Tom In The News

A Computer? Funny, You Don’t Sound Like One

By Ian Austen

EVERY day, Tom Glynn has conversations with hundreds of thousands of people. He chats about investments and stock trades with customers of the brokerage firm CSFBdirect. To owners of broken-down bulldozers calling the equipment supplier Caterpillar looking for help, he is unfailingly polite: 

"Sorry, I didn't understand. Please say `locate dealer' or `warranty look-up.' " And Mr. Glynn invites callers to United Airlines' flight information line to barge in at any time: "Here's a hint. If you know the answer to any question I ask, please interrupt me." 

Of course, Mr. Glynn does not have the time to carry on all those conversations personally. The callers are talking not to him but to computers that hold digital copies of his voice. 

Mr. Glynn is one of a small number of performers who provide the voices for automated-response telephone systems that are slowly replacing human customer service representatives with banks of computers. 

THE VOICE

By Meredith Goldstein, Globe Staff 

Make a call to United, CVS, or Apple, and Tom Glynn is there to help out.

Tom Glynn guides thousands of consumers daily on the phone with his pre-recorded voice, helping them fill prescriptions, book flights, and even program their iPods.

Tom Glynn talks many of us through the day. 

When we are sick, it is Glynn who helps us get the right prescription filled at CVS. When we travel on United Airlines, it is Glynn who helps us pick a flight. When we overdraft our Bank of America checking accounts, Glynn does not judge us -- he simply tells us in no uncertain terms how much we've gone over. 

Glynn helps make what has become an inhuman world guided by voice - mail systems seem slightly more human. 

Slightly. 

The Boston musician, who plays monthly gigs in rock clubs such as Toad , has had a successful day job as a voice-over artist for about 15 years. His clients include Bank of America, United, Apple, Comcast, Fitcorp, and CVS. 

If you dial up most of those companies, it's Glynn who welcomes you. 

Sometimes he needs your personal information. Other times, he asks that you "press 1" to help him along. Glynn says he is everywhere, yet few people know what he looks like. 

"I'm the voice of so many things now," Glynn says. "It's pretty hard to avoid me." 

Glynn is one of the more successful artists in the voice industry, a profession populated by actors, musicians, and people with unusually malleable voices who are hired by big companies to help callers navigate their phone systems.  

You're not supposed to notice Glynn or consider his background. You're only supposed to believe that a real person has been hired to help you, even if that real person is simply a recording. 

Glynn, who grew up in Westwood, went into this line of work in 1990. He had been a traffic reporter at WBZ, WBOS, and MAGIC 106.7, and was sick of using his broadcast-quality voice to talk about the same cars that seemed to be backed up on the same roads every day. He had heard about the voice-over business, which seemed to be a more artistic way to use his talent, a career path more like music than traffic reporting. He used a demo tape to land himself a few gigs including quick messages for company phone systems and scripts for educational CD-ROMs. 

On occasion, his voices had to be wacky, but most of the time he was asked to be a regular guy -- himself. 

His most recognizable job is with United, where for 10 years he has been "United Tom," the man who asks you where you're going, when you want to leave, and then happily gets you a flight. 

When he doesn't understand your request, United Tom says, "I'm sorry -- I didn't get that. Can you repeat the question?" 

He is patient and kind. 

Glynn considers each of his corporate voices to be an isolated part of his real personality. He records the prompts based on how he would tell you the messages if he were actually your friend. He doesn't fake it. 

United Tom, for instance, is an upbeat guy who knows you're about to take a vacation and that you're probably excited and nervous. United Tom wants to put you at ease ("flying can be scary," Glynn says) without being a downer. 

Glynn's voice for CVS is steady and clear. If you're calling CVS for medication, you're probably not thrilled about your physical condition. You don't want to hear anyone who is too happy or patronizingly sweet. 

When Glynn is speaking for Apple, he is confident and quick -- especially when he's telling you why your iPod doesn't work. Apple Tom knows you're anxious because you just spent a few hundred bucks on technology that is now confusing you. 

"I'm always making sure that what I record is what I would want to hear myself," he said. "You don't want to be too slow." 

Blade Kotelly , who designed United's interactive voice system and teaches voice technology at Tufts University , says Glynn shattered the assumption that automated systems had to feature female talents impersonating old-fashioned operators. Kotelly wrote "The Art and Business of Speech Recognition: Creating the Noble Voice" about his work with companies such as United. He said Glynn's voice appeals to so many people because he sounds real, not like he's reading a script or talking to a large group of people who have dialed the same number. Kotelly attributes Glynn's talent to the fact that he's a musician and must use a range of emotions and voices on the spot when he performs his own songs. 

"He has a genuine quality you don't find with many voice talents," Kotelly says. "He's smart. And that goes a long way with voice talent. He has to interpret the content as if he had that thought himself." 

Glynn's home base is Beacon Hill, where he has set up a small recording studio in an office inside the Charles Street Meeting House . He uses software made specifically for him so he can record multiple messages on his Mac and ship them to companies as pre-edited sound bites that can be slipped into their phone systems. 

One of Glynn's recent tasks was re-recording addresses of CVS locations so that they included the state. 

There were 5,500 of them. 

Glynn says that even when he's recording some of the most mundane prompts, he obsesses over the small ups and downs of his voice and how they affect listeners. He'll record and re-record the most basic expressions (such as "Thank you for calling") to make sure they're believable. And he never works when he's in a bad mood. He says you can hear it when he's irritable. 

One of Glynn's more nuanced tasks has been recording individual numbers. When you say a phone number, your inflection changes based on the placement of the digit. The "7" in "617," for instance, is often spoken in a lower voice than the "6," based on order. For that reason, Glynn records multiple versions of every digit so that no matter the order of the numbers, his message still sounds human. 

Mike DeAngelis , a spokesman for CVS, said the company hired Glynn two years ago when it updated its voice system. CVS surveys showed that customers preferred to hear someone of the opposite sex when they called an interactive voice system. Most CVS pharmacy customers are female, and those women like Glynn. 

"They preferred Tom's voice by a 2-to-1 margin," DeAngelis said. 

Glynn said CVS recordings represent his less challenging work. The most difficult assignments have included messages he made after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to tell people flights had been delayed and cancel ed. He needed to show some emotion when mentioning the tragedy, but was asked to make callers feel secure. 

"I had to make it sound as compassionate as possible," he says. 

Glynn has also mastered a good bank voice. When he records for Bank of America's system, he needs to be friendly but trustworthy (it's your money, after all). And he can't sound judgmental when he's talking about a bounced check. Any slight inflection in his voice might imply opinion. 

"It makes a difference the way things are said to a person," Glynn says. "It says a lot about who you are and what your intentions are." 

While Glynn takes it all seriously, he says there's some humor in the work. 

He admits that although he is the voice of the iPod, he's not an expert on the technology. 

"The actual guy doesn't know what he's doing," he says. 

On National Public Radio, he agreed to poke some fun at the whole concept of voice - recognition systems. 

NPR did a brief comedy segment about "love in the digital age" for Valentine's Day that year. They asked Glynn and voice-over artist Julie Stinneford (she's the real Julie of the Amtrak phone system) to record a skit where their characters United Tom and Amtrak Julie would try to go on a date. 

In the skit, the romance starts off well. Julie and Tom both like to travel. They both seem flexible, and present each other with many options for dates of departure for a weekend away. But in the end, communication breaks down. Tom wants to fly. Julie wants to take the train. Tom calls Julie a control freak. She calls him a loser. 

Glynn said the end of the routine makes sense. The voice-over artists are human, after all.