Smart Talk: how voice assistants are speaking up in retail

The retail sector knows better than most the effects of disruptive technology – and the consequences of ignoring it. 2019 has been plagued with headlines of store closures, as many traditional retailers have bowed to the pressures of the digital-first era. Those still in the race are looking to leverage the latest technological advances to drive more engaging shopping experiences, from online chatbots to augmented reality ‘smart’ mirrors.

Whilst these technologies have raised the bar when it comes to the level of customer experience retailers are able to provide, they have also pushed the level of experience customers now expect as a result. With their potential ability to personalise shopping by providing added value and convenience to customers, voice assistants have been lauded as the next frontier in the battle for retail relevance.

In fact, according to our recent study on conversational interfaces, 74% of consumers already use voice assistants for researching or buying products. This consumer appetite hasn’t been lost on businesses, as 87% of executives from large organisations also identify the voice as an important strategic sales channel. Recognition of the importance of voice alone isn’t going to be enough to keep up with the coming conversational commerce revolution, and the importance attached to this concept is not yet reflected in actual deployment levels.

Conversational interfaces have tantalised as a way of enhancing experience and adding value, but most companies fall short on delivering on this. Here are the critical success factors that we have identified as integral for organisations seeking to realise the true potential of conversational interfaces… 

The human touch  

The growth trajectory for the use of voice assistants is driven by several factors – firstly, it’s convenient. In the modern-day world, a frictionless process is sought after by the consumer. With conversational interfaces now allowing commerce, consumers can complete a purchase without lifting a finger. Conversational interfaces started by reducing friction in simple tasks like playing music and making calls.

As devices to support these forms of voice interaction increasingly pervade our lives as consumers, so too are we becoming more comfortable with this ‘old, new’ way of getting things done through speech. This is creating willingness to try more complex tasks like shopping. The convenience of the voice assistant also stems from the reduction of processing times and ease of making repeat purchases. In fact, when Virgin Trains used the Amazon Alexa to book train tickets, the average booking time was reduced by 5 minutes.  

Whilst consumers are demanding these heightened levels of convenience, our research showed us that they won’t replace the desire for personalisation facilitated by the human touch any time soon. In order to truly drive greater engagement, we need to start viewing voice assistants as a key link between human-based customer support and digital platforms.

It's vital that businesses design these experiences through a human-centred design process, to ensure the right ‘conversational interface’ is built. As people, we react in different ways dependent on how we’re being spoken to – to use this technology to enable conversational commerce is no different.

Our research showed that consumers want these voice interactions to feel more human – nearly half of consumers would display greater loyalty for a company and show a higher propensity to spend if their interactions with AI were more human-like. But, as the backlash to Google Duplex showed, we also want to clearly know it is not a human. Likewise, persisting with a conversational interface when the conversation requires a human voice will likely cause significant brand damage.  So, it’s a balancing act.

Context is key  

An important aspect of human voice interaction, is the ability for that to be dynamic based on the context – whether that is based on what is being said, how it is being said or the history of the relationship that we have with the person to whom we are speaking.

Trying to replicate this will be an important challenge to overcome, as it is one thing to create more convincing, but quite another to support the contextual awareness of the customer and real time execution of actions / services that these voice interactions require. This requires organisations to have developed sophisticated customer data views, connected operational capabilities to share and enhance this in near real-time and where needed, be able to seamlessly transfer to human intervention.

Asos’ online shopping guide is now accessible through the Google Home speaker using the voice command “Hey Google, talk to Asos”. The service also uses machine learning to attempt to replicate the context of past relationships, to offer features such as a weekly suggestion of items tailored to each customer’s personal taste and a style matching service that helps customers find products similar to those previously searched for or have images of on their smartphone. Essentially, an intelligent learning system that becomes your personal stylist to ensure your wardrobe stays on trend.

The accurate understanding of where and to what extent voice assistance is used in the consumer purchasing journey will be the make or break for organisations wanting to emulate the successes of big-name brands. Marks & Spencer’s website-based virtual assistant helps customers use discount codes correctly, driving profits close to £2 million. 

Privacy & protection  

Recent revelations about the level of human ‘listening’ involved in many major conversational platforms will have dented consumer confidence and the ongoing national press coverage of major data breaches / exploitations of consumer data will be adding this growing sense of unease around what we are giving away to get access to these sorts of services.

However our research consistently points to a large percentage of consumers being will to overcome this provided two things are true 1) that they are able to see/feel the value created by the sharing of their data and 2) that the retailer is transparent about use of data and gives them confidence that they will keep it safe.  

As consumers become increasingly comfortable engaging with conversational assistants, their expectations around customer service and level of interaction also soar. The ones who win, will recognises that this is a more human way of interacting than any other that has come before in digital, and rethink how they design the interfaces to provide this and the enterprise to support it. It is also a more immediate and real time way of interacting with brands than what has gone before, and so the need to be ready and able to fulfil on the promises made through these interfaces is paramount.