How are virtual assistants affecting the customer experience?

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AI-powered virtual assistant technology is still evolving. One possible future application, according to another leader, comes from researching how smart devices can assist people with physical or cognitive impairments

Virtual assistants are, at least for now, not too great at simulating human relationships. Poor at both service and human bonding, our panel concedes that AI lacks that special touch found in human caring

Do you find it creepy that your smart speaker is listening to you? Is it an intrusion of privacy when household appliances start collecting data on activities inside your house? Virtual and personal assistants driven by AI are everywhere. Often utilizing a combination of AI, speech recognition, and loads of data, virtual assistants (VAs) are great for routine tasks because they are inexpensive and efficient. Alexa, Siri, Echo, and other such devices embody this technology in our homes, cars, and offices.

With a simple voice command, “Can you tell me the weather?” we instantly gain hands-free access to information that matters to us at the moment. With commands such as “Schedule my laundry pickup,” VAs execute routine software processes so we can focus on more challenging, human processes.

Research suggests consumers are split among those who recognize the value and convenience inherent in such widespread, individualized data collection. Despite what you might think, it’s not just boomers who are put off by the constant collection of insights on how you toast your toast, when you’re out of milk, what temperature you keep your bedroom, what websites you visit, when you arrive home from work, and more.

Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss with some leaders the creepy-vs-helpful debate as well as the total impact of VAs on the customer experience. What does our panel see in the future of the AI-powered concierge technologies of VAs?

Best for routine tasks

When I discussed the strengths that VAs may offer, many agreed that virtual agents are best at routine tasks. VAs handle rote tasks effortlessly. Ordering food, making reservations, and ordering items online are fun and novel experiences powered by serious technology. As one of the leaders explained, “A good virtual assistant is frictionless and invisible. Users sometimes overlook that they’re being led through a digital experience. It works because users are smart and don’t appreciate being told what to do, but they do appreciate when their needs are anticipated.” A nuanced understanding of consumer desires is part of what makes VA so convenient and popular.

Not so good at human relationships

Virtual assistants are, at least for now, not too great at simulating human relationships. Poor at both service and human bonding, our panel concedes that AI lacks that special touch found in human caring. A business strategist said it comes down to process complexity. “For more complex tasks, or to build customer relationships, there’s nothing better than two human beings having a conversation.”

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Unresolved legal and ethical risks

Several panelists raised alarms about the legal and ethical implications of devices that report to unknown third-parties such salient details of our lives as how dark you like your toast. Our panel called for more collaboration among companies, governments, and academia to understand the ethical implications of AI in our daily lives. Bias is another problem in VAs. Whether encoded in their machine-learning algorithms or emerging like an artifact upon our AI-powered operational units, bias represents a troublesome risk in organizational effectiveness and our goals of a fair society.

We see life-affirming benefits in VA

Obviously, AI-powered virtual assistant technology is still evolving. One possible future application, according to another leader, comes from researching how smart devices can assist people with physical or cognitive impairments. “Uses might include automating assistive actions such as opening and closing doors, or predictive actions such as scheduling appointments with medical professionals.” One thing our panelists agreed on is that future virtual assistants will move passed nice-to-haves to integrate many diverse and helpful tasks throughout our daily lives.

Our conversation about virtual assistants is just the latest theme in our KnowledgeStream on the role of AI in customer experience. There is still time to participate in the fresh insights we are generating around whitespace opportunities for AI, machine learning, and VAs in customer experience over the next five years.

Listen to my latest podcast here:

About the Author

Johan Hallberg is Chief Technology Officer for Digital Customer eXperience (DCX)
practice and AI with Capgemini Scandinavia

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