This story was originally posted on Venturebeat.

Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have dramatically simplified how humans can interact with brands to complete everyday tasks, from ordering a coffee or pizza to paying a credit card bill, through a simple voice interface. Yet the latest innovations from Amazon and Google support the oldest form of human communication: human-to-human conversation.

At the I/O developer conference this week, Google announced that its voice-activated speaker, Google Home, will now support phone calls, and its voice-controlled Assistant on mobile will allow purchases via voice. Earlier this month Amazon introduced Echo Show, a device with a screen for video calls, and Alexa Calling, a feature for voice calls and messaging through the Echo and Alexa mobile app.

Voice-controlled devices are changing how we communicate not just with our digital assistants, but with other people. It’s important to note that these innovations don’t obviate human conversation; they supplement and encourage it by removing the friction of picking up a phone, opening an app, or typing a message.

It won’t be long before we expect this kind of experience when communicating with a business. We’ve seen this pattern before — consumer technologies like Facebook and Twitter emerge, gain traction in our personal lives, and within a year or two become mainstream in business settings. This is a wake-up call for brands that approach the digital experience as a series of taps and swipes. Companies that value customer experience will figure out how to blend digital interactions with voice. And they’ll win.

Some companies are already using a mix of bots and humans to respond to customer communications. Stockholm-based Swedbank uses a chatbot on its website to answer questions about foreign currency rates and branch locations. The bot solves consumers’ problems about 80 percent of the time, and the remaining 20 percent are routed to support staff, who can answer more complex account questions. These more complex interactions make or break the customer experience. They’re the points where sales are made and loyalty is cemented — or not.

For the foreseeable future, the best experiences will come from a mix of voice-powered automation and human interaction. While most people are amenable to an automated voice control system if it works well, research shows that people prefer a live conversation with a human to resolve more complex and emotional issues. Businesses need to bring humans into the conversation at the moment when it best serves the customer.

Amazon is working on solving this problem, too. In March, the company introduced cloud-based call center software called AWS Connect that uses the natural language processing and speech recognition technology behind Alexa to interpret what callers want and routes their calls accordingly. Imagine calling an airline, saying “I’d like to change my flight this evening,’ and having a rep immediately talk through three different options on how to get home quickly.
AWS Connect isn’t meant to replace call center staff or automate the majority of their work.

Instead, it helps them do their jobs more effectively while improving the caller experience. By recognizing natural speech, it replaces tedious phone menus, eliminates unnecessary transfers, and provides reps with context about a caller by pulling in CRM data from Salesforce. It opens up the potential for a new kind of service that combines humans and technology to provide the best possible experience.

If the past few weeks are any indication, Amazon and Google will continue to invest in voice technology and bring new features to bear. The market for standalone voice-controlled devices is expected to grow some 128 percent this year over 2016, according to eMarketer. That’s not to mention voice assistants like Siri and Google Now, which are used by 1 in 4 smartphone users.

As voice becomes a more popular communication tool for consumers, businesses will need to evolve the customer experience to blend digital interaction (screens, clicks, swipes) with voice automation (Alexa, Siri) and live human conversation. The companies that master this combination will nail the customer experience, which will only become a more strategic differentiator as communication technologies evolve.

Gregg Johnson

Posted by Gregg Johnson

Gregg is a seasoned digital marketing and SaaS leader, with over fifteen years of extensive experience bringing products to market in emerging categories, leading large teams, and working with the world’s best enterprise brands. Most recently, Gregg led Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s social marketing product line, where he integrated $1 billion of M&A investments into the Salesforce product portfolio. Prior to that he drove product strategy and development for Salesforce Chatter, helping define the nascent category of enterprise social networking and rolling out one of Salesforce's most successful products. Earlier in his career, Gregg was a consultant at Boston Consulting Group and worked in sales, marketing and product roles at several startups. He graduated from Stanford University and holds a Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business.

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