As avoiding touching surfaces – including screens – has been actively encouraged to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, will the use of voice control in a business context accelerate?
The smart speaker has become commonplace in many homes. In a business setting, however, the development of this technology has been slower. Yet, in a post-Coronavirus business environment, voice looks set to accelerate its development. Indeed, research from Wunderman Thompson Commerce concludes 44% of UK consumers are happy shopping via voice devices. Also, according to ABI Research, concerns over touching surfaces will see smart voice control grow by 30% by the end of 2020.
“A smarter home can be a safer home,” says Jonathan Collins, Research Director at ABI Research. “Voice has already made significant inroads into the smart home space and voice control can mean avoiding commonly touched surfaces around the home from smartphones, to TV remotes, light switches, thermostats, door handles and more. Voice can also be leveraged for online shopping and information gathering.
Collins continued: “In the long term, voice control will continue to be the Trojan Horse of smart home adoption. COVID-19 is part of the additional motivation and incentive for voice control in the home that will help drive awareness and adoption for a range of additional smart home devices and applications. Greater emphasis and understanding, and above all, a change of habit and experience in moving away from physical actuation toward using voice in the home will support greater smart home expansion throughout individual homes. A greater emphasis on online shopping and delivery will also drive smart home device adoption to ensure those deliveries are securely delivered.”
What begins in the home will expand to the broader business community as enterprises adjust to the new normal, voice will become a large component across many business processes. And, of course, how businesses connect with and sell their goods or services to their customers.
For voice to become a force for change across the business landscape, how voice control and voice search perform will need to improve. Here, conversational AI will bring massive leaps forward in performance and reliability. Voice-based digital assistants are clearly a critical component of the communications and sales channels all business must be building today to ensure they are leaders in their industries and sectors post-COVID-19.
In their report that looked closely at the burgeoning voice digital assistant market, Microsoft stated: “Simply building new technologies is not enough. Retailers must then market their new skills, chatbots, mobile apps, in-store pickup, etc. Just as retailers of the 90s had to guide shoppers to their website, today’s retailers will also have to educate us on new way to shop and transact.”
Indeed, the CEO of Microsoft reinforced this view, when Satya Nadella succinctly stated: “Your brand needs to have its own agents that can talk directly to customers and to converse across multiple digital assistants.”
Speaking to Silicon UK, Mordecai, head of innovation and partnerships, Innocean Worldwide explained: “In response to COVID-19 we are seeing accelerated product roadmaps create hope, trust, and at times reliance for voice and similar twenty-teens consumer innovation technologies such as AR, VR, streaming, etc.
“Even in this accelerated time best consumer use cases for voice remain at home and in the car. Adoption is accelerating, but we do not see use cases vary. For voice to truly succeed, individual users must challenge it, through creating their own skills and conversations. The tech is there, but the consumer remains in pre-baked skills and command dynamics with voice technology, limiting its true product acceleration.
Mordecai concluded: “This is changing and will continue to change. While pre-COVID in the UK 3/5ths of Brits ignored their voice assistants, Amazon Echo Auto landing in the UK in June along with the home usage uptick will change that. For perspective even pre-COVID in the US, voice usage increased 13% in auto with 41.7% of consumers using voice assistants in car, 22.9% doing so daily.”
An interesting point made by the research carried out by Microsoft in 2019 into smart speakers and voice control, was their conclusion that over half (57%) of the consumers they surveyed liked using digital assistants and prefer to speak to these services. This number will only rise as digital assistants improve their voice recognition capabilities. And the most telling statistic of all is that 25% of respondents to the survey have used a digital assistant to help them make a purchase.
Voice control is not without its issues: Consumers do report anxiety about their personal data security and passive listening of their smart speakers at home. It will be critical for businesses as voice becomes more important to allay these fears with transparent security and personal data usage policies that clearly state how information gathered via voice technologies will be used for other purposes. How personal data has been collected and used via the Web is a template for voice. Still, one that can be expanded and extended to reduce the anxiety consumers may feel, especially when making purchases via voice services.
