Thanks, Siri! Speech Technology Is Remaking Customer Interactions

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For those of us who’ve long dreamed of speech technology embedded intelligently into mainstream consumer applications, our day has arrived. We lived through the late 1980s, when having the user interface of an interactive voice response system respond to yes, no, and 0 through 10 was considered amazing, and we were excited to see further developments bear fruit in the form of directed dialogues, natural language recognition, early virtual assistants, and embedded speech in consumer products such as Microsoft’s Xbox and speech-driven toys. But despite some big breakthroughs in the industry, we still hadn’t seen speech technology reach its full potential.

Now, however, after older generations have suffered through the growing pains of speech-driven IVRs and younger generations have adopted consumer goods preloaded with speech recognition, speech technology can be considered fairly commonplace. And for that we can probably thank Siri. Backed by Apple’s marketing dollars, Siri did more for the advancement of speech technology in the eyes of consumers than anything else in the decade before it.

The acceptance of Apple’s Siri and other speech applications drew the attention of big players in the industry with deep roots in speech technology research. Google, IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft embellished speech with advancements in search, artificial intelligence, knowledge databases, machine learning, neural networks, and Big Data to produce consumer-facing products that are getting far better at not just understanding what customers say but what they mean when they say it, which opens the door to some pretty interesting possibilities for altering the customer experience.

Imagine integrating all customer-facing interaction channels in a seamless omnichannel experience that combines real-time data with other data about the customer, along with context, and applies intelligence to the application to create a virtual shopping assistant. Your mobile device is recognized as you enter the store. The application knows your purchase history, preferences, and buying habits, and it combines all that with in-store navigation and location-based services. It provides suggestions based on past purchases; checks availability; and provides multimodal navigation on the mobile device, from price comparisons to one-click access to live assistance to purchasing and shipping options—all facilitated by a multimodal speech- and text-driven user interface.

Most or all of this can be done now, but the contact center industry is talking about taking digital transformation a step further by broadening the stakeholders involved. Take, for instance, a consumer application like Waze, a speech-driven, crowd-sourced mobile navigation app that enables drivers to skirt around traffic blockages and cut down on driving time; it is being embraced by thousands of users because of the intelligence it brings to navigation and its ease of use. Users can navigate by voice but also report on real-time traffic and road conditions, furthering the intelligence of the real-time navigation.

Now imagine if Waze were tied together with other apps to help carry out multiple functions throughout a consumer’s day—for instance, capable not only of voice navigation but also accessing a user’s calendar and having context around the person’s habits. It knows after work she has company coming over for dinner. If there is an accident, it tries to navigate her around it, but if it can’t, it then allows her to send a text to guests saying she will be late and access the command and control functions of a partner product, such as the Nest Thermostat, to turn up the heat in the house and start preheating the oven.

Technology challenges aside, it is picturing the possible that leads to the developments of the future. And while we haven’t arrived at our final destination, speech technology has become a trusted enabler in the digital transformation of customer care, the next wave after omnichannel. We no longer wonder if people will use speech if it’s put into an application but rather envision all the ways these technologies will transform how customers interact with companies. 

Nancy Jamison is a principal analyst in customer contact at Frost & Sullivan. She can be reached at nancy.jamison@frost.com; follow her on Twitter @NancyJami.

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