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Companies Must Heed the Voice (Literally) of the Customer
Voice-first technologies could soon be the engagement tool of choice
For the rest of the July 2017 issue of CRM magazine please click here

At last year's CRM Evolution conference, I presented the session “When Amy Met Siri,” focused on how voice-activated assistants were starting to enter the mainstream. At the time, Amazon Echo had less than a thousand skills developed for it, Google hadn’t launched its competitive home speaker device, and CRM vendors were just beginning to explore how they could integrate their apps to work with these new devices. Due to interest around the session, I decided to do a follow-up at this year’s CRM Evolution. What a difference a year makes.

By the time CRM Evolution 2017 rolled around, the number of Amazon Alexa skills built by third-party developers had grown to more than 12,000, according to estimates; meanwhile, Google’s entry, Google Home, came out and could recognize up to six voices. And a study from VoiceLabs estimates there were 6.5 million “voice-first” devices shipped in 2016; that number is expected to nearly quadruple this year, to 24.5 million.

Voice-first technologies are clearly gathering momentum, though they haven’t replaced text-based interactions—yet.

TEXT IS STILL THE PREFERRED CONVERSATIONAL INTERFACE

Even as the excitement over voice-first devices and digital assistants builds, their numbers pale compared to text-based interfaces like chatbots. In fact Facebook estimates people send more than 30 billion messages a day on WhatsApp, with another 20 billion SMS messages being sent daily. In total more than 80 billion text-based messages are sent each day, which makes for a compelling reason why companies continue to make text-based chatbots their leading conversational investment.

According to a recent Opus Research report, spending on enterprise intelligent assistants will hit $4.5 billion by 2021, up from $350 million in 2015. Many of the vendors I’ve spoken with are focusing their immediate efforts with conversational interfaces around leveraging chatbots for customer service. Using chatbots to provide quick responses to frequently asked questions can lead to consistently better experiences and enable companies to scale these outcomes in a more cost-effective manner.

We’ve entered an era where conversation is king (my apologies to content and context) because of the experiences messaging platforms can deliver today. And while chatbots are the focus for now, voice-first initiatives won’t be on the back burner for long. Gartner estimates 30 percent of all interactions with devices will be voice-based by 2018 because people can speak up to four times faster than they can type.

Things are developing so quickly it can be hard to keep up. Amazon recently allowed third-party device manufacturers to use the microphone technology behind its Amazon Echo speakers, as long as they use the Alexa assistant. According to research from RBC, by 2020 upwards of 60 million Alexa devices could be sold annually, and 128 million Alexa devices could be installed by then, leading to a whopping $5 billion in annual voice-driven sales. All this from a device that was just launched in 2015.

What’s more, with Amazon Lex, Amazon has opened its platform to businesses to create their own conversational interfaces. So we are seeing the rapid creation of voice-first stacks, combining conversational interfaces with AI applications. CRM vendors are getting in on the action. Pegasystems recently announced the Pega Intelligent Virtual Assistant, which enables users to create tools such as a banking bot that allows a customer checking her balance on Alexa to be alerted to a suspicious charge, open a charge dispute, and order a new card, all via natural language. Freshworks (formerly Freshdesk) founder Girish Mathrubootham recently showed off how the Freshworks/Echo combo helps agents manage cases while helping managers track key performance indicators. These are just two examples of what lies ahead.

While the immediate focus on messaging apps and bots makes sense, you can’t ignore where things seem to be going. In fact, Amazon’s head of voice design for Alexa, Paul Cutsinger, has said that it’s time to start thinking about designing “for the ear, not the eye.” So as you’re creating experiences for your customers on messaging apps with bots, keep an ear out for the voice of your customers—it is literally the long-term key to keeping them around.


Brent Leary is cofounder of CRM Essentials, an Atlanta-based advisory firm focused on small and midsize businesses. He is also the author of Barack 2.0: Social Media Lessons for Small Businesses.

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