Get Ready for the Rise of Voice Commerce

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“Alexa, order me a package of washing detergent from my supermarket.”

“Hey, Google, what are the must see spots near Kaikoura? Is there a whale watching tour next week Friday?” “Please book places for my wife and me for the 2 pm tour.”

“Siri, who are the founding members of Depeche Mode? And please add their current album to my library!”

Statements like these — and many more — will become more and more commonplace in the not too distant future. Voice technology has become powerful enough to replace point and click or touch and swipe.

The Emergence of Voice Commerce

2016 was the year of the rise of chatbots, while AI and machine learning have been all the rage in 2017. Will 2018 see the mainstream adoption of voice as a major channel of commerce?

One might certainly think so. Digital Assistants like Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, but also technologies like Nuance’s Nina, are delivering very good results. For example, Google reported a 4.9 percent word error rate in May 2017, during its I/O conference; better than what humans deliver on average.

And the hardware market of devices that are incorporating voice technologies is gaining considerable traction, too.

  • Amazon’s Echo Dot has been the top selling Amazon device during the last holiday season; tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices got sold worldwide. And they are getting used, be it for asking for jokes or just for switching on or off the lights … still, according to voicebot.ai Alexa has arrived at nearly 26,000 skills in the US at the end of 2017
  • Google Assistant is now available on more than 400 million devices and there was more than one Google Home device sold every second since the Google Home Mini started shipping in October 2017
  • Apple threw in its Homepod, although they failed to deliver towards Christmas and although its positioning, at least initially, is more limited than the competitions’ – and it is poised to be significantly more expensive
  • Microsoft delivered its Invoke smart speaker in cooperation with Harman Cardon
  • Alibaba and Tenzeng launched their voice assistants Genie and Dingdang in 2017, too
  • Facebook jumps on the bandwagon, too, with an upcoming device named “Portal”

Google and Amazon technologies in addition are widely supported in third party devices of many and a steadily increasing number of brands.

All this is an indication of two important points:

First, businesses see increasing benefit in engaging with their customers via voice. Second, and more importantly, customers also increasingly accept these technologies, instead of perceiving them as an intrusion into their privacy. The convenience of interacting with the machine in more human ways starts to supersede the doubts.

Why to Embrace Voice?

For businesses the benefits are fairly clear.

  • Better Experience
  • Improved Reach
  • Lower Cost

Speech – voice – is the communications channel that humans are most comfortable with by far. We use it every day. Voice commerce is just bringing the digital world even closer to the human world. It can connect the brick and mortar world of talking to a human sales person more closely to the virtual world. The technology therefore has the potential of reaching far more people in an engaging and convenient way by extending the in store experience into homes or by improving the in store experience itself. We are so much more used to speaking to order or ask for something than to typing, which in any case improves the customer experience.

And, of course, there is a cost benefit. If properly combined, humans and chatbots can deliver more for less in a way that is also helpful for the employees by enabling them to do what they are better at than the machines.

Where does it matter now?

Voice commerce is not equally relevant everywhere. Where graphics and display are a paramount and distinctive factor, voice cannot and should not be looked at on its own, but only as a channel that augments and adds to the visual channels. Think of fashion. You can think of asking a commerce application to show trousers or dresses, even similar ones to some that are on the screen, but going without visuals is rather an exceptional case (think of accessibility here).

Voice can move more in the foreground where visual aspects are less important, e.g. when it comes to ordering take out food, or tickets, or groceries.

What it Takes

To be really useful for a business, voice enablement needs to permeate the digital communication channels that are offered by the business. That way the customer experience can get (more) consistent across the channels offered by the company.

A precondition to do this is cleanly attributed data and a well-prepared taxonomy, which support the automated retrieval of the right using NLP (Natural Language Processing) or navigation and action processing within the commerce application, be it adding products to a cart, navigating products or proceeding to and processing the checkout.

Voice technology then needs to be offered via smart home speakers. However, it is more important to have it embedded in and augmenting mobile apps, and later also in the web site. Home speakers make for a good starting ground, but they regularly need to be addressed not using your but the Amazon/Google/Microsoft/Apple etc. brand names first. Flexibility is important here as one e.g. does not want to be confined to selling through the Amazon site or through Facebook only.

Additionally, voice enabling commerce, it is important to not only offer another IVR-like decision tree but to be able to work with increasingly complex sentences. The customer, who must feel minimal limitations, gives the direction of the conversation. Else acceptance stays low.

Lastly, it is important to choose the right set of technology vendors. While it seems inevitable that the well known giants remain the gateway to get to an app or site it is important to stay in control of ones own fate, data wise. This means that it is interesting to not only look at the giants but also at providers of voice ai platforms like snips, convessa, smartly, wit, to name but a few. And then there are specialists like Nuance technologies, or even startups like Voysis that specialize.

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