The Next Stop for the Voice-First Movement? Customer Care

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The customer-care world is totally schizophrenic about the staying power of the voice channel. For years, empirical observations have reflected the diminishing importance of phone calls to IVR systems and live agents. For instance, in its “2017 Global Customer Experience (CX) Benchmarking Report,” Dimension Data led off with the observation that the percentage split of contacts over the phone had “dipped to a new low” in the face of growth from digital channels, including websites, web chat, email, and others.

Yet the real message behind the numbers is that the roster of voice-first channels is poised for massive expansion. If you combine phone calls to the contact center with phone calls into IVRs and voice calls originating from mobile apps, the proportion of customer journeys that include voice-based conversations amounts to nearly three fourths of what Dimension Data calls “the CX Mix.”

Now, with smart speakers like Amazon Echo, Google Home, and (soon) Apple HomePod installed in roughly 25 million households, voice-first services are destined to have an even higher profile. Echo owners invoke “Alexa,” Google Home owners initiate their conversations by saying “OK Google” to reach Google Assistant, and Apple will use HomePod to extend the reach of the venerable Siri.

According to a survey conducted by Comscore in June, these devices are most commonly used to ask general questions, check the weather, stream music, and set alarms, alerts, and reminders. Each use was cited by 40 to 60 percent of respondents. Much further down the list, in the sub-20 percent range, were finding a local business, ordering products, and ordering food.

Customer Care Has Not Made the Cut…yet

Today’s early adopters of smart speakers are just discovering what instructions they can say to their devices, mostly settling into simple things like setting alarms or streaming music.

But today’s mix of speechable moments is definitely subject to change. The tasks mentioned above are low-hanging fruit—they are well understood and require little in the way of setup. Amazon has approved of and is offering more than 10,000 skills from third-party developers, including individuals as well as national brands. Google’s roster of third-party actions for Home is fewer than 400; the giant of search finds it necessary to spotlight features, functions, and use cases in weekly emails.

“Talk to Domino’s” and other prompts to carry out conversational commerce with brands is only one of many services Google or Amazon urge their users to try; we predict that voice-first assistants will rapidly evolve into advisers by adding more functions around search, advice, and recommendations pertaining to local businesses, including restaurants, entertainment venues, and retail. The fact that there are 10,000 or 400 services from third parties is less relevant than whether they are the right services—ones that are meaningful to the end user.

Expanding the Voice Channel

The installed base of voice-first devices is modest at this point, and the voice traffic emanating from them into enterprise contact centers is minimal today, but you can be sure that these devices will expand the use of voice commands to carry out commerce and customer care in significant ways. Here are some factors for customer experience professionals to keep in mind today and in the coming years:

Accuracy of automated speech recognition is no longer an issue. Improvements in far-field microphone technologies coupled with the use of high-speed graphics processing units (GPUs) have made the error rates in speech recognition negligible.

Extracting meaning and intent is next up. Natural language processing and natural language understanding are now the center or gravity for intelligent assistance. Voice-first services benefit from this fact, and customer care professionals need to concentrate on bringing these resources into their call flows.

Transitioning to real-time conversations is a must. Note that Amazon’s latest innovation, the Echo Show, not only adds a screen but also brings support to easily initiated video calls. Seamless transition from a Q&A session with an automated virtual assistant (a bot) to a live person—be it a friend, family member, or customer care agent—is becoming a must.

It’s the early days for voice-first bots and services, but we’re already seeing the foundations for a fast-growing customer experience channel—one that will be rightfully driven by customer preferences and the actions they take. 

Founder Dan Miller is the lead analyst for Opus Research.

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