One of the important market disruptions taking place today is the ascent of voice technology. In this article, the authors argue that business enterprises should start developing their strategy for integrating voice-first technology into their operations, and propose the key steps business leaders should be taking right now in order to make voice a competitive advantage for their business.
“It’s okay – we’ll be fine.” These words, reportedly uttered by BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie upon the iPhone’s unveiling in 2007, did not age well.1 The iPhone’s subsequent dominance in the consumer market rapidly permeated the business world as users became accustomed to using touch keyboards, gravitated toward Apple’s superior user interface and app ecosystem, and decided they simply did not want to carry multiple devices to manage their personal and professional lives.
This now-classic tale of market disruption exhibits striking parallels to another one taking place today around the ascent of voice technology. The adoption rate of smart speakers outpaces other technologies2 – even that of mobile devices – largely due to low barriers to entry in pricing and the inherent usability of natural language interfaces (no manual required)3. Even if usage regularity trails the speed of device proliferation, many users are embracing voice as a daily behaviour4 and are beginning to use voice technology for increasingly complex interactions like shopping, gaming, and smart home controls. Voice tech is rapidly permeating the car, perhaps its most obviously useful context, as automobiles boast even more monthly active users (77M) than voice technology users in the home (45.7M)5.
Adoption has fueled a cycle where more data drives better performance across automatic speech recognition (ASR) and natural language processing (NLP) within voice AI, enabling humans not only to be better heard, but to be better understood as well.
The Next Wave of Voice Adoption
What does all of this have to do with voice in the enterprise? The success of voice in enterprise applications is predicated upon solving multiple variables: employees need to expect it and be facile with it; the technology needs to be reliable and secure (stakes are often higher in business than in personal life); and the user experience needs to be better than the alternative. The rise of consumer-facing voice technology has driven rapid progress in each of these respects.
Employees, as consumers, will be increasingly using voice technology at home and during their commutes – even while at work on their mobile devices. The biggest names in technology – Amazon, Apple, Google, Samsung, among others – are pouring vast sums into improving their underlying voice assistant technologies and third-party developer ecosystems around them6. And standards for creating delightful voice experiences are being created and codified by a new generation of experience designers, continually raising the bar for “what good looks like” in this nascent discipline.
Put together, these developments provide a fertile environment for creating voice applications that workers want to use, which are capable of performing powerful utility functions, and simply work – reliably and intuitively. In other words, we’re now entering a time when voice technology and conversational AI can fundamentally transform the employee experience as well as improve an enterprise’s processes and profitability. As a result, the time is now for business enterprises to start developing their strategy for integrating voice-first technology into their operations.
Voice & the Enterprise Today
Voice is not a complete stranger to the enterprise and has already seen some very specialised applications gain traction. In warehouses, voice-enabled systems have reduced training time as much as 50%, increased productivity by 25%, reduced error rates by 35%7. In doctors’ offices, Nuance’s voice technology8 is being used to transcribe conversations and upload the data into medical records. In factories, 51% of manufacturers are planning to expand their use of voice technology in the next five years, and Zebra predicts that the most dramatic growth for voice technology will be in the largest manufacturing companies (>$1 Billion), with its use growing to 55% in 20229.
Outside of these industry-specialised applications, voice technology in 2019 is slowly beginning to permeate the enterprise. Several key players in big tech are quietly making a push to own this market. For starters, Amazon’s Alexa for Business launched in late 2017. While the service appears to be slow to generate meaningful revenue (reportedly only $300,000 in 2018)10, Amazon is famously patient when it comes to turning a profit, and if the company can generate sufficient scale of adoption similar to their smart speaker business, they may be banking on figuring out monetisation down the road.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has recently pivoted its Cortana virtual assistant from competing with Google and Amazon in the consumer space to being a productivity- focused assistant inside Microsoft-controlled productivity-oriented environments11. Apple and Google have largely stayed on the sidelines, but don’t expect them to stay there forever. Apple’s rumored release of a “SiriOS12” may open the doors to new productivity-related hacks for companies that use Macs (similar to how Cortana behaves in a Windows environment), and Google’s popular suite of free software (Docs, Sheets, and Slides) could easily sync with Google Assistant to voice-enable those tools.
What exactly are employees doing with these assistants at work? Research from Spiceworks found that 46% tap them for voice-to-text dictation, while 26% use them for team collaboration, 24% for employee calendar management, 14% for customer service, and 13% to assist with IT help-desk management tasks has already seen some very specialised13. Virtually any enterprise, from small to large, can apply these uses into their operations right now to improve their efficiency.
As the underlying competencies of voice assistants improve, they’ll soon be ready for a host of powerful business applications, from the office to the commute to work done at home. Currently, voice is opening the door to productivity that keyboards and touchscreens cannot in myriad ways:
• When hands are gloved: In the lab, a researcher can receive protocol directions, log results, or request assistance without putting down the pipette and in hospitals, doctors can review their surgical checklist using voice while preparing for an operation.
• When hands are on the wheel: Sales people can enter notes from their client meetings in the car on their way home or to the office, logging summaries, observations, and next steps into Salesforce and other platforms.
• When data needs to be retrieved: Rather than paging through long decks or creating customized reports, executives gathered in a conference room can use voice technology to manipulate data in real time with multiple-slot queries (e.g., “show me how this year’s sales forecast compares to last year’s for our top 3 markets”).
