Companies know that talk is never cheap. Poorly designed phone systems can leave customers furious and employees frustrated. Costs are high in lost sales and productivity. Putting people on the phone is one solution -- but they cost a lot and are sometimes less reliable than the on-line systems replacing them. Communications systems work best when they rely on tools people are familiar with. When it comes to the telephone that means the human voice. Until recently, speech recognition systems involved far more talk than action. That's changing with increasing speed. And SpeechWorks International's SpeechWorks 3.0 provides some of the best evidence of the field's increasing sophistication. Many earlier systems required users to spend significant amounts of time "training" the software to understand them. Other products could deal with myriad different speakers, but had very limited vocabularies. Talking to a phone system equipped with SpeechWorks is frequently little different than speaking to a human being. In one recent conversation, the phone system asked the caller to give the name of the individual he wanted to contact. The caller gave an incorrect first name and correct last name. Without pausing, the software asked "Do you mean so and so?" When the answer was yes, the connection was made. SpeechWorks can handle more complex conversations. In businesses such as travel, telecommunication, and finance, the need isn't just to connect someone to an individual, but to take actions from booking plane tickets to buying stocks. SpeechWorks is capable of understanding complex phrases to help users accomplish fairly difficult tasks. It can handle such complex sentences as: "Sell 100 shares at a limit price of 44 1/2." Companies using SpeechWorks software include United Airlines, Bell South, and digiTRADE. Concentration is one reason SpeechWorks can do its job well. Instead of spreading its expertise thin, the company has specifically decided to focus on telephone systems, says Stuart Patterson, president and CEO of the Boston-based company. "We're just focusing on one market," Patterson says. "Talking into the microphone on a PC is a very different technical challenge than talking to someone on a telephone," he says. "Integrating speech recognition with a word processing application is totally different than integrating it with an order entry application." Integration is one area that SpeechWorks has paid almost obsessive attention to. The company realizes that an add-on software module is only as good as its ability to connect to other modules. The company has thus designed its software to integrate with all the packages made by leading manufacturers. In addition, the software is packaged in building blocks called "dialogue modules" to make it easier to add or subtract conversational capabilities. By making the software easier to install and work with, these tools dramatically increase the product's return on investment. Preset packages may help developers; but having to follow rules can frustrate users immensely. So SpeechWorks has done what it could to make sure callers encountering SpeechWorks-equipped systems don't have to stick to a script. The software is designed to allow unlimited "barge-in" capabilities, which is the phrase SpeechWorks uses to describe interruptions of set dialogues. This is tougher than it sounds; most speech recognition systems require users to speak louder or pause when they want to interrupt the flow. With SpeechWorks they can just speak in their natural voices. Because of its "self-learning" capabilities, the longer SpeechWorks is used the better it gets. Every voice the software encounters and every interaction it has helps teach the software how to better understand humans.