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Modern Business

Raise Your Voice

With the rise of voice search, companies can engage conversationally with customers and more intelligently meet their needs.

By Alison Weiss

Spring 2018

Consumers love convenience. And one technology that’s enjoying surging popularity because it makes modern life easier is voice. Today, people talk to their TV remotes to find shows to watch, while driving they ask their smartphones to locate nearby gas stations, and when they entertain, a simple command gets their smart speakers to play background music.

Now, this marriage of convenience and voice is rapidly evolving. Early adopters are already choosing to use digital voice assistants on smartphones and speakers instead of using web browsers and screens to search for and buy products and services online. By 2020, 50% of all searches are expected to be voice searches, according to ComScore. Many see voice search upending web browsing and traditional marketing strategies, launching a brave new ecommerce world where packaging, logos, and brand names have much less impact.

Yet other experts tracking the emergence of voice search suggest that if companies embrace voice search and voice assistants and incorporate the right intelligent technologies, conversational commerce will enable brands to connect with consumers on a richer, more personalized level to better meet customer needs.

Engaging Conversation

Voice recognition technology is not completely new. It dates back to 1952 when researchers at Bell Labs devised a basic system that had the ability to recognize numbers spoken via telephone. And most consumers are way too familiar with the speech-enabled automated customer service systems many businesses have used for years.

Mark Logan, senior vice president of innovation at Barkley, a Kansas City, Missouri–based advertising agency, focuses on identifying and exploring emerging technologies that will be relevant to clients—and voice search is definitely on his radar. Logan believes what’s spawning the interest in voice search is the emergence of technology enablers such as AI, with natural language processing incorporated into digital voice assistants. “We are getting to a point where accurate voice recognition technology exists, and conversations are both useful and engaging for consumers,” he says.

It’s a revolution. There are people who say this could be the death of brands, but I think it’s the future of brands and how they differentiate themselves.”–Mark Taylor, Chief Experience Officer, Capgemini Global

Findings from a 2017 Pew Research Center survey indicate that 46% of American adults use voice-controlled assistants, and the most common way they access them—42% of the time—is on a smartphone. However, a fast-rising category of devices, and the one largely credited for fanning the flames of voice search ecommerce, is the smart speaker. Research from the Consumer Technology Association reveals that unit sales of voice-controlled smart speakers in the US reached 25 million in 2017, and sales are projected to grow to 43.6 million in 2018.

Currently, consumers use smart speakers mainly for noncommerce-related activities such as asking questions or automating tasks around the house. Still, voice search purchasing using speakers is gaining ground, in part because the two current market-leading smart speaker makers, Amazon and Google, are such dominant players in ecommerce.

A recent report by the Capgemini Digital Transformation Institute finds that the biggest benefits cited by consumers when using devices outfitted with voice assistants for online shopping is that the assistants offer fast, accurate replies; can be used hands-free; and are easier to use compared to apps, websites, and visiting physical stores.

The report also identifies the early voice spenders. Almost 50% are millennials between 22 and 32 years old, two out of three are tech savvy and live in urban areas, and 6 out of 10 voice spenders use voice assistants to order meals or purchase groceries and clothes.

Jeff Fromm, an author and partner at Barkley who specializes in millennial consumer and marketing trends, notes that millennials like using voice-controlled assistants for online shopping because the process is hyper- convenient and simple. Further, while millennials are loyal to brands that offer demonstrated value, they respond positively when companies selling online have taken the time to map the customer journey, look at different customer touchpoints, and use empathy to identify ways to serve and support customers end to end. This could mean, for example, an ecommerce home improvement business that offers easy household do-it-yourself videos online to help customers after they make tool purchases.

“When a millennial consumer buys a hammer, it’s not really about the product. What’s being purchased is the ability to finish a project,” Fromm says. “Voice search makes it easier for millennials to get to the solutions they need.”

Such insights about early voice search adopters are critical, because they help companies comprehend how ecommerce marketing strategies will need to shift as voice search takes hold. Greg Zakowicz, senior commerce marketing analyst at Oracle Bronto, points out that voice search eliminates the visual impact of logos and distinctive packaging that has traditionally set products apart and established brand identity. Company leaders are understandably concerned that without these typical visual cues, brand value and loyalty could decline significantly. And many are unsure of how to increase the chances of their brands coming up first when consumers do voice searches.

Even though these concerns are legitimate, Zakowicz says companies should understand that voice search doesn’t make everything else obsolete. Some consumers today still hesitate to use voice-controlled assistants to search for products, because they don’t yet trust that these assistants will offer up the best-quality products at the best prices. So, browsing websites using a screen is still the ideal online shopping choice for them. And not every ecommerce transaction that starts with voice search necessarily ends with voice search. Consumers might start looking for items or services using a voice search via a smart speaker and then complete purchases by going to mobile apps or websites—or even to actual stores. Finally, smart speakers are continually evolving—now some even include screens, providing a convenient mix of voice and visual browsing.

