By the end of 2021, more than 1.6 billion people will use voice assistants on a regular basis, and it is certain they will want to do more than ask about the weather or hear their favourite song. Such assistants will provide retailers with an unprecedented opportunity as consumers use them to find, research and buy products. For this reason, exploring how voice assistants can improve the customer experience is a core focus for many retailers right now.
Conversational artificial intelligence (AI) is powering voice technology systems and be it Alexa, Siri or Google Home, these platforms are enabling customers to interact with brands in ways that are not only convenient but also highly personalised and contextualised. In a conversational AI world, virtual assistants will search, open, fetch, command and engage the dozen or more websites, portals, apps and systems we all interact with daily. “My virtual agent does that” will become the new “there is an app for that”. While some retailers have already made headway, others still need to update their strategies to make sure they are prepared for this voice-enabled reality.
Virtual assistants move beyond customer service
Currently, customer service is the most practical use case for most voice-bots and virtual assistants. When it comes to buying, the services are best suited to products that do not require deep research, or for reordering something a customer has bought previously. However, the progress being made in voice technology, machine learning and natural language recognition in AI is empowering a new shift towards voice-assisted e-commerce.
According to SAP, 20 per cent of UK consumers planned to purchase their gifts using AI-enabled home assistants last Christmas, with a further 11 per cent using them to research bargains. As the accuracy of voice search or voice recognition becomes more precise and customers begin to experience the immense convenience, speed and ease of voice-assisted commerce, wide spread adoption amongst consumers will become a reality. From a retailer’s perspective, the inherent cost savings due to labour and time savings in managing the customer purchase process, will also drive investment in the technology.
The state of voice-assisted commerce
Amazon jumped out as an early leader in this category with the ability to order items using Echo directly from Amazon using voice-only commands, as well as access voice-exclusive deals and simple reordering by drawing on the customer’s existing order history. Amazon ‘Prime Now’ and Alexa Voice Shopping also offer consumers further flexibility, choice and ease when it comes to purchasing or re-ordering items.
In 2017, Google also made an aggressive push into voice-assisted commerce by adding shopping capabilities to its Google Home devices, allowing customers to order and pay for goods via voice command with Google Express. Perhaps the biggest development for Google last year in the UK though was the announcement that it had entered into a partnership to make hundreds of thousands of Tesco products available to purchase through the Google Home voice-controlled feature and receive personalised recommendations based on previous purchases, which could see it gain higher market share due to the ability to tap into Tesco’s large customer base
Maturing of voice-assisted commerce
While big players are making large investments in voice technology, it is still very much in its infancy and there are many existing customer experience challenges that will need to be overcome before it becomes truly mainstream. For example, the accuracy of voice recognition needs to improve and at present, the user can only order one item at a time or a multiple number of the same item.
However, both Amazon and Google, the clear leaders in this space from a device perspective, are continuing to explore ways to build on the initial success of voice-assisted commerce and in a few years, it will likely be possible to shop with most major retailers using voice. Moreover, the context of voice shopping is set to become more varied and sophisticated. For example, at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show, LG featured a smart refrigerator using Alexa that allows direct ordering of food items, and Ford and Volkswagen announced their integration of Alexa into their cars to enable voice shopping while driving.
These features matter, as e-commerce is set to become increasingly experience focused – rather than focusing on mass consumption, it will be personalised to an individual. This means that experiences will drive commerce rather than traditional trade. In this new world, the brand promise is prevalent through engaging content (including augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) enablement), personalisation, AI-driven recommendations and on-demand customer service. As retailers continue to explore opportunities for using voice commerce, it will be critical that the unique capabilities of voice are integrated into a more comprehensive set of customer experiences.
Creating a seamless shopping journey
Voice-assisted commerce already has the unique advantage of making the product search process a dialogue instead of being one-sided, wherein the user searches for the desired product using the search box on a website. Thus, voice commerce makes the shopping experience more engaging at the same time as providing the retailer with the ability to make more intelligent, real-time recommendations based on what the AI-fuelled digital assistants learn from their interactions with the user. Eventually, voice controlled digital assistants will be able to enable and support a much more complete and seamless end-to-end shopping journey, providing personalised recommendations and guidance throughout the process of researching, selecting, purchasing and even assembling and using the products themselves.
Retailers that will benefit the most from voice controlled digital assistants will be those capitalising on existing capabilities and helping develop new ones providing the customer with unique and engaging experiences that not only simplify the transaction process, but also help customers make smarter decisions over their product and service options. For instance, Amazon has added a camera to Amazon Echo that can help users take selfies and then talk to someone to gain a second opinion. With retailers such as Victoria’s Secret, Sephora and Burberry continuing to explore opportunities for incorporating selfies and Instagram into the customer experience, there is a strong likelihood that voice and visual will combine and integrate in a plethora of new ways.
What is on the horizon
Voice-enabled shopping is gaining momentum. Soon, consumers will expect to utilise voice, as well as additional conversational channels such as Facebook Messenger, as preferred channels of communication during their shopping journey. Recent predictions show voice searches will account for 50 percent of all search in just two years, and it will continue to grow from there.
As retailers begin to roll-out voice technology and conversational AI, it is imperative that the technology be integrated with the existing physical and digital channels creating a seamless, end-to-end customer experience. Customers expect to move freely from channel to channel without disruption or loss of information.
Conversational AI – or virtual agents – are no exception to this rule. Those retailers that market their brand as enabling a seamless experience across all channels will be the ones to win market share. The investment in voice technology must begin with a deep understanding of customer needs and expectations and how voice commerce can augment or amplify existing omnichannel capabilities to provide differentiated value. From an AI and data analytics perspective, voice-enabled shopping must then ensure that customer experiences are truly dynamic and continue to leverage the learning from previous interactions, within and across channels.
Underpinning all of this will be a technology platform that is able to understand consumers’ commands, make sense of them, and generate tailored insights for retailers.
Scott Clarke, Chief Digital Officer and Global Consulting Leader, Retail, Consumer Goods, Travel and Hospitality at Cognizant
Image Credit: Georgejmclittle / Shutterstock