The explosive popularity of voice assistants in the home has been a success story for the consumer electronics industry. And now, some of the same voice technologies that have become a hit with consumers, such as Amazon’s Alexa, are increasingly being embraced inside the enterprise.
The early surge in adoption by companies tended to focus on customer service features or consumer sales interactions. But companies are also experimenting with uses that promise to make voice the primary way employees, partners and customers use enterprise tools, with the technology effectively acting as an executive assistant for every employee.
“Because it’s been accepted very quickly by the general public, we now see the same in the enterprise,” says Guillaume Aurine, product marketing director for Salesforce France.
Back in 2011, Apple caused a sensation when it introduced the Siri voice assistant on its iPhone. While that gave people a taste of what natural language interfaces can offer, it was the arrival of Amazon’s Echo, powered by its Alexa voice assistant, that effectively launched a new category of voice-activated devices.
Since then, Google, Microsoft and Apple, among others, have followed suit with dedicated voice assistant hardware. Research firm Juniper projects there will be 8 billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023. (See the chart.) As more consumers embrace them at home, companies increasingly see them as a new way to connect with customers.
The Evolution Of Voice Assistance
At the most basic level, the technology is being integrated into classic telephone voice support systems to improve responses to people’s questions when they call in. Beyond that, companies are experimenting with ways to integrate them into the retail experience to encourage more spontaneous sales and shopping.
A survey published in a 2018 Capgemini report called: “Conversational Commerce: Why Consumers Are Embracing Voice Assistants in Their Lives,” found that 24% of consumers would prefer to use a voice assistant over a website to place orders. Capgemini projected that number will rise to 40% by 2021.
The eagerness of consumers to embrace the technology has triggered a wave of retail experimentation.
· Last Christmas Calvin Klein created a partnership with Amazon to integrate a range of new shopping technologies into some holiday pop-up stores. (See the photo.) For example, it placed Amazon Echo devices in fitting rooms so shoppers could ask Alexa questions about Calvin Klein products and also do things like control the lighting and play music.
· Walmart has partnered with Google to offer hundreds of thousands of items for voice shopping via Google Assistant. Consumers can add items to an order basket over time, and then complete the order by voice command.
· The Mall of America in Minnesota has placed voice assistants for shoppers around the mall to allow customers to ask shopping questions.
· French cosmetics retailer Sephora created its own app for Google Assistant to let customers schedule various beauty services.
· Google has been partnering with hotel chains to place Google Home in hotel rooms so guests can get room service, weather updates, buy tickets to local events, and confirm travel information.
· AccorHotels connected its homegrown bot Phil to Google Assistant. A customer can say: “Ok Google, I want to talk with AccorHotels,” on Google Home or any Android device to get information on parking, meeting rooms, or booking rooms. (For more about AccorHotels’ digital strategy see the story on page X.)
Aurine of Salesforce says this ability to create a more intimate and personalized experience with customers is hugely appealing for retailers.
“The goal is to create an interaction between the customer and the brand that is bi-directional,” he says. “That offers an experience for the brand that is super engaging.”
Voice-Activated Office Assistants
On the heels of these customer experiments, companies are turning their gaze inward to see how such technologies could help in the workplace. Much like the smartphone a decade ago, the consumer use of these devices is familiarizing people with the technology to the point where employees start to think: “Why can’t I have something like this at work?”
Market research firm Gartner projects that 25% of digital workers will use some kind of virtual assistant by 2021, compared to 2% this year.
Brian Manusama, a Gartner analyst who is senior director of Customer Experience and Technologies, is bullish on the potential and progress of voice assistants in the enterprise. But he says companies may struggle with implementing the technology. Some simply don’t know where to begin in terms of integrating voice assistants. Those that do dive in, face the complex task of restructuring some of their data and internal systems to make their information responsive to natural language commands.
“Just having an Alexa on your desk provides you with the possibility of speaking and listening,” says Manusama. “But there is a whole range of technologies behind this. And each one is a potential point of failure.”
The big names behind voice assistants are turning their attention to the enterprise to help address these challenges.
Last year, Amazon launched Alexa for Business, which focuses on helping companies build features, or what the company calls “skills” that work with the voice assistant. Some of the initial skills included using Alexa to facilitate video and audio conference calls as well as interacting with productivity tools like email. Critically, Alexa for Business allows companies to build skills that only work with their internal systems.
In May 2017, Cisco paid $125 million to acquire MindMeld, a startup that uses artificial intelligence to create voice interfaces and chat bots for companies. Cisco used the startup’s technology to create Cisco Spark Assistant, a voice assistant that can manage internal meetings, including reminders, scheduling, note taking, and conference people into meetings.
Last year, IBM launched Watson Assistant, a platform that helps customers build voice-activated virtual assistants for their own products. And, Microsoft rolled out a skills kit for enterprise users that allows them to tap into its Cortana voice assistant. (Microsoft struck a deal with Amazon that allows voice assistants to run on each other’s hardware.)
Salesforce has joined this race by both developing its own voice assistant platform, Einstein Voice, and partnering with Apple to build Siri into many of its apps and products.
In Europe, Paris-based Snips has developed a privacy-focused voice assistant technology that processes information on a device rather than the cloud. It recently launched a partner program to help OEM’s build voice assistants into their products. And Spain’s Sherpa has created a platform to let businesses use voice features to bring predictive recommendations to their consumer services.
One of the sector’s earliest pioneers is Tact.ai, which was founded in 2012. The U.S. company has built a conversational platform for sales teams that can be controlled using voice, chat or text messages and that connects to their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems. By making personal assistants more broadly available and easier to use, the startup aims to let sales people use their voice to automate daily administrative chores so they can spend more time focused on their core job.
For salespeople who are constantly on the move, having to stop to send and respond to emails, schedule meetings, search for documents, or access the CRM to get the information they need is a time killer, says Tact.ai founder and CEO Chuck Ganapathi. The Tact.ai platform allows those sales people to do all those things using voice or simple text commands.
Today, Tact.ai has about 100 employees in the U.S., Europe and India. Its financial backers include Microsoft, Salesforce and Amazon, who see it as a way to make their own CRMs more user friendly for sales people.
Voice assistance is an important new tool for business, Amazon CTO Werner Vogels wrote in a blog posting. “Using your voice is powerful because it’s spontaneous, intuitive and enables you to interact with technology in the most natural way possible. It may well be considered the universal user interface.”