close up of person's hand turning on voice control in car

The Age of Ask – Alexa, Are We There Yet?

5 minute read
Lisa Loftis avatar
Voice capabilities, search in particular, made almost every 2019 priority list — and this is clearly a global trend.

“It's going to be interesting to see how society deals with artificial intelligence, but it will definitely be cool.” ― Colin Angle

We baby boomers have one thing over every generation that proceeded us: we were the first to experience computers and humans conversing — way back in the mid-1960s. Ok, so it was on TV. The product of Gene Roddenberry’s vision, (extraordinary in so many ways), but he, we and Captain Kirk were certainly ahead of our time.

It may have taken the better part of 40 years, but reality has caught up to science fiction. In a huge way. Research firm Ovum projects that by 2021, the number of active digital assistants will top 7.5 billion. If that projection holds, these devices will exceed the total global population. This is amazing when you consider that as recently as 2016, intelligent voice-recognition technology was most commonly found in smartphone-based assistants such as Siri and Google Now.

Ready or Not, Voice Is Here to Stay

Analysts at Canalys confirm the meteoric increase in consumer adoption. They report that the worldwide smart speaker market grew 187 percent in the second quarter of 2018 alone. And Walker Sands illustrates just how addicting these devices can be. Nearly two in five voice-controlled device owners report owning at least two devices, and 7 percent say they own four or more. Usage is high as well. Sixty-four percent use a voice-controlled device at least once a week, and nearly one in five use it at least three times a day. Additionally, adoption continues to grow with more than a third of consumers reporting they are at least somewhat likely to own a voice-controlled device in the next year.

CMOs and CXOs are listening to these trends. Voice capabilities, search in particular, made almost every 2019 priority list I looked at, including those from Digital Marketer, Chief Marketer, Social Media Today and CMSWire. This is a global trend as Quantcast head of marketing for Asia-Pacific, Rachael Townsley, indicated. "With voice search on the up, I expect 2019 will see brands build this into their media mix and address voice as part of their user experience. And for those in ecommerce, especially with Amazon entering the market, I expect voice ordering will push brands to focus on owning the customer in their homes."

Related Article: How to Get the Customer Experience Right in Voice Interactions

Voice Will Give a Tremendous Boost to Customer Experience

What does it mean to “own the customer in their home”? Voice recognition technology, combined with conversational artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language generation, is so effective that it can replace many things we have traditionally done on our computers, tablets and smartphones. Add in the far-field voice pickup technology which allows users to talk to speakers from across the room, and we have a product with tremendous potential. Voice control is a natural and intuitive method of interacting with computers. It’s far more convenient than using a keyboard and mouse, tapping on a screen, or clicking a remote control. The breadth of uses for these devices is significant as evidenced by the activity reported to Walker Sands as to how many consumers have:

Learning Opportunities

  • Played a song — 57 percent
  • Asked a question about a fact — 48 percent
  • Checked the time or weather — 38 percent
  • Created a shopping list — 27 percent
  • Created a to-do list — 23 percent
  • Received traffic information — 22 percent
  • Made a purchase — 20 percent
  • Controlled smart home features — 20 percent

The potential stretches far beyond the home as well — encompassing the car, the office, the doctor’s office, etc.

Related Article: It's Time to Get Serious About Voice

Frictionless Customer Experiences

Imagine being able to place a coffee or food order from the car and have it ready for pickup when you get close to the store. You already can at Starbucks. Or ordering replacement products for home delivery, placing a pickup grocery order, getting how-to tips from a product manufacturer, receiving driving directions, traffic information and route adjustments while in-route, getting program and movie viewing options and recommendations. All by simply talking. From the comfort of your home, car or office. Not only could this skyrocket customer satisfaction scores, it could also pave the way to a frictionless path-to-purchase.

More Personalized Experiences

Digital assistants give companies a great opportunity to collect information about customer behavior and preferences and use it to create contextual and personalized experiences. Digital assistants that control smart home devices could infer preferences from past interactions and proactively ask homeowners if they would like the outside lights turned on, the thermostat turned down, or almost-out products ordered. Even better are the emerging capabilities around emotional artificial intelligence, designed to allow these devices to read your voice and comprehend context, mood and even understand health-related issues. Imagine asking a smart speaker, “What time is the game tonight?” and having them know from past interactions, time of year and location, exactly which sport and team you mean — without having to ask. Or the voice assistant that can scrutinize patients’ speech for biomarkers of depression and anxiety. This type of context and emotional intelligence could create quite a powerful amount of intimacy.

The sky is the limit when it comes to the CX benefits that can be derived from voice. We are truly in the age of ask — and if Alexa, Cortana, Google, etc., can’t tell you we are there now, they will soon be able to.

About the author

Lisa Loftis

Lisa is a Principal on the Global Customer Intelligence Team at SAS, where she focuses on customer intelligence, customer experience management and digital marketing. She is co-author of the book,