The public use of voice control outside of smartphones is another area where businesses will have potentially massive opportunities to connect with consumers. As the smart city takes shape, voice will be a crucial technology. However, the ambient noise levels in these spaces will have to be mitigated. Also, at the moment, no standards exist within the voice control space. Proprietary systems have developed all with their own ‘wake’ words or phrases. Outside of consumers’ homes and on their personal devices, how will ‘public’ voice control operate?
Cathal McGloin, CEO of ServisBOT, a conversational AI platform provider says: “Conversational AI represents a whole new opportunity for brands to create memorable experiences and improved customer loyalty, at scale and a lower cost of delivery. Voice plays a vital role in this, but it should not just be considered in isolation. Voice, combined with text and even visual interfaces, can open up a whole new range of opportunities. The market and technology companies just need to get there.
“In terms of technology trends, voice will expand in terms of the number of languages that can be handled. This will allow global brands to reach their international customers and employees in a consistent and efficient way. Voice understanding is also set to improve. Verbal communication has many nuances and can be highly complex. Advances in machine learning will continue to improve how devices can understand, not just words, but also the emotions that are expressed.”
A post-screen business will adopt many new technologies to remain relevant in their marketplaces, but also, engaging enterprises across their customer bases. How business now interacts with individual consumers has changed. Voice looks set to evolve these communications channels even further.
Voice will become an increasingly important channel for all businesses. Coupled with IoT and the developing smart city environments and autonomous vehicles, this all adds up to a mix of new interactive channels consumers will want to use.
If we focus on food retailing, we are already seeing a shift to using apps to minimise physical contact at the checkout. Shopping via smart speakers is also expanding. Businesses can expect these channels to do nothing but gain in popularity, significantly as their voice capabilities improve. The chatbot was a start, but all enterprises will have to rapidly expand their use of voice to remain relevant to their customers.
Research from PwC concluded: “50% of respondents have made a purchase using their voice assistant and, an additional 25% would consider doing so in the future. The majority of items purchased are small and quick and are things that someone could buy without necessarily having to see it physically (to determine quality, for example).”
The report also quoted a responded to the survey which is telling when using voice ordering with a pre-authorized payment card: “This reminds me of when my daughter racked up almost $1,500 playing a mobile game… Can it get to a point where the device can confirm it’s me who’s talking and not my 11-year-old who’s going rogue? Or maybe you have to confirm the purchase by entering the last three digits of your credit card.”
ServisBOT’s Cathal McGloin commented: “Certainly, in terms of voice search, if a user poses a query relating to a product or service, a business will want to ensure that they appear at least in the top three of the search results returned to the user. Unlike, screen and text-based responses that can be read as a list, an interface that gives too many answers via voice will just confuse listeners. So being top of search results becomes even more critical with voice.
“When thinking about voice as the interface, I still believe that online retailing will take a blended voice/text approach where a consumer orders a product via voice and is then moved to the online retailer’s text or messaging channel for processing the payment and handling other order-related interactions. This allows a brand to really continue a conversation and engage across different tasks and touchpoints that are not feasible through voice alone. Think of brand recognition and loyalty that this approach can foster. It’s really all about putting voice in its place within conversational AI used throughout the customer journey.”
Voice in a B2C and increasingly in B2B, will continue to expand. Retailing, customer services and general consumer support can all be achieved with today’s voice systems. As these platforms improve and, consumers become accustomed to using voice, this channel has the potential to expand exponentially over the next few years. Coupled with AI and robust security, voice looks set to become a critical component of your business.
Andrew Halliwell, Product Director, Virgin Media Business.
How has COVID-19 accelerated the development of voice control?
“COVID-19 has had two key effects relating to voice: First, it has accelerated the adoption of cloud technologies, laying the foundations for voice innovation. Secondly, it’s heightened the focus on the importance of voice in general, elevating its importance for leaders and employees alike.
