The 2015 State of the Speech Technology Industry: Intelligent Virtual Assistants

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Empowering customers and prospects to perform their own customer service using automated self-service solutions has created many opportunities for enterprises. Automated customer support can serve customers around the clock, 365 days a year, at a fraction of the cost of live customer service. However, the bigger picture lies in the gains in satisfaction from customers who can now use voice commands on their mobile devices to search the Web for support.

But self-service is not appropriate for every type of customer encounter. It's best suited, experts advise, for performing routine tasks or answering basic questions. For more in-depth customer issues, Tobias Goebel, director of mobile strategy at Aspect Software, maintains that direct agent assistance is best.

"The need for live assistance from knowledgeable staff will not go away, as only certain types of inquiries are self-serviceable," Goebel wrote in a blog post. "Complex account inquiries or the desire to understand a company's business process will continue to have customers reach out for human help. For simple inquiries, however, self-service is now usually preferred."

Virtual Assistants to the Rescue

The big story in self-service is the rise of intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs). The best-known IVA, Apple's Siri, which the company acquired in 2010, has groomed the public to accept that this type of technology can enable a variety of capabilities that had never been previously achieved with voice, such as asking for directions, conducting personal banking, ordering a pizza, or booking a flight.

As IVA technology advances and can be applied to more use cases, growth is a lock. Dan Miller, founder and lead analyst of Opus Research, expects the IVA market to reach $700 million by 2016. Miller explains that whether an IVA is a commercial solution for the enterprise or aimed at consumers using Siri, OK Google, or Microsoft Cortana, there are certain requirements for success.

"Resources that support natural language understanding and machine learning will be key for supporting highly personalized self-service across multiple channels," Miller says. "It's one way to conquer issues around rapid recognition of a customer's intent as [he] cruise[s] from Web site to mobile app to contact center rep."

Self-Service Leaders

While the self-service market is still young, some companies have already emerged as leaders. In the past year, Nuance Communications has partnered with several organizations to release consumer-facing IVAs, primarily in retail banking.

"We've seen a lot of migration to virtual assistants," says Brett Beranek, senior principal solutions marketing manager of enterprise at Nuance. "A year ago, this was something that was starting to pick up steam, and over the last twelve months, we've seen a number of deployments."

In fall 2014, several financial institutions, including Canadian-based Tangerine, deployed Nuance's self-service solutions. Tangerine's mobile banking app provides information, answers questions, and will soon include voice biometrics. Financial institutions such as ING Netherlands, Garanti Bank in Turkey, and U.K.-based Barclays Wealth are also using Nuance for their self-service capabilities.

"That's been a big change for Nuance, a big change for the self-service industry," Beranek says. "Everyone's seeing a shift toward mobile. The question that everyone was asking was, 'How will we leverage speech and [natural language understanding] on this platform?' We're starting to see that now with customers."

Nuance's development of Domino's pizza ordering IVA, Dom, made the public and the enterprise aware of IVA technology following a wave of TV commercials. "When the ads for Dom came out, a number of consumer-centric organizations expressed interest," Beranek says.

Dom has generated impressive results for the pizza chain. Two weeks after the TV ads began appearing, the company had close to a 2 percent increase in digital sales "and for them, that was very significant," Beranek says. "Not only are revenues going up, but it's the type of sales that they want to see because the orders that are processed through the mobile app or Web site cost a lot less from a cost-of-sales perspective...than orders coming through the phone."

In 2014, IPsoft unveiled Amelia, an IVA that acts as an agent to automate business process outsourcing (BPO) tasks, and knows 20 languages. IPsoft touts Amelia as having not only an "IQ but an EQ as well." By having an EQ, or emotional quotient, the company says that Amelia can sense emotions and respond accordingly. Amelia was developed to augment service capabilities so that contact center workers can focus on more complex issues. For example, Amelia enables employees to spend more time analyzing customer relationship management data and planning new ways to interact with customers and types of information or services that will attract business. In the meantime, Amelia can continue to help answer calls and provide quick responses.

"The BPO industry, like others, can look to adopt Amelia in their delivery operations so that they can add...value to the clients they 

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