• When the front of house needs to reach the back: Retail sales associates can use voice- enabled headsets to check on inventory without taking their attention away from customers and other front-of-house organisational tasks.
• When social dynamics dictate: Instead of crowding around a laptop, a couple can use voice to walk through available benefits and complete enrollment together in the comfort of their living room through a smart speaker.
What’s more, voice can make the work environment more inclusive, reading text for those who are visually impaired, providing immediate and accurate closed captioning of discussions for hearing impaired individuals, and completing tasks for those with impaired mobility.
Making Voice a Competitive Advantage for Your Business
As we already mentioned, every company today, big or small, should be actively thinking about how voice can make their operations flow more seamlessly and increase employee productivity and satisfaction. Here are the key steps regarding voice technology business leaders should be taking right now:
1. Understand voice. If you haven’t yet started experimenting with using voice technology in your daily life, start now. Try out search terms, use it to provide recipes when cooking, and employ it when placing phone calls. In other words, become comfortable with voice. Then, review the common corporate voice applications, including the scheduling of conference rooms (and finding the empty one for a last-minute meeting). And, recall the applications we mentioned earlier – from the lab to warehouse to corporate office.
2. Identify the right uses for your employees. Voice tech isn’t a good solution for every challenge and, like the consumer world, is often best deployed for narrow applications. Think about the specific moments across your employees’ day when voice can reduce friction or the time spent accomplishing tasks, while keeping their hands and eyes free to focus on other things. Explore the processes of data retrieval and data entry that could be improved with voice. Think about the ways that voice could serve as the orchestrator, connecting buildings, conference rooms, and offices. Equip your conference rooms with voice technology, enabling the projector to be started and the lights to be adjusted, two common tasks that often slow down meetings. Explore how workers can use voice to be more productive on their way to and from work, or at home. Also, ask your employees for ways to use voice – they’re sure to find applications you overlooked – and reward them for helping to identify and test approaches.
3. Study up on the latest available technologies for business. Identify the specialised solutions as well as more general offerings that might be applicable to your business that are currently available and meet the needs of your employees and enterprise. But don’t stop there. Imagine the solutions that would be best for your enterprise and see if these providers can develop the apps for you.
4. Develop a compelling, pilot-able business case. While you should commit to voice, you should crawl before you walk and walk before you run. Develop a plan for a small-scale trial of voice technology, where employees have the freedom and safety net to interact with a new system without worrying about their performance being scrutinised. Identify business goals that are clearly established, measurable, and communicated before implementing. These goals can range from efficiency improvements and cost savings to softer areas like employee satisfaction. Work to keep experiments controlled, with meaningful results, by minimising technical, operational, and systems complexity.
5. Determine how you want your company to sound to your employees. Nearly every company understands the value of reinforcing their brand identity with their employees to ensure they build affinity with it and embody brand principles in their behaviours. It is no different with audio. Through the careful consideration of tone, voice selection, and sonic branding elements, your brand can come through elegantly as employees use company-provided voice systems. Employees should feel as though they’re using applications that are designed for them, not generic off-the-shelf solutions.
6. Leverage experienced voice design talent. Employees expect experiences to work and to be thoughtfully conceived. Voice experience design is a specialised skill-set, and an intuitive conversational flow and humanised script are critical components to the success of any voice application. Work with talent that understands how people interact with voice technology, regardless of whether their experience is directly in your industry or specific enterprise applications. And, actively partner with solution providers who are hungry for open-minded customers to help them improve their technology and prove out applications that will help them break the dam of adoption. Good design is good design, even in voice, and there’s no substitute for it.
7. Assign a cross-functional team to champion voice. Voice technology relies on all of the systems working in concert. Data needs to be made available to power your voice applications. Employees need to be trained on how to use them. Executives need to back voice pilots and set them up to be measured and scaled intelligently. Relying on IT or operations functions alone will not generate the buy-in and collaboration needed to launch a successful voice implementation.
8. Keep abreast of the changes. The range of possibilities is growing quickly. Once you start, look to apply voice technology to increasingly complex areas.
One more thing to consider: While the technology is already here, and will only improve, IT and operations teams are famously risk-averse in embracing new technologies, a reason why there is the relatively slow pace of voice adoption in the enterprise today. Look to reassure them by testing and including their concerns and recommendations in the decision making as well as in implementation.
From Infancy to beyond our imagination
For the few of you old enough to remember to early websites, think back to what were once thought to be amazing applications and compare those to the functionality of today. Right now, we’re in that same early stage with voice. Current applications are amazing and can radically improve your operations, but future applications will be even more robust and transformational. Don’t be left behind. Investing in voice today will position you to fully leverage it tomorrow.
About the Authors
Laurence Minsky is Associate Professor, Columbia College Chicago; his most recent book co-authorships include Global Brand Management, Audio Branding, and The Activation Imperative.
Eric Turkington is VP of Strategic Partnerships at RAIN, a pioneer and market leader in Voice & AI. Prior, he worked in product innovation and, earlier, in communications and digital strategy for leading companies.
Colleen Fahey is U.S. Managing Director of Sixième Son, the world’s largest audio branding agency, and a coauthor of Audio Branding: Using Sound to Build Your Brand.
Will Hall is the Chief Creative Officer at RAIN. He also serves on multiple advisory boards on voice and emerging technology and is also an adjunct professor of Design at NYU (New York University).
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