recent VentureBeat article asserted, “Bots can already chat on websites, answer questions on mobile apps, and respond to social messages. Shouldn’t they also pick up the phone?”

An argument can be made for more efficient handling of customer service requests while taking some of the austerity out of IVR systems, but getting bots to the point where they can effectively engage on the phone with customers feels like a stretch, at least in the near future.

The Economist helps put things into perspective. In case you missed it, they published an extensive article called “Finding a Voice” on the evolution of voice technology, supported by detailed research on recent innovations in speech, language and voice recognition. This quote resonated with me:

“Computers today can already produce an eerie echo of human language if fed with the appropriate material. What they cannot yet do is have true conversations. Truly robust interaction between man and machine would require a broad understanding of the world. In the absence of that, computers are not able to talk about a wide range of topics, follow long conversations or handle surprises.

Machines trained to do a narrow range of tasks, though, can perform surprisingly well. The most obvious examples are the digital assistants created by the technology giants. Users can ask them questions in a variety of natural ways: ‘What’s the temperature in London?’ ‘How’s the weather outside?’ ‘Is it going to be cold today?’ The assistants know a few things about users, such as where they live and who their family are, so they can be personal, too: ‘How’s my commute looking?’ ‘Text my wife I’ll be home in 15 minutes.’

In addition to understanding what can currently be achieved from a technical standpoint, I think it’s helpful to gauge how actual people (you and me) feel about interacting with machines versus humans. About a year ago, Invoca surveyed over 2,000 U.S. consumers on their mobile behavior and uncovered some interesting data including:

State of the Mobile Experience

Consider for a moment that people call because they want personal assistance, and they’re more likely to call about a purchase that’s over $100. If a brand doesn’t deliver the right experience in the moment someone calls, that’s lost revenue. And the industries where people tend to call are incredibly competitive (insurance, financial services, healthcare) making it easy for dissatisfied consumers to move on and put their money elsewhere.

The point being — there’s a lot at stake when it comes to bots and getting this technology to a point where it’s reliable enough to deliver a phone experience that’s contextual and human.

So if bots answering the phone is a relatively “blue sky” idea, what’s worth paying attention to right now? Here are a couple examples of cool innovations happening at the intersection of voice, data, and artificial intelligence — both aimed at improving the customer experience:

  1. A start-up called Afiniti is using artificial intelligence software to examine as many as 100 databases tied to landline and cellphone numbers to determine the best agent to answer each individual caller. Such matching can result in more satisfied customers and more sales, according to the company. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Afiniti’s technology not only pulls callers’ histories for a business and credit profile, but seeks insights into their behavior by scouring their public Facebook and Twitter posts as well as LinkedIn pages. In the case of a sales operation, a caller is matched with the agent who—based on the agent’s own call history—has been able to close deals with customers with similar characteristics.”
  2. Last month, Invoca announced that it’s integrating IBM Watson’s artificial intelligence directly into Invoca’s platform, giving marketers deep insights about callers and conversations, which they can use to enhance and personalize the customer experience. For example, during a phone conversation, audio streams through Watson in real-time, transcribing the conversation and documenting the time any word or phrase is spoken. Invoca’s proprietary algorithms then identify keywords and phrases that marketers classify as “signals” for specific actions, such as intent to purchase. Customers like Frontier Communications are already reaping the benefits. More on the IBM Watson blog here.

There’s so much buzz about what can be achieved with artificial intelligence in the realm of voice, but what I hope you’ll take away from this post is:

a) Don’t underestimate the importance of a human conversation — don’t rush to replace it.

b) Look ahead to the future, but don’t ignore the innovations available to marketers today

c) integrating artificial intelligence into your marketing plan will be a series of baby steps and experiments, so don’t wait for a big bang moment or the “perfect” solution to become available.

Having the right mindset is important given what Frank Chen of VC firm Andreessen Horowitz has to say:

“Silicon Valley is enjoying a golden age of AI technologies. Just as in the early 1990s companies were piling online and building websites without quite knowing why, now everyone is going for natural language. We’re in 1994 for voice.”
Laura Schierberl

Posted by Laura Schierberl

Laura Schierberl is director of content marketing and communications at Invoca. Prior to that she held positions at Oracle, Responsys and Hill & Knowlton where she honed her skills in all things PR, content and social media. Laura earned a B.A. in Spanish and Communications at Wake Forest University. Fun facts: she loves crime TV shows and her labrador has dabbled in modeling.

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