Artificial intelligence and conversational computing platforms are no longer the sole domain of big businesses. Voice-computing technology can help a small or medium-sized business owner make interactions with customers more valuable.
How? For one thing, voice computing technology can help improve customer service and efficiency by allowing customers to quickly and easily have a conversational experience with a business without the need for in-depth technical expertise.
What Is Conversational Computing?
In the simplest terms, conversational computing is when you talk to a device and it talks back to you.
Chris Messina, product designer and the inventor of the hashtag, has a bird eye's view of changes in the way we have conversations. We can use a variety of interfaces (voice, screen, messaging, etc.) and then carry the conversation to other interfaces without losing a beat or starting over.
Photo Credit: Katie Thompson
"For me," explains Messina, "a 'computational conversation' is one in which I initiate a conversation with a digital agent or host—or a bot—and then continue that conversation elsewhere, perhaps over an extended period of time, just as we do with friends and family, perhaps from one day to the next or [from one] holiday to another."
Powered by artificial intelligence, conversational computing is about making the experience of computing as straightforward, familiar and accessible as having any typical conversation in your own language.
This is "in contrast to manipulating a computer system using primarily screen-based interactions or indirect interactions, like a keyboard or mouse," Messina says.
Familiarize yourself with voice assistants, and understand the broad stroke differences between the different players.
—Chris Messina, product designer and inventor of the hashtag
"Conversational computing," adds James Vlahos, author of the recently released book Talk to Me: How Voice Computing Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Think, "represents the greatest technological disruption since the smartphone. Rather than being forced to type and tap, to swipe and click, consumers can simply speak to the technological devices in their lives, getting them to provide information and to fulfill orders."
How Will Voice Computing Change the Way We Do Business?
"The arc of history," as Messina puts it, "suggests that computing wants to become more useful to more people, across wider degrees of sophistication and economic means."
Voice computing removes the need to even look at a screen, he says.
"You simply say what you want," Messina explains, "and the computer interprets it—based on millions of previous similar utterances—and does its best to satisfy your request."
Voice computing, he adds, "offers an incredibly rich and emergent vector towards future human behavior that assumes service ubiquity and availability that is hard to fathom today in the pre-5G world."
One of the greatest challenges of voice computing is discoverability and branding, according to Messina.
"People don't know what to ask of their voice assistants," explains Messina, "and it's unclear what brands of any size can do to drive awareness and recall in these contexts. In this way, only time will tell how relevant the current configuration or brand-based businesses will be in the aural arena."
Harnessing the Power of Conversational Computing
Voice computing can help you improve your customers service in many ways.
For one thing, voice computing may speed up interactions with customers because it can save time. Saving time can result in a better customer experience in today's harried pace of life.
Image Credit: Barbara Butkus Photography
Voice computing may also make it easier for customers to engage with you. More engagement can translate into more data that you can gather about your customers' concerns or preference. You can use this rich data to help you make any necessary changes to optimize the customer experience.
Another substantial benefit to voice computing is that you can respond to customers' questions immediately, even after hours. The almost instantaneous availability of information can improve the quality of your customer service and make you more competitive.
"Like any change of this magnitude," says Vlahos, "the shift to conversational interfaces presents opportunities for businesses that move quickly—and poses threats to those who do not.
"Conversational apps, known as skills in the Amazon ecosystem and actions in Google's, give forward-looking companies new places to represent themselves," he continues. "These apps answer frequently asked questions about products and services, facilitate e-commerce and convey a brand's identity in interactive ways."
Is it easy for a small or medium-sized business to create one of these apps? Vlahos thinks so.
"Even non-technical people can learn to create them using easy-to-learn authoring platforms." Examples include Voiceflow or Witlingo, to name a few.
"Alternately," adds Vlahos, "businesses can enlist an agency to build voice apps for them."
Messina says that experimentation is important.
"Familiarize yourself with voice assistants," he says, "and understand the broad stroke differences between the different players; their assistants, especially Google's and Amazon's; and the platforms that are available either to integrate with them, or to develop independent solutions, i.e. through an independent provider like SoundHound or Twilio.
"It's really easy," continues Messina, "to build a skill or an action—but making a good one takes much more work, and learning that sooner than later is key."
Messina provides a second strategy for a small or medium-sized business owner, and that is serving outward. This means getting a handle on what your customers need based on their capabilities.
"What percentage of your customers are likely to have a voice assistant-enabled device?" Messina asks. "Answer: Almost all of them, whether they know it or not! And, more importantly, how many of them use it, and if so, for what kinds of tasks?"
Just because your customers have a voice assistant available to them, "doesn't mean they'll use it—and determining this can help you time your offering, or decide if it's even worth it yet," he says.
Let's say you run a small pizza shop that caters to your neighborhood. Consider experimenting with voice-activated ordering to see if most of your customers use it.
Are your loyal customers continuing to order by phone? If so, you might consider reminding customers of your voice app by promoting it on the premises, over the phone, and on your website. You might even consider offering a small discount for voice-activated orders. Encouraging customers to use voice-activated ordering can free up your staff's precious time, which is another benefit for harnessing the power of voice computing.
Messina's third strategy for harnessing the power of voice computing is about looking inward.
"Especially if you're in the B2B space, you might be able to make a bespoke skill to make it easier to get status updates on orders or to replenish supplies via voice," he says. "In B2B contexts, you don't need to worry as much about all the bells and whistles and niceties of a consumer-facing skill, and so you might be able to focus on functionality over finesse to deliver real value over voice channels."
Let's say you have a thriving retail business where reordering of supplies on a timely basis is critical in order to satisfy customer demands. You can improve the speed of reordering and the efficiency of your inventory control with voice computing. A voice-activated system, for example, allows your staff to reorder inventory without having to waste time looking at paperwork in order to communicate with your suppliers. That's another way to harness the power of artificial intelligence and voice computing to improve your customer service.
It's safe to say that before long, it will likely be impossible to remain competitive without taking advantage of the burgeoning technological innovations brought about by the artificial intelligence revolution. Consider how the potential of voice-based artificial intelligence may help you gain a competitive edge and what positive impacts it might have on your company's growth and success.
Bottom line, says Vlahos, "it isn't yet fatal for a company to not have a voice app—it may be soon. Just as would be the case with not having a website, the risk is becoming digitally invisible. So it's time to start experimenting with voice."
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