Amazon and Google are in a voice-AI arms race, rolling out new features and capabilities for their respective smart speakers. In the quest to improve customer experience and make consumers’ lives easier, these tech giants are working to eliminate “unnecessary” human interactions — for example, calling a hair salon to make an appointment or speaking with a maître d’ to make a dinner reservation.
Investment in Voice AI
Voice AI capabilities are quickly expanding as tech giants continue investing in the space. At Google’s I/O developer conference in May, CEO Sundar Pichai demoed a new AI system, Duplex, which makes human-sounding phone calls on a person’s behalf. Google is testing the feature this summer and expects to roll out a beta version to some Google Assistant users later this year.
It’s unclear how consumers will react to Duplex, let alone the people on the other end of these calls. Based on reactions to the demo, people are both amazed and unsettled by AI that so closely resembles human speech. Regardless of whether people do, in fact, outsource their calls to an AI in the coming months, it’s clear to me that this application of Duplex is just the beginning. It won’t be long before businesses experiment with similar technology to automate more of their customer interactions.
For more than a decade, brands have invested heavily in digital and mobile technologies that reduce friction and let customers do more on their terms. The benefits are clear: consumers can get things done quickly without waiting in line or on hold; brands can save money and time, allowing them to focus more on creative marketing and new digital experiences.
Are we losing sight of the importance of human interaction?
But at a time when consumer expectations are higher than ever, companies that over-rotate to digital risk damaging customer loyalty. Despite the rise of chatbots and voice AI, people still want to talk to human beings: in a 2016 survey, Accenture found that 83 percent of U.S. consumers prefer dealing with humans over digital channels to solve customer services issues. As Accenture’s Robert Wollan points out, by over-investing in digital channels, “companies have lost sight of the importance of human interaction and often make it too difficult for customers to get the right level of help and service that they need.”
Businesses are already thinking about how to integrate AI, and specifically voice technologies, into their marketing and customer experience strategies. In doing so, they’ll need to focus their customer experience on combining the best of automated digital service with human support. Here’s my advice for doing that.
1. Give customers control over the interaction.
The best kind of customer experience provides easy access to a range of options for both self-service and human interactions through a variety of channels, whether it’s on the phone, online, in-store or a combination of the above.
A recent McKinsey survey found that most B2B buyers want both human and digital interactions when making a purchase. In both B2B and B2C contexts, offering choice when it comes to communication can create another level of personalization that appeals to customers and helps build loyalty.
A few brands are doing this exceptionally well. The menswear brand Bonobos is well-known for its success as an online retailer that later expanded to brick-and-mortar stores. Bonobos makes it just as easy to shop in a physical store, on their website or via live chat. Data is captured across these channels so if a shopper tries on a shirt in a store but doesn’t purchase it, a phone or live chat rep will know already about preferred styles and sizes. In the world of financial services, an eastern European bank called TBC increased loan approvals by 40% by giving customers the opportunity to finish their applications at ATMs and kiosks after starting them on the phone.
2. Provide access to human experts.
Self-service is here to stay, but to provide a truly personalized customer experience, that human touch has to be there when they need it. Whether it happens over live chat, in-app video conference, or a phone call, human interaction cannot be replaced by even the most sophisticated AI.
As a consumer, I find it comforting to have access to an expert when I’m dealing with complicated or expensive products and services — even when my first reaction is to seek more information via digital channels.
For example, TurboTax added a new capability this year to chat live with a tax professional about specific questions and issues. I have been a long-time TurboTax customer but had recently started to use an accountant for tax preparation, primarily because I had one or two specific questions where I wanted expert advice. With the new TurboTax live chat service, I was able to get the best of both worlds: doing the majority of my tax preparation online on my own and having a live conversation via video with an accountant who could address more nuanced tax questions. It put me at ease, it was simple, and it saved me money that I would have otherwise spent on end-to-end tax preparation by a CPA. In other words, it was the perfect blend of the digital and human experience.
3. Don’t forget the power of the phone call.
When making a considered purchase, a complex, emotional or high-cost decision like taking out a mortgage, deciding on an investment portfolio, choosing an insurance policy, or buying a car, most consumers want to talk to a qualified expert. Given the ubiquity of smartphones (and increasingly, voice devices), this is often easiest to do by calling. ReportLinker found that 37% of smartphone owners use their phone primarily for making calls, beating out texting at 26 percent and browsing online at 16%.
An unlikely brand — the poultry purveyor Butterball — highlights the value phone calls can provide, particularly in times of stress. During the holidays, the brand enlists a team of 50 turkey specialists who counsel nervous cooks nationwide via phone, email, text and online chat. As reported by The Atlantic, during the 2016 holiday season, Butterball got 15,280 questions by email, 8,200 by text, nearly 4,000 via chat and more than 92,600 phone calls. In other words, 77% of Butterball’s customers prefer to talk to a turkey expert rather than turn to digital-only channels.
AI and automated customer service platforms aren’t going anywhere — and neither is human conversation. The brands that use automation to enhance their customer experience, rather than overshadow the human aspects of that relationship, will come out ahead. There’s no replacing person-to-person exchanges during critical decisions, no matter how real the robot sounds on the other line.
Gregg Johnson is CEO of Invoca.
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