What Does Customer Experience Mean in a Voice-First World?

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This post is the latest in our “Beyond the Screen” series. It will be an editorial focus for the month of February, and you can see the rest of the series here

What do interactions between companies and customers look like without a screen in the way? That’s the question with which brands are grappling as they look to redefine the customer experience in today’s quickly changing marketplace.

Broadly speaking, customer experience is made up of the customer journey, brand touchpoints, and brand environments. Companies with the best customer experiences are able to meet or exceed expectations for all three of those parts. Customers today are demanding more personalized experiences than before, and companies are using as many platforms and technologies as possible to meet those expectations. That’s why you see so many brands interacting with customers through social media messaging and chatbots, along with more traditional channels like email, telephone, and direct mail.

More than five years after the debut of Amazon’s Alexa, consumers are increasingly coming to expect voice assistants and smart speaker systems to be incorporated into the customer experience. They’re also asking their favorite brands to integrate their experiences with smartwatches and other wearables.

The trend of moving customer experience beyond the screen has been dubbed “conversational customer care.” It’s still unclear just how many channels are included under this umbrella or how the future of conversational customer care will look. Brands that are dealing with demanding customers can’t afford to sit back and wait for this to play out. Screen-free customer experiences could be the future. They could be just a single touchpoint in the broader context of customer experience strategy. Or, they could just be a passing fad.

But the chances that voice-first customer experiences are a fad seem to be shrinking. In the US alone, more than 90 million people now use voice assistants on their smartphones to make calls, send text messages, and play music. Surveys from the research and advisory firm Gartner have found that three-quarters of organizations are increasing their customer experience technology, with customer journey analysis, customer needs analysis, voice of the customer, and digital marketing being four of the biggest areas of investment.

Gartner also predicts that by 2023, 25% of employee interactions will be via voice, up from fewer than 3% last year. The popularity of smart speakers in the home is expected to increase pressure on businesses to enable similar devices in the workplace. At customer service centers, voice recognition technology and natural language processing are now used to process people’s spoken commands, engage with customers, build brand loyalty, and potentially drive revenue. Global giants like Estee Lauder are entering into partnerships with voice technology makers and launching virtual “advisors” that help people learn about their products without relying on screens.

When voice technology is coupled with artificial intelligence, brands can respond to and act on customer issues in mere seconds. Long hold times on customer service phone lines will soon become a thing of the past.

“Virtual assistants offer the greatest benefit for humans when they can understand, respond and act, quickly and accurately, to questions and requests for help. We want these interactions to feel natural, personalized, engaging, empathetic, trustworthy and fun, and it is conversational AI that is at the heart of this,” says Jonathan Patrizio, principal solutions architect at the digital consultancy Mobiquity.

More Meaningful Interactions

With the right voice-user interface in place, brands will be able to facilitate interactions with customers virtually. Coupling voice assistants with natural language processing will someday help customer service teams provide more personalized interactions by studying the preferences and buying patterns of customers and fetching related data. White-label voice assistants have the ability to analyze this data, so companies can offer personalized product recommendations.

“Voice UIs can be a great complement to other existing digital channels like online, mobile, SMS and chatbots and provide capabilities that match well the situational needs where voice interaction is easier than these other traditional modalities,” Patrizio says.

Voice also provides brands with a new way to build direct relationships with their customers so they can gain insights into what they need and how the brand’s offerings could be improved.

“CPG brands, news distribution, retailers, financial institutions should be thinking how they can more directly connect with their consumers where typically they might have a less direct relationship with their end users,” Patrizio says.

Right now, voice is still owned primarily by just a few companies—Amazon, Google, and Apple. But as brands figure out how to leverage the technology as a reliable channel for customer experience, it’s possible new players will make headway in the space.

“As brands figure out whether they’re going to leverage voice through agreements with other companies, or if they’re going to create their own voice channels, it will become more clear how brands can make the most of how consumers are using voice,” says Nicole Amsler, vice president of marketing at Formation, an AI-powered marketing platform.

A Stepping Stone to Sales

Integrating voice into customer experience could be a first step for companies looking to increase sales through secondary channels. As we have seen in other digital channels, like online and mobile, it can take a while for users to truly trust in a channel before they’ll conduct transactions and commerce.

“It might be that you use voice to provide information or even a conversation that helps a user think through a future purchase, and then that purchase happens via a different modality,” Patrizio says. “That is still a win for voice commerce because it has influenced and moved the transaction through the sales funnel.”

As was the case with mobile apps, brands need to be thoughtful about how they enter into voice, said Derek Browers, senior vice president of MomentFeed. Despite industry-wide optimism, there’s still some hesitancy among consumers to resolve complaints and issues via voice. According to research from Gartner, just 9% of consumers say they have successfully resolved issues using a company’s self-serve tools. If brands push too quickly into self-service voice applications, there could be pushback from consumers.

The best approach, cautions Browers, is for brands to spend time developing their voice-based apps and skills in a way that provides real utility to the consumer. Brands also need to be voice-first in their design and user experience, which is a very different kind of storytelling than what brands have grown accustomed to in screen-based apps.

“What we’re witnessing with the rise of voice as an interface is analogous to the rise of the smartphone. The largest difference is that voice is being adopted much faster,” said Browers. “The brands that get this alchemy right should enjoy significant first-mover advantages, and I think that holds a lot of appeal.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.