• June, 1 2018
  • By Brent Leary, cofounder and partner, CRM Essentials

Alexa (and Her Cohorts) Will Change Your Business

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I had the opportunity to add a couple of questions to the monthly Wall Street Journal/Vistage Small Business CEO Confidence Index back in February, thanks to Vistage’s chief research officer, Joe Galvin. One question gave respondents an opportunity to rank seven areas in order of importance to their business. According to the survey’s 486 respondents, improving the customer experience was the most important, beating out factors such as improving operational efficiencies, retaining talent to better serve customers, and improving the ability to implement new business ideas.

When asked which technology—including artificial intelligence, chatbots, connected devices, Internet of Things, blockchain, and voice assistants like Alexa—will most impact their business in the next 12 months, fewer than 5 percent said Alexa (or Siri, Cortana, or Google Assistant). But with improved customer experience as their biggest priority, SMBs must consider how quickly voice assistants are changing customer behaviors and expectations.

CUSTOMER ADOPTION IS ACCELERATING

It’s tempting to view smart speakers and voice assistants as quirky gadgets that only nerds will use. That may have been true in 2016 when I did my first “voice-first” presentation at CRM Evolution; only about 700 skills had been developed then for Amazon Alexa. By this year’s conference, there were 30,000. That astronomical growth applies to the installed base of smart speakers. In 2016 there were fewer than 8 million smart speakers installed; that number is expected to surpass 50 million this year. And according to a Juniper Research report, 55 percent of U.S. households will have at least one smart speaker by 2022. That equates to 70 million households with a total installed base of 175 million units.

These numbers show how quickly people are adopting these devices, and they are just as swiftly adapting their behavior, using their voices to do all sorts of things. According to an NPR study from earlier this year, 31 percent of smart speaker owners say they voice-controlled household devices in the previous week. Seventy-one percent say they’ve listened to more audio since getting a smart speaker, and it’s not just more music; they’re also taking in more podcasts and news.

The fascination with using voice commands has voice assistants showing up in all sorts of devices, including computers, tablets, and a host of others. Dish Network now lets you control your TV with Alexa, and Toyota announced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show that it will be putting Alexa in certain models so drivers can keep their hands on the wheel while requesting music, traffic info, and so on.

VOICE-LED DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION

Voice assistants may not be mainstream just yet, but as the above examples illustrate, objects in your rearview mirror are closer than they appear. And it’s not just that adoption is accelerating, but why. Using their voices to ask for things comes easy and natural to humans. Speech recognition technology, along with artificial intelligence, is leading a digital transformation that has gone unrecognized by many but is radically changing how we’re experiencing the web.

Nothing is more basic than the way we use Google to search. We’ve been typing into that little search box for years to get links to the info we want. But according to comScore, 50 percent of all searches will be spoken by 2020. Less dramatic but heading in the same direction are estimates that show voice shopping hitting the $40 billion mark by 2022. It’s easy to see how more of our interactions, designed to be smarter and friction-free, will be with voice assistants in the coming years.

But these interactions are not just more consistent and efficient, according to a study commissioned by Google; 41 percent of people who own voice-activated speakers say it feels like talking to a friend. That helps set the stage for a powerful customer engagement platform that goes way beyond smart speakers’ original purpose.

With customer experience being so crucial to business success, it’s time to get serious about exploring what experiences you can create for consumers—and this starts with realizing that in their day-to-day lives, the experiences they’re choosing more and more involve voice-first devices.


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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