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Get Ready For The Voice

By Brent Leary

Hold on. This isn’t about a TV show. Give me a minute to explain.

At a CRM industry conference last year, I presented a session called focused on how voice-activated assistants were beginning to make their way into the mainstream. At the time, Amazon Echo had less than 1,000 skills (voice commands) developed for it, and tech giants Google and Apple hadn’t launched its competitive home speaker devices. And due to the level of interest from attendees, I was asked to do a follow-up session at this year’s conference. What a difference a year makes.

The number of skills developed by third-party developers for the Echo has grown to more than 12,000, according to estimates. Google not only has released its device, but Google Home has the ability to recognize up to six voices. And if telling your devices to do things for you wasn’t easy enough, Facebook says they are working on technology that they say will read your thoughts, and let you hear with your skin. But more importantly, a study from VoiceLabs estimated there were 6.5 million “voice-first” devices shipped in 2016; that number is expected to grow to 24.5 million in 2017.

Focus on Messaging Apps and Chatbots

Even as the excitement over voice-first devices grows, the numbers are still dwarfed in comparison to messaging apps and text-based interfaces like chat bots. Facebook estimates people send more than 30 billion messages a day on WhatsApp; in total, more than 80 billion text-based messages are being sent each day. Which makes for an obvious reason companies are focusing their efforts on text-based chatbots, because they can provide quick responses to frequently asked questions. And that can lead to better experiences delivered more consistently in channels of rapidly growing importance to customers; and the ability to scale these outcomes in a more cost-effective manner.

Voice-first Devices Are Game Changers

As the numbers above illustrate, we’ve entered an era where conversation is king (my apologies to content and context) because of the experiences messaging platforms can deliver today. And even while text-based interfaces like chatbots are the focus of the majority of conversational strategies, that doesn’t mean voice-first initiatives will be on the backburner for long. In fact, due to the accelerated improvement of voice recognition technology, Gartner estimates 30 percent of all interactions with devices will be voice-based by 2018, because people can speak up to four times faster than they can type.

Things are developing so quickly on the voice side it’s hard to keep up. According to research from RBC, by 2020, upwards of 60 million Alexa devices could be sold annually, 128 million Alexa devices could be installed in total by then, all leading to a whopping $5 billion in annual voice-driven sales. And this is just Amazon devices we’re talking about. With Apple HomePod and Google Home hitting the market, along with other competitors, we’re going to see interactions through these devices grow exponentially.

While it makes sense that the immediate focus on conversational interfaces are on messaging apps and bots, you can’t ignore where things eventually seem to be going with “the voice.”

Amazon’s head of voice design said recently it’s now time to “design for the ear, not the eye.” So keep an ear out for your customer’s voice – it’s literally the long-term key to keeping them around longer.

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