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Conversational AI and the Future of Customer Service?

Conversational AI and the Future of Customer Service?

Are intelligent conversational AI assistants like Siri and Alexa the next big thing in customer service? It’s starting to look that way – but the customer experience has to be right.

Not long ago, Amazon did something that’s starting to radically change the way companies handle customer service inquiries.

It decided to give away its Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), a set of tools that let developers integrate Amazon’s “intelligent assistant” speech interface, Alexa, into their own applications.

The news didn’t receive much fanfare at the time. Back then, Amazon’s smart speaker, Echo, had only been on the market a couple of months, and Alexa wasn’t available on any other device. Conversational AI was still in its infancy

But even so, if you were a forward-thinking kind of person responsible for customer service at a big consumer-facing organization, the move might well have got you thinking.

Could intelligent assistants like Alexa be a viable customer service interface?

If people were already asking Alexa to look up Wikipedia articles, or tell them the weather forecast, surely they’d soon want her to tell them other useful stuff, too.

Like “Is my prescription ready for pickup?” or “Why is my Verizon bill so much higher this month?”

When first launched, a conversational AI assistant like Alexa would have drawn a blank with questions like these. To answer them, she would have needed to query back-end customer databases at those companies, and she had no way to do that.

Until very recently, the same was also true for Siri and Google Now. Ask either of them if you’d paid your Verizon bill yet that month, and you wouldn’t have got much in the way of a useful response.

But more recent developments hint at the customer service revolution to come. In the eleven months since Amazon opened up the Alexa API, companies have developed over 1,400 different “skills” (i.e. conversational AI voice interface services) for the platform, including Uber and Dominos.

Sensing the way things were going, Google followed suit, opening up the API to Google Now in March 2016. And in June of this year, Apple finally caught up, opening up the Siri API to third party developers – with ride-sharing firms Uber and Lyft immediately jumping on the opportunity.

How does customer service through intelligent conversational AI assistant platforms work?

So how does customer service work through an intelligent assistant platform? Let’s take a look at a leading pharmaceutical retailer we previously worked with and their solution with Alexa, as a theoretical example.

With the Alexa interface integrated into this well-known pharmaceutical retailer’s customer service app, a customer could ask Alexa to check if their prescription is ready to collect. The Alexa platform would convert the spoken question into text, and pass it to the retailer’s automated customer service software.

That customer service app would then query the prescription management system. Back would come the answer from the database, the app would pass it back to Alexa, and Alexa would speak the answer back to the consumer.

Maybe Alexa would find the required answer first time, or maybe she would have to ask the consumer for more information, in order to find the right answer.

Either way, it’s suddenly a wonderfully easy way for consumers to get instant answers to their customer service questions, without having to pick up their landline, unlock their smartphone, or go online. Conversational AI was doing a lot of the heavy lifting for them.

Intelligent conversational AI assistants could be a smart replacement for traditional IVR

As long as it can readily convert the consumer’s spoken commands into appropriate database queries, and the findings back into intelligible spoken responses, a platform like Alexa could be a very smart front-end replacement for the automated interactive voice response (IVR) systems run by most large consumer-facing companies today.

And in fact, some customer service software startups are already dabbling with application-specific intelligent assistants. Fire up a mobile banking app in the near future, for example, and you may be presented with the option to talk to an Alexa-like character to help you do what you want to get done.

But as consumers are more likely to want to use a single assistant for everything, rather than navigating a horde of application-specific assistants, we think Amazon, Google and Apple’s activities point the way forward. The universal talking assistant of the future may not be Alexa, Google Now or Siri, but it will be one that readily integrates with many companies’ customer service applications.

The customer experience will have to be seamless

For companies, the prospect of having high volumes of calls handled by another company’s intelligent assistant platform holds huge promise of reduced traffic to the contact center.

But if intelligent conversational AI assistants are to be a great, ultra-convenient solution for customer service, there’s an important consideration. The customer service application they integrate with has to be able to handle voice conversations in a natural and empathetic way, and to enable the person to effortlessly get the information and help they need.

Today, as we all know, most IVR applications are awful. People hate using them, because they often sound robotic and unhelpful, they don’t always understand what the caller is saying, and they’re not always designed to get the caller the help they need in the most efficient way.

A TechCrunch article about Uber and Domino’s Alexa adventures highlights the issue:

The problem the company has not yet addressed – and one that makes it difficult for users to actually take advantage of all these integrations – is that, often, Alexa still requires users to speak their requests using very specific phrases. For example, instead of being able to say, “Alexa, order pizza” you have to tell it to “open Domino’s and place my EasyOrder.” That’s not…well…easy.


So if intelligent assistants are truly to be the future of customer service, this “IVR 2.0” will need some serious thought. Companies will need to design and deliver new, customer-centric and web-friendly IVRs that not only make the best use of Alexa’s (or Siri’s, or Google Now’s) speech recognition and processing capabilities, but which also intelligently guide customers to the right information and help, fast.

That’s where we at VoxGen specialize, so we’re keeping a very close eye on this future trend.

We don’t think intelligent assistants are ready for the customer service prime time yet.  But we know that forward-thinking companies are already investigating how to make it happen, and we’re excited to be helping them explore the opportunities ahead.

If you’re interested in the future of intelligent assistants and IVR, get in touch, or leave us a comment below. We’re fascinated by this stuff and would love to hear your thoughts.

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