Rene Thomas Nelson, a Manager at Capgemini Consulting, outlines why voice technologies could redefine retail’s digital customer experience.

Computers talking happily to humans are a defining theme in science fiction. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey, where astronauts converse with their on-board computer, HAL 9000, or ‘Hal’ as they call it. But what was once science fiction is now going mainstream in retail, with Gartner predicting that – by 2020 – 30% of web searches will be made without a screen. New voice-based assistants, such as Google Home and Amazon’s Echo, are expected to form a large part of these non-screen interactions.

The voice of the customer?

Voice technologies offer an answer to some of the major customer experience challenges in eCommerce:

  • UX designers strive to find the best way to present thousands of products on computers, smartphones or tablets. An online shopping site might contain 10,000 items; Amazon contains more than 350 million.
  • Customers have to find their way through complex menus and a changing experience. Each eCommerce site has its own structure, menus and account creation forms, making life complex for consumers and meaning that e-merchants will only achieve an average conversion rate of 2%.

Voice technologies offer an intuitive and personal solution to these problems. Telling your device you want “organic apples grown in Europe” is easier for customers than typing “apples”, filtering organic products only, and then trying to locate the information on their region of origin.

Studies show that voice is better at generating confidence than other forms of communication and that it can also reduce processing costs.

Making your voice heard: the organizational, human and technology impacts

But providing customers with a voice channel across purchase, payment, loyalty, service and order tracking is a significant skill, organization and technology challenge:

  • Marketing teams will need to interact differently with customers, moving from transaction to relationship, sale to experience, and monologue to trust-based dialogue while not being too intrusive.
  • Your approach will need to be hyper-personalized, drawing on your knowledge of the customer – from history to behaviours – and offering a range of choices that are relevant to that customer.

The technology also needs to be spot on or customers will not use what’s on offer. Siri, for example, was introduced by Apple in 2011, but a late 2013 survey found that 85% of users had never used it in iOS 7 and 46% those who had used it claimed that Apple “oversold the voice recognition capabilities of Siri.” Issues included the limited questions that could be asked, the quality of the answers, and question marks over the value that the technology offered the consumer.

Today, however, many of these concerns are being addressed:

  • Progress by researchers in areas such as semantics and artificial intelligence means that systems can better understand the customer and make better use of available data around areas such as people’s habits.
  • The user experience is also getting closer and closer to dialogue with a human being thanks to the progress in synthetic voices, which are now more fluid.
  • Access to these services is growing rapidly. Initially integrated into mobile operating systems, they are now installed in homes thanks to significant growth in connected objects. The Amazon Echo, a personal home assistant in the form of a connected enclosure, is one of the best-selling products from any manufacturer in any category across all of Amazon in the recently concluded Cyber Monday weekend sales in the US and is starting to make its presence felt in the European market. Google Home, a direct competitor, offers deep customer knowledge based on Google’s universe of services. The French start-up Invoxia, recognised at the CES Innovation Award 2016, has enjoyed significant success with Triby, which is based on Amazon’s Alexa technology.

Shouting from the rooftops: moving forward with voice technologies in retail

As they consider their voice strategy, retailers have several possibilities. They can integrate their sales channels with services already adopted by the market (and be at risk of diluting the relationship with the customer) or develop their own solution based on the technologies of voice recognition specialists. Whatever path is taken, retailers need to move quickly to integrate this new universe of services into their eCommerce proposition if they are to meet the future needs of customers. To move forward, a number of action areas are critical:

  • Assess and understand – on an ongoing basis – the initiatives launched by Web giants and eCommerce players
  • Define a strategy for the major Web players that already have a stronghold in the market: a competitive strategy or integrated service
  • Identify the technology partners required for voice recognition and synthesis, automation in customer relationship management and machine learning
  • Adopt a ‘test and learn’ approach to increase the skills of your teams and prepare for service development.

In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the all-powerful computer ‘Hal’ turns on its astronaut masters until humans and machine are in open conflict. In retail, however, we are glad to say that the relationship between people and voice technologies is going to be one of value and harmony!