Brand Voice

Mark Taylor, chief experience officer at Capgemini Global, encourages companies to adopt a broader, more positive perspective about voice search. He firmly believes that voice technology will make possible personalized conversational interfaces to more strongly connect with customers and create even deeper brand loyalty than is achievable today. He says that in the 1950s, “brand voice” was created as a metaphor for the tone of a brand and how it made people feel—and while that has most often been conveyed visually, there is now an opportunity for a brand’s literal voice to be developed and honed.

The goal is to try to get an understanding of who among your customers has migrated to voice search. Then you need to analyze the impact on your digital presence and figure out how your brand is faring, and how to improve it.”–Mark Logan, Senior Vice President of Innovation, Barkley

“Voice conveys emotion, the single biggest factor in how consumers respond to a brand,” Taylor says. “If I ask a question and a company responds using a brand voice that I not only recognize but that understands and empathizes with me, that’s powerful.”

Voice assistants already have the capability to modulate voice tone and whisper when responding to users, and AI technology improvements are coming that will enable them to understand context, make inferences based on a user’s voice tone, and respond in kind. Voice assistants eventually will also have the capability with machine learning and analytics to automatically draw on customer data to personalize voice interactions even more.

The potential payoff is huge, because conversational commerce will allow companies to give customers a seamless experience whether they are buying, seeking information, or asking customer service questions. At the same time, voice assistants will have the sophistication to listen and adjust their tone and tailor their responses, depending on what the customer needs. Taylor contends that capitalizing on how a brand sounds and using conversation to build customer engagement and customer loyalty will be a competitive game-changer.

Enabling Conversational Commerce

While the brand voice–based conversational commerce scenario that Taylor envisions is still a ways off, voice search is expected to get more popular year over year, and voice-recognition platforms are quickly expanding beyond smartphones and smart speakers to include tablets, cars, and wearables. To get ahead of competitors, companies must create strategies that map out how technology pieces will eventually come together to enable conversational commerce.

A good starting point is focusing on customer experience (CX) and investigating the questions customers are asking today across a company’s existing apps, channels, and websites. Taylor notes that major consumer brands have used chatbots, which hold conversations via text, successfully to learn some of the context of their customers’ questions and determine how their brand tone sounds to customers. (See “How to Train Your Chatbot” for more on chatbots.)

Another obvious stream of information is related to all the online purchases consumers are making with voice-controlled smart speakers. However, Taylor predicts that smart speaker makers will likely be willing to share only transactional data related to these purchases. He doesn’t think they will share the more in-depth customer information that could provide valuable behavior insights companies need to create expansive conversational experiences with their customers.

Instead, to enable voice-based conversational commerce, companies will need to construct their own conversational interfaces by building on the social messaging platforms their customers already use, such as Facebook or WhatsApp. “This will allow brands to start to learn what their customers care about and how customers want to talk to brands,” Taylor says. “In turn, brands can learn what words to use back in conversation with customers to begin to build relationships of value.”

Logan advises companies to analyze how voice search is already influencing their brands; for companies that are big ecommerce players, there’s a good chance that 20% to 30% of searches for their brands are now voice search, he says. “The goal is to try to get an understanding of who among your customers has migrated to voice search,” Logan adds. “Then you need to analyze the impact on your digital presence and figure out how your brand is faring, and how to improve it.”

Fortunately, many of the technologies needed to analyze voice search data and to construct conversational interfaces already exist. Justin Grochoski, head of CX cloud innovation at Oracle, is excited about the potential for technology to enable innovative, convenient, and positive conversational commerce for customers. He observes that until recently, voice channels for companies have been confined to help desks and service centers. “These are never good experiences,” he says. “Customers don’t call if something great has happened—only when something has gone wrong.”

Oracle currently has a whole stable of cloud-based CX products that focuses on sales, service, commerce, and loyalty, among many others. Oracle Voice, part of Oracle Sales Cloud, translates text to voice and voice to text; Oracle Knowledge, part of Oracle Service Cloud, is a cloud-based knowledge repository; and Oracle Social Cloud features a sentiment analysis engine. “Today, we’re looking at how we can start to blend all of these pieces together,” Grochoski says. “We’re finding all these things we can do with voice, and we are working with partners to bring them to life.”

In fact, a team at Capgemini is working with Grochoski and his colleagues to develop an intelligent conversational commerce prototype that seamlessly combines technologies, processes, channels, and consumer data. Oracle Adaptive Intelligence will be used to build the capability for intelligent commerce, while the Oracle Intelligent Bots feature of Oracle Mobile Cloud Enterprise will be the basis for customer interaction. The voice interaction tools for the platform will be Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri voice-controlled assistants.

“Most companies have not yet implemented conversational technologies or connected them in a way that’s meaningful for consumers, but ultimately using one conversational interface will eliminate the wall between commerce, the transaction, and customer service,” Taylor says. “It’s a revolution. There are people who say this could be the death of brands, but I think it’s the future of brands and how they differentiate themselves.”

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Illustration by Wes Rowell