The Pitfalls and Opportunities of Screen-Free Customer Service

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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

The temptation is real.

With more than 83 million people now using smart speakers in the U.S., and many more using the technology abroad, brands are eager to jump headfirst into voice. Screen-free conversations could be the future of customer service, and businesses are fearful of being left behind. But pushing too far into voice technology too quickly, without a clear strategy or understanding of how the market may shake out, could lead to wasted resources and unexpected outcomes.

“It’s tempting to dive headfirst into voice because of the huge amount of hype that surrounds the technology thanks to products like Amazon Alexa and Google Home. However, we’ve seen that these efforts can be somewhat premature,” says Henry Vaage Iversen, co-founder and chief commercial officer of, which specializes in AI-powered customer interactions. “Voice, at least in customer service, is still a fairly nascent technology. The potential for it, however, is vast.”

One company that’s successfully adopted a voice-first approach to customer service is Audible. The audio entertainment company launched a feature last April that lets users of Alexa-powered devices call its live customer service line through their smart speakers. The customer service line is available 24 hours a day to help with recommendations, product exchanges, technical problems, and app setup.

Moving to screen-free customer service has allowed Audible to provide better support to customers with disabilities, while using the best customer services strategies from companies like Salesforce. However, Iversen cautions that without a specific use case in mind, other brands may end up spending huge chunks of their budgets on strategies that don’t generate measurable results.

“Banks and insurance companies often become stuck with how to actually provide real value to their customers,” he says.

One vertical that has been able to integrate voice into customer service in a meaningful way is retail. National retailers like Best Buy, Walmart, and REI Co-op have created skills or teamed up with technology providers to connect with customers through voice-controlled assistants. Some retailers are accepting orders via voice, and others are doling out product information and reviews. What the most successful of these companies have in common is a defined strategy and plans to measure ROI.

With voice technology still in its early stages, Iversen says now is the time for companies to lay the groundwork for future successes. He recommends that brands start by implementing a solid conversational AI foundation via chat before moving on to voice. This allows a company to build a full-service virtual agent, on proven technology, that has a robust intent hierarchy and advanced natural language understanding.

“Once voice technology matures, and there’s no doubt that it will, companies that have taken the time to figure out chat first will have a competitive advantage when it finally comes time to implement voice technology by layering it on top of the virtual agent,” Iversen says.

In the meantime, Iversen says companies that implement conversational AI can offer 24/7 customer service at a relatively minimal expense. Conversational AI also helps give customers agency over their relationship with brands through increased self-service.

“In Norway, we’ve seen incredible results from one of our largest banking clients who now handles 20% of all its customer service traffic via its virtual agent — that includes phone and email,” Iversen says. “Another of our clients recently surveyed its customers, asking whether they prefer talking with their virtual agent over a human. Three in four customers said that they did.”

With deep learning and natural language understanding, AI companies are also finding new ways to integrate with live chat platforms so virtual agents can transfer customers to human agents when necessary. These are all features that could someday be integrated into a broader voice strategy.

“When was the last time you made a phone call over sending a message?” Iversen asks. “But as the technology improves, we will begin to see increasing opportunities to integrate voice into the customer experience.”

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.