Visa International's remote banking division has introduced an upgraded version of its telephone bill-payment service to member banks.

Its most striking feature is a voice recognition function that complements the service's traditional functions.

Visa Interactive, the unit of the California-based card association that handles home banking, will roll out the new product by the middle of this month.

Voice recognition, in which a computer translates speech into a command, is used by an increasing number of phone companies. Visa says it is the first remote banking provider to offer "a sophisticated voice response platform."

Visa developed this product, as well as its predecessor, in conjunction with InterVoice Inc., a Dallas-based telecommunications automation company with which Visa has worked for almost two years.

Visa introduced the first generation of its bill payment service last June. It allows customers to pay bills using the touch-tone keypad on a telephone.

Deposit Guaranty Corp., First Tennessee Bank, and Bank Four have deployed this version. The bill-payment service was also available to the 10,000 customers testing the screen phone made by U.S. Order.

Using the updated version of the bill-payment platform, customers can say the name of the payee and the bill amount when they phone in a bill payment. The merchant's name is voiced back to the user, to ensure that no error in payment has been made.

"In listening to our customers, the thing they don't like is carrying around a piece of paper with all the numbers they have to remember (for keypad payment)," said Brent Robinson, a senior vice president with Visa Interactive.

"Now I can just say the bill I want to pay."

The voice recognition product is broken down into different service levels, Visa officials say, allowing each bank to tailor degrees of sophistication to its marketplace.

For example, a bank may offer the most user-friendly option - which incorporates the greatest use of voice recognition - or it may offer only spoken confirmation of the payee, handling the rest via keypad.

"Ease of use and confidence are key drivers of consumer acceptance," according to D. Fraser Bullock, the president and chief operating officer of Visa Interactive. "This is the first tangible way to instill that kind of confidence with remote bill payment by a standard touch-tone phone."

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