“Once businesses have their cloud communications solution in place – and have benefitted from superior agility, flexibility and resilience – the ability to build on this to create a consistent digital journey or an automated voice AI experience will be much greater.
“The crisis has also emphasised the importance of voice interactions to everyday business operations. It has highlighted the need for employees working remotely to collaborate over Microsoft Teams or Zoom, as well as the critical importance of organisations providing a seamless service over the phone despite most employees operating remotely.
“This renewed focus on voice means that IT and C-Suite leaders will be more receptive to voice innovation and will be more likely to invest in AI-oriented technologies in future, as they recognise the fundamental importance of voice to their COVID-19 rebound.”
Are we now in a post-tap economy thanks to COVID?
“We’re not quite there yet, but COVID has certainly accelerated digital transformation and made the prospect of a post-tap economy – a world where voice has totally replaced touch – much more achievable.
“With the rise and popularity of devices such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, consumers are already using voice recognition software in their everyday lives. Over a fifth of UK households have smart speakers, which are being used for everything from making restaurant bookings to ordering shopping. This has fuelled debates around voice commerce eventually becoming the dominant form of purchasing over mobile and traditional online shopping – indeed, analysts predict that it could be worth £3.5bn by 2022.
“However, voice technologies haven’t yet taken off in the workplace for a variety of reasons, ranging from integration difficulties to security concerns. But with organisations having vaulted five years forward within just eight weeks and with cloud adoption more widespread, I’m optimistic that we will soon see a similar revolution in the workplace, where the sight of an employee getting through their daily tasks by simply speaking to their computer or mobile device is commonplace.”
Is voice recognition now good enough to perform complex tasks?
“There have been great strides made in voice technology in recent years. Automated voice assistants, for example, can learn from experience by analysing hundreds and hundreds of conversations with customers and are becoming more sophisticated as a result.
“These are playing a growing role in contact centres, supporting employees in providing consumers with the solution they need for their situation, and augmenting the power of customer service assistants by channelling real-time insights and intelligence to their fingertips.
“Through new voice-enabled services such as Alexa for Business, voice recognition technology can now support verbal commands for controlling devices and office conditions, but this is still at an early stage of adoption.
“While voice recognition is capable of complex tasks, it needs to be backed up by flexible, agile and resilient cloud infrastructure. Without that, it won’t be possible to deliver seamless experiences for employees and customers.”
Voice in the home has rapidly expanded. What are the challenges of bringing voice control to an office environment?
“Historically, one of the main challenges to voice innovation adoption in the workplace has been a reliance on traditional telephony models. Rigid phone lines have prevented seamless integration with working software (e.g. Office 365), which has dramatically inhibited the adoption of more advanced technologies. But with Covid-19 having accelerated cloud adoption, flexible and agile infrastructure is now more widespread – though we’ve got some way to go before we see full adoption.
“Another challenge has been security, with organisations concerned about the implications of holding and analysing large volumes of sensitive customer data and whether incompatibilities between different systems could expose this to a cyber attacker. But by shifting to the cloud, organisations can roll out security upgrades seamlessly across their entire systems at once, reducing the risk of core systems being left behind and vulnerable.”
Does online retailing see voice as the next battleground for customers?
“The retail sector has been particularly badly hit by COVID-19 and was struggling even before the pandemic struck. Leaders are not optimistic; their attempts to rebound will be successful. A Global Data Study recently revealed that over half (54%) of retailers do not believe that they are well placed to recover from the pandemic. Retail footfall is a third lower than it was in 2019, and the recovery has been slower than in many other European countries.
“Ultimately, this is likely to become a key battleground for retailers in the new business landscape as the race to rebound heats up. The winners will be the companies that choose cloud-voice solutions from trusted partners capable of providing genuinely strategic consultancy – advising them where infrastructure needs upgrading and how accelerated digital transformation can help them recover and succeed in the long-run.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.
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