3 Ways Virtual Assistants Can Overcome Road Blocks and Stand Apart From Competitors

Their sometimes hilarious, sometimes infuriating bugs need to go

There's a war amongst the big players in voice (Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant) as well as some smaller players. - Credit by Getty Images
Headshot of Keith LaFerriere

Nowhere is artificial intelligence evolving as quickly as with the virtual assistant “wars” playing out. Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and the entry-level players are locked in an innovation battle that they hope will blur the lines between machine and human. With that comes endless marketing and experiential possibilities. In fact, Gartner recently concluded that virtual assistants are one of the key technologies that will impact digital business models. However, virtual assistants don’t just represent a war between Apple and Google; it’s a strategic, customer experience (CX) battle that will reset the course of consumer marketing moving forward.

This industry-wide transformation is not without its hiccups. Ask any of the virtual assistants out on the market to help you carry out a basic task, and you’ll encounter an array of responses ranging from helpful to hilarious. Well, maybe not too hilarious, considering that you were asking for help or information and may not get either. Assistants also have the troubling power to carry out tasks you didn’t ask for.

To illustrate how much power we’ve already agreed to hand over to the assistants, we only need to remember Amazon’s infamous voice-activated dollhouse shopping spree, a chain of events set in motion by the company’s initial decision to set voice purchase as the default on devices that did not yet have the ability to distinguish different voices. In another instance, Alexa and Echo misinterpreted a family’s conversation, “woke up,” recorded the rest of the conversation and then sent it to a random contact. Meanwhile, when a woman jokingly asked Siri if her crush would ever text her, Siri texted the question directly to the woman’s crush. And there are countless other examples and listicles documenting assistants gone awry.

So goes the current virtual assistant war: a voice CX challenge that promises to change the way we live, work and play without delivering the consistent, no-brainer, non-mortifying results we need—yet.

As we tread through the infancy of virtual assistants, brands need to put themselves in the shoes of their consumers and understand what adopting assistant technology truly means for them and what is at potential risk in order to make the necessary improvements that drive long-lasting CX.

Being an early adopter myself means I willfully choose to invest in a type of technology, set certain expectations (both realistic and not) around quality of service, time to learn and whether to incorporate that technology into my everyday life. Virtual assistants represent something I feel will make my life inherently better, knowing that the more personal data I allow to help matriculate their service promise will result in a leap of faith. And at a time where folks are struggling to trust brands, financial security and their own password architecture, leaps of faith are hard to establish.

So how does a brand win this assistant war and actually deliver on its promise?

As we tread through the infancy of virtual assistants, brands need to put themselves in the shoes of their consumers.

Defining success: Voice recognition

One of the most challenging measurements in this war, alluded to in the above Amazon example, is accurate voice recognition. The platforms are actually quite telling in how they interpret and return results based on random commands. Advancements in recognizing accents, lisps, pronunciations and languages, like Google Home’s new Spanish language recognition, will go a long way in engaging users as more will be able to experience the value of these technologies firsthand.

Further, brands who put consumers in the driver’s seat through customer service and the ability to create their own skills like the Alexa Blueprint stand a better chance of succeeding on the consumer and operational side, lowering costs for call center volume and redirecting those resources to handle incoming order processing and complex issues.

The new model: Voice-powered lifestyle CX  

Consumers are constantly surrounded by IoT devices in their homes, cars, workspaces and public areas. Virtual assistants will soon travel with them and shape the way they purchase products. A person will be woken up with a reminder from Alexa that they need to buy milk, be provided with a list of stores with the best prices and served an ad for a related product.

To reach maximum potential, brands need to give consumers complete autonomy over their voice CX. They can decide what their CX voice sounds like and when to dial it up or down when they don’t want Big Brother hanging around. This will be non-negotiable for voice CX. People will demand to receive seamless, daily life help on their own terms.

The holy revenue grail: Licensing

The winner of the assistant war will likely become the standard AI assistant for all apps, both on personal devices and other brand interactions such as autonomous cars, kiosks and other customer service applications. They’ll also gain access to the true value of licensing: more data by which to improve customer marketing.

Extracting and executing upon customer data in real time is one of the leading pain points for marketers everywhere, but overcoming the problem is imperative when thinking specifically about customers’ personalization demands. Without real-time insights or a better means of managing customer data, brands will struggle to deliver quality experiences that customers crave. Thus, the victor between Siri, Cortana and the gang will be at an enormous advantage.

Recently, Hulu was seen as an innovator using the Alexa Skills Kit by creating an easier, more intimate viewing experience involving everything from the app to AWS Lambda to the Hulu Fire TV and Echo apps. Moving forward, we can see professional services companies innovating ways to build complex skill sets for the virtual assistants to create deeply-branded, licensed assistant-ware.

Every brand knows it is not good enough to simply have customers who experience your service or product. Real thought and effort need to go into the experience to make it personal, relevant and ultimately irreplaceable to those customers. Voice assistants represent an enormous opportunity to finally deliver on this promise, and brands that can capitalize on them in the mar tech stack are the ones who will be able to reap the rewards of extensive customer lifetime value.


@KDLBoston Keith LaFerriere is chief creative officer at customer experience agency Verndale.
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