“Alexa, call my financial advisor.”
That’s a phrase none of us has uttered yet, but the day when voice assistants go beyond helping us simply complete transactions to facilitating deeper human-to-human relationships is rapidly approaching. In fact, Amazon and Google are rumored to be adding voice calling to Echo and Google Home. While today people might ask Alexa for their bank balance, voice is ultimately about human conversation, which might lead you to doing something like connecting with your financial advisor.
The news that Amazon and Google are working on adding voice calling to Alexa and Google Home isn’t a harking back to simpler times, nor is it a concerted effort to kill the home landline. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that while voice assistants are great at completing transactional tasks, people still want to have human conversations, such as getting someone’s opinion or walking through a complex purchase. Amazon and Google realize this, and they want their voice assistants to be conduits for those conversations.
The move to add voice calling to Echo and Google Home is also further proof that we’ve been ushered into a new era in the decades-long evolution of the computer: the era of screenless software. This evolution has fundamentally changed how we interact with each other and with brands, bringing us to a point where voice interactions are as natural as a tap or a click. For businesses, marketers, and customer service professionals still focused fully on the digital experience, it should be a wake-up call that voice is the new competitive battleground for customer experience.
Voice is no longer a nascent market
During Sundar Pichai’s keynote at Google I/O last year, he said that more than 20 percent of searches on the Google mobile app and Android devices are done with voice. Amazon sold 8.2 million Alexa-powered Echo devices since launching them in 2014, and in its fourth-quarter earnings reported that Alexa-powered devices were its top-selling holiday products. And competitive pressure builds as Facebook creates its voice assistant, Jarvis, and Baidu invests in voice technology.
Alexa and Google Home won’t replace mobile phones, just like mobile phones didn’t kill the laptop. Instead, these devices offer another, better way to interact with the people and brands that are important in your life. The ability to have a conversation via these devices helps Amazon and Google enables the rich, human interactions that people crave. We conducted a survey last year that found calls — not social media, mobile shopping, watching videos, or even messaging — was the number one function people care about on their phones.
Voice technology is meant to make the things people want to do easier, and making a call should be at the top of the list. Consumers want seamless brand experiences that feel human and personal. Bots might be able to mimic human language, but they’re not yet at the point where they can discuss a range of topics and handle complex situations with empathy. That’s where humans come in.
Advances in AI-powered assistants will only be successful — and adopted at mass scale — if they help people connect with each other on a human level. This move by Amazon and Google would allow calls to drive the adoption of voice assistants and vice versa. It’s a virtuous cycle that benefits all parties.
A great customer experience without the screen
The screenless software movement presents a new paradigm for marketers. Without screens, voice is the primary means of interaction. It’s the type of interaction that many marketers have spent years trying to avoid, investing instead in online forms and virtual chat. As these screenless ecosystems grow and more services become available, marketing will need to keep pace.
At the very least, this means making it easy for customers to have a conversation no matter what device they’re using. But for marketers focused on creating good experiences and affecting the bottom line, they’ll need to begin applying the type of machine learning used for clicks to create better experiences, identify opportunities, and make personalized suggestions based on voice interactions.
We live in a post-digital world in which technology is an integral, almost invisible part of life. As Forrester’s Carlton Doty writes, “The digital distinction now dissolves into our daily lives. This raises the stakes for marketers because your customers aren’t just empowered by digital technology — they’re actually entitled.” Smartphones have shaped these expectations; voice assistants are raising them. I can ask Alexa for a wine club recommendation without looking up from my pasta. I should also be able to call and speak with someone who knows my tastes. This is a new level of immediacy, and marketers need to be able to respond in those micro-moments.
The computer has evolved from a desktop console to a device that lives in your pocket to an omnipresent, intelligent assistant that lives on your shelf and in your car. As the screen falls away, voice interactions are emerging as our preferred way to interact with the things, people, and businesses around us. While voice commands are already hugely popular, conversation is the next logical progression in this evolution. Amazon and Google are getting ready for this shift, and the brands that want to keep pace must embrace voice interactions as a critical part of the modern customer experience.
Gregg Johnson is the CEO of Invoca, a call center intelligence service.