Voice is getting louder

Recently, we’ve seen significant advances in AI and voice recognition technology. What was little more than a gimmick a few years back is now a powerful toolset, and it’s changing the parameters of human-machine interaction. The adoption of voice-enabled devices is bringing it into the mainstream, with 39 million Americans now owning a smart speaker. And this is expected to rise further, with experts from eMarketer estimating that 66.6 million people in the US will be using voice-enabled assistants in 2019.

The future of voice lies beyond the home

Why has voice tech seen strong adoption in the consumer market? With its ease-of-use – especially if it’s just playing a few tracks on Spotify or setting a timer – it has a very low barrier to entry. Although developing new skills is a highly complex and time-consuming task, the user-facing side is super-simple. No buttons to click, no complex set-up. As adoption of voice-enabled technology grows further (and as we finally start using the smart speakers we got for Christmas), we will become more and more accustomed to voice as interface.

So, voice assistant technology is now a thing, but it’s mainly in the smart home market. Its utility for the business environment has yet to become apparent. B2C brands are scrambling to try out voice technology to enhance interaction, speed up operations and create new experiences for their customers. At last year’s Cannes festival, a new Alexa skill allowed guests to order drinks via a voice-enabled device, skipping the queue at the bar. Voice tech is increasingly being used in the auto sector too, going well beyond a simple ‘Call Mum’ command. BMW is developing their Intelligent Voice Assistant capabilities, and will integrate Alexa into all BMW and MINI models from mid-2018. Drivers will be able to search for local restaurants, find out what’s on at the local cinema, place online orders, check news and so on – and without a smartphone. Mercedes went further into the voice tech game, their own voice technology to help users control an infotainment system will launch in their A-Class in the next few months.

These real-world examples, early-adopter or not, point the way for voice and its ability to build brand through interactive experiences. Testing voice in these kind of scenarios is an important step towards unlocking next-generation services inside and outside the home. Its effect on customer experience – through new approaches to search and discovery or voice-enabled chatbots for example – have great potential. We expect it in particular to boost customer satisfaction, improve problem resolution and, crucially, provide a quicker, more personal experience. Moreover, we see (hear?) big opportunities for many different sectors, particularly with B2B firms, to incorporate voice into their CX setup.

In the last month alone, we’ve launched five new Alexa-enabled devices, introduced Alexa in India, announced integration with BMW, surpassed 25,000 skills, integrated Alexa with Sonos speakers, taught Alexa to distinguish between two voices, and more. Because Alexa’s brain is in the AWS cloud, her new abilities are available to all Echo customers, not just those who buy a new device,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO.

It is clear that the future of voice goes beyond the boundaries of homes, and B2Bs should start taking a lesson to see how they can incorporate AI and voice-enabled assistants to streamline their processes within the workplace environment.

B2B: it’s time to harvest the voice revolution

As voice slowly shapes a ‘hands-free’ future in the home and B2C market, there are some businesses already using a AI-powered voice tech to boost workplace productivity. Rebecca Minkoff – a luxury fashion house with a reputation for innovation, is using Alexa to get answers about their real-time performance. Whilst on stage at ShopTalk 2017, co-founder Uri Minkoff demoed how he uses Alexa in the office environment to get quick answers: ‘Ask 42 what was the top selling style online in the last 12 months. The response came within less than 2 seconds: ‘Your best selling item online for last year was the Mini Mac Crossbody, which is up 12% compared to the previous year’. This clearly demonstrates how advanced voice technology can unlock the power of data to streamline operational processes and aid knowledge sharing.

Much of the appeal lies in promised growth in productivity, but as pointed out by Forrester, employee productivity has been decreasing since 2004, despite massive investment in new technologies. We have, for example, access to a wealth of innovative data capture technologies for real-time performance and CRM data. This should support decision making, strategic planning and enable us to manage customer relationships better. And it does, but a complicating factor lies in finding the right data easily and quickly. To be useful, these platforms need to access a number of (often siloed) data points to find the right information.

Integration has never been a strong point for data capture technology, but voice has potential to become that blending point, allowing things to flow between various data sets to harvest the knowledge accumulated within so many separate systems. Ability to access relevant performance statistics within seconds could significantly increase employee productivity – and reduce frustration. For B2Bs, this could mean the ability to source quick updates on deliveries, machinery status and potential issues, financial results or data for effective client management.

But rapid data access and organic search are not the only uses for voice in the B2B ecosystem. Amazon has just recently announced the launch of Alexa for Business, so we can expect the number of B2B-related skills to rocket in the coming months. For now, Amazon’s goal is to aid productivity and convenience when used on both personal and shared Echo devices, enabling employees to use voice for conference calling (e.g. turning on the video conference equipment, dialling into a conference call, initiating the meeting), around-the-office assistance (e.g. getting directions around a site, finding an available conference room, reporting any building or equipment issues, or ordering new supplies), checking calendars and scheduling meetings, managing to-do lists, setting reminders and sending messages.

Voice tech is a genuinely disruptive force. It is already redefining how we use smartphones, laptops and speakers, and it will be interesting to see how it performs beyond devices commonly used at home. It’s not totally ‘new’ (voice-directed warehousing was introduced in the early 1990s) but recent improvements in speech recognition and AI technology are finally enabling a more advanced use of voice within distribution centres and warehouses.

The future of voice in the B2B sector is bright, but what about the challenges?

Challenge 1: Security

There are several challenges to be met before integrating voice within a B2B organisation. Security and advanced capabilities are first on the list – how do you ensure data is not hacked or accessed by unauthorised personnel? Domestic voicetech doesn’t call nearly so much for advanced capabilities or advanced security, but for most companies, it’s a business priority. Despite Amazon’s recent move into the office market, Alexa was not built for B2B companies. The majority of uses to date still only solve simple tasks in a domestic scenario. Deleting recorded data is simple for Amazon Alexa and Google’s voice assistant, but there are well-documented concerns about retention of usage information with web search. We expect system security will become more robust as the market matures, but it’s likely to suffer from similar trust issues.

Challenge 2: A disrupted workforce calls for well-grounded solutions

No matter how tempting it is to invest in new tech, extensive research into how operations currently work, and how things function on a day-to-day basis should be a foundation for implementing new systems. Views on new tech will not be uniform amongst colleagues. But it’s the workforce that will feel the highest disruption to their daily operations, and its their insight on where voice-enabled technologies could augment their processes that truly matters. New innovations should always be designed with employees in mind.

There are plenty of unanswered questions, and we won’t see big corporations embracing a fully hands-free, voice-first future for a little while. Nevertheless, we expect at least administrative and data access tasks to move to voice tech, before more advanced uses are implemented. The future of voice is certainly bright, and we’re looking forward to building it around the user, the employee and the customer.

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