows us to have less and less contact with real human beings.
These robotic systems are often infuriating, but frustrating as they are, the voices belong to real people and are not computer-generated.
‘WELCOME to CityLine . . .’ For those who use CityLine to buy cinema tickets, James Kralick’s voice is probably one of the most familiar in Hong Kong.
Harvard graduate Kralick, 37, the chief executive of VTech Telecommunications, came to be the star vocalist of CityLine via an early twist in his career. He was one of the founders of CityLine back in 1993, when the company had little money to spend on voice professionals. The job simply fell to him and nearly a decade later, he’s still there. ‘We used my voice for the recording because it was free,’ he says.
Asked how he feels when he calls to buy tickets himself and hears his own voice welcoming him to the ticketing hotline, he laughs. ‘I try to dissociate myself as quickly as possible,’ he says.
Kralick’s recording past is the source of much mirth among his friends, especially with people who don’t know him very well. It can take a few minutes for the penny to drop, but it usually does, once they have heard him speak.
‘They look at me a bit strangely for a while then they say, ‘You’re THE voice’.’
Not everyone is a fan. ‘Does anyone know whose is that annoying voice on CityLine?’ is something he also hears fairly often. Kralick, who is now based in Shanghai, plays along and says: ‘Yeah, it is very annoying, isn’t it?’ Then the joke is spoilt when his friends can no longer keep a straight face. ‘But it’s all a good laugh,’ Kralick says. He explains that his inspiration for the recording was his predecessor, Chris Chin, who was the business-development manager at the time.
‘Chris did it with great gusto and enthusiasm,’ says Kralick who tried to imitate him, but not too much. ‘I just tried to use a little bit of enthusiasm.’ His voice-over career was brief; his only other recording job was for Orbis, the flying eye-doctors.
Known as ‘Audrey Audix’ by the employees of Avaya, the communications company that owns Audix, Lorraine Nelson welcomes millions of office and other workers to voice-mail systems every day worldwide.
Few people recognise Nelson as the woman on Audix unless she ‘turns it on’.
‘My Audix voice is just a character,’ Nelson says. ‘It’s not my normal personality – I’m not that nice.’
A former jazz DJ and newscaster, 47-year-old Nelson now heads her own professional voice service, Cornerstone Communications Services, in the United States. Born in Connecticut, she moved to the Midwest for many years, giving her an appropriately indeterminate accent.
For inspiration when recording for Audix, Nelson tries to model herself on her idea of the nicest secretary imaginable. ‘I remember there was a personal assistant where I worked who used to say, ‘Mr Smith, you have a phone call in the lobby.’ She had a really sweet-sounding voice. I just copy that,’ she says, adding she also tries to sound as friendly and helpful as possible. Nelson credits her voice-recording success to her precise annunciation – something she attributes to the way she was raised. ‘I was always taught to speak properly at home, and to use good grammar,’ she explains.
Customers of Dah Sing, Chase Manhattan and Citibank in Hong Kong will recognise the dulcet tones of Canadian-born Chinese Juanita Cheung, who also reads the morning news on RTHK’s Radio Three.
Cheung thinks it is strange that the competing banks knowingly use her for their phone-banking recordings. ‘Citibank heard me on Chase’s phone-banking and asked to have the same voice,’ Cheung says. ‘I would have thought they’d want someone different.”
Ken Cheung, director of Audio Visual Technique, an audio-visual production company in Asia, has an explanation. He says she’s efficient and quick, clear and fast, and is used to the bank voice-response systems.
He also praises the distinctiveness of Cheung’s voice, and says it makes for comfortable listening over the long term. ‘Juanita is one of the most popular voice talents in Hong Kong, especially in phone-banking,’ he says.
Cheung worked as a DJ in Canada before she came to live in Hong Kong in 1988. Apart from recording for phone-banking, she also lends her voice to Kralick’s VTech talking toys, Hutchison Telecom and telecoms company CSL.
Although she has earned a living doing this for 20 years, Cheung still feels embarrassed when she hears her own voice. ‘It makes me cringe,’ she says.