Voice-based customer service (Alexa, Siri, Google Duplex and Google Assistant, auditory chatbots): Is this the future of customer service, customer support, and the overall customer experience? Certainly, some big players think that this form of interaction, which is sometimes known as VUX, short for Voice-Based User Experience, or VUI, for Voice User Interface, is the coming wave.
Amazon has made a splash, of course, with everything Alexa-related. Siri and her sisters (Nuance's Nina, which you can white-label for your brand; the personable Dom for Domino's, and so forth) are continually growing in reach. [Disclosure: I was an early investor for one of the technologies now deployed in Siri.] AI-powered chatbots that respond to voice queries are becoming more ubiquitous. And Google Duplex, a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time version of Google Assistant that can do the outbound calling, has been most recently turning heads and blowing minds, even though it's admittedly not yet ready for prime time.
The only trick with all of this is that by thinking of voice commands and voice interactions as "the thing of the future," there's a risk of making it anything but.
Let me explain. The reason that technology and consumer companies (and, often, consumers themselves) are so pumped for voice? Because voice commands, queries, and interactions seem natural. Other forms of input, like typing‚??whether with ten fingers on a full-sized keyboard or, worse, two thumbs on a phone‚??are presumed to be less so.
Nick Fox, VP of Assistant and Search for Google, talks about the Duplex program (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
But is voice interaction natural in all contexts? Sure, talking with Alexa as you move about the house in your jammies makes sense. Likewise in your hotel room via Ivy, the hospitality industry's Watson-powered assistant from Go Moment that you'll find in more than 300,000 guestrooms in some 1400 hotels. (Crucially, voice commands can also be a godsend for customers with manual dexterity disabilities or low vision. Although, as Christopher Wilkinson, Director of Product Design at Devbridge Group, points out, to get this right creates "an additional need for affordances in how voice-enabled devices are equipped to respond to varying types of audio input and output. Companies should consider allowing people to control the pacing of the response, the volume of the response, the time given to provide instruction, and the ability to adjust previous instructions as ways to make voice technology more accessible.")
On the other hand, talking with a voice assistant or voice-driven chatbot when you're in an open-concept workspace, airplane seat, restaurant, or public restroom (you know who you are)? That's not such a natural fit.
The future of the customer experience, in other words, belongs to those companies and brands that adapt to the desires of the customer. And the customer is going to have varying desires depending on context. The future's not only not one-size-fits-all, it's not even one-size-fits-one-customer. The channel of customer support that works best for a customer in the morning over breakfast isn't necessarily the same as what will work for them on a crowded subway heading home that afternoon.
Bold360, for example, is an AI-informed customer support platform that, alongside other channels and capabilities, offers the ability for customers to contact a brand via voice and get appropriate responses based on a version of natural language processing that Bold360 calls Natural Language Understanding. [Disclosure: In my professional work as a customer experience consultant, I have created content for Bold360.] Yet CMO Ryan Lester, Director of Engagement Technologies at LogMeIn, its parent company, tells me he doesn't like to see the industry rush wildly toward voice without considering the integration and alternatives necessary to avoid turning customers off. "Although voice will undoubtedly become a key channel in the future, as companies begin to explore it, they need to do so in a holistic way. Voice can't be a siloed channel; it needs to be integrated into the experience seamlessly, be conversational and contextual, be easily shifted to other messaging channels and allow for easy access to a human agent when required."
Raj Singh, President, and CEO of Go Moment, the creator Ivy, makes a broader point: "One of the most important factors in making these technologies successful is to make sure they ‚??know what they don't know'-that they're designed to bow out either when the speech detection isn't sufficiently solid or the concepts being articulated call for human intervention‚??for example, in our hospitality context, a guest who is upset with service and really needs care and comfort from a hotel manager rather than a simulated human interacting with them over a speaker."
Lester offers a final caution: "Like all forward-friendly technologies, the risk of overreach is a real one, and can result in customer frustration or even rebellion. In the case of voice, the particular risk with clunky deployment is that the novelty aspect will dominate, and the experience will ultimately wear thin."