Sunday, 08th December 2019

Alexa: how will voice technology change the nature of business?

Enterprise automation built on voice and AI By Rodney Hassard, Global Director of Product Management, Genesys.

Text searches used to be everyone’s go-to for finding information online. But rapid technology changes have pushed text searching aside.

Voice-activated personal assistants are where the action is. Why type when you can simply say what you want? Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google Home are becoming the early 21st century equivalent to what phone directories and electric typewriters were to the mid-twentieth century.

Research by YouGovreveals thatownership of smart speakers in the UK is advancing in leaps and bounds. Between the third quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018, ownership doubled to 10 per cent of the UK population (or 6.6 million people). And research indicates that smart speakers are used 2.79 times each day on average – far more often than voice assistants on smartphones, which are used just 0.33 times every day. According to research by Mintel in 2017, 62 per cent of Britons were using or were happy to use voice-operated devices to listen to music, search, check the news and of course, shop.

Now that smart speakers are appearing in more homes, 2019 is widely predicted to be the year when voice searches really take off and make a tangible impact on the way consumers interact with businesses. Commonly-used apps such as Trainline and Uber already offer voice searches and ordering and that’s only going to grow. In fact, research byComScore projects that by 2020, 50 per cent of all searches will be conducted by voice.

The fact is voice technology is becoming a vital channel of engagement, compelling businesses to think hard about how they can use it. For example, how can a company gain a consumer’s attention while he’s searching for an ingredient substitution in the middle of making dinner or when a family iscatching up on their favorite sitcom? Integration with voice assistants and search technology will be a determinant of success for many organisations – especially consumer-facing businesses.

And despite its growing popularity, there are worries about voice technology and the artificial intelligence (AI) that powers it, including data privacy. Many consumers remain uneasy talking to a computer that sounds human. Research published in 2018 found that more than half of UK consumers (55 per cent) think AI is “creepy”.

Dispelling the concerns about chatbots

How then, can businesses ease these concerns, using voice technology to improve customer service and increase sales? They could start by making it clear when a customer is talking to a bot, by including messages such as: “Hello, you’re talking to Toni, our automated assistant.”

The answer may also lie in better technology. Take Google’s “Duplex”, a bot/artificial personal assistant that can call people to schedule a hairdressing appointment or restaurant reservation without, it is claimed, anyone receiving the call realising that they were talking to a robot.

The bot sounds startlingly human. Google says that the technology can handle complex conversations without the need for intervention by a human in a call centre or a manager. Similar technology from the company, Google Contact Center AI, has also been announced. The solution integrates Google’s technology with that of select leading customer experience solutions providers, like Genesys, to turn ordinary customer experiences into extraordinary ones for better business outcomes.

Google Contact Center AI is not universally available at the moment, but it won’t be long before call centres of all sizes use its capabilities to quickly and predictively match inquiries to the most appropriate contact, be it a human, robot or a combination thereof. The technology enables contact centres to sort resolve queries, deliver far better customer experiences and create optimum business outcomes. If it means quicker service for consumers, AI-powered voice technology will trump much of the unease about it. Who, after all, wants to spend half of their lunch hour on-hold to a call centre?

As the technology improves in other ways – by, for example, reducing the delay between asking a bot a question and obtaining the answer – consumers will start to trust these applications, and eventually take them for granted. Some bot agents now start conversations with customers with the words: “Tell me in a few words what you want to do.” That can save time for customers and companies.

AI improves job satisfaction but privacy concerns will have to be addressed

As bots improve, more calls from customers will be handled by machines − and with a higher “satisfaction” rating, says Gartner, the research company. Bots will do the mundane jobs, handling complaints and answering questions about product warranties, for example, while employees will focus on more creative, emotional or more profitable tasks.

While AI is exciting, the fact is machines that genuinely understand language, including context, are still some way off (as an article in MIT Technology Review noted). There is also the important question of privacy regulation, which personalisation must not infringe. The EU General Data Protection Regulation (which came into force in May last year), has given consumers more control over their personal data, which technology companies building bots will have to accommodate. The far-reaching terms of the regulation mean businesses will have to be compliant in how they store and use data from these conversations.

AI can revive traditional customer relationships

The advent of AI and bots is such a significant development that it could well transform retail and company structures. By 2019, 10 per cent of new recruits in companies’ service departments will mostly write “scripts” for bot interaction, Gartner, has predicted.

Ultimately though, AI, bots and voice technology could be good news for businesses across multiple industries. In the not-so-distant past, a corner shop owner would know each customer and interact with them as individuals, without seeming creepy. Bots can already do much of this – remembering customers’ likes and dislikes so they can make relevant recommendations – and the capabilities will only grow.

As we move towards a more automated future, voice technology promises immensely easier interactions for consumers and substantial gains in productivity and engagement for businesses. Nevertheless, despite the remarkable capabilities of bots, businesses will still need humans in call centres and customer service departments. The reason is simple – bots cannot yet show the same degree of empathy or understand irony the way a human can.

Yet AI’s power to personalise and its ability to act fast and intelligently on customer insights are enabling us to deliver exceptional experiences that combine technological convenience and human understanding.

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