Guest post by Ashley Furness, Market Analyst for Software Advice
Innovation has merged with shifting customer expectations to create a “perfect storm” for virtual assistant applications in mobile customer service context.
These Siri-like applications feed the customer’s appetite for more personal self service and leverage the now ubiquitous use of smartphones.
This apps also create the opportunity for companies to accomplish two things at once: provide human-like interactions with customers that don’t involve additional payroll, and address the consumer’s need for an instant response. These applications have virtual personalities, names, voices and life-like conversations.
So why now you ask? Several trends have converged recently to create this so-called dawn in mobile customer support innovation.
We are a Smartphone Nation
Smartphones have become commonplace. More and more customers use their phones to access customer service and current offerings can be frustrating and inefficient.
Customers typically face two common annoyances when they access self-service offerings on a smartphone or tablet. One, they have to type login information and search terms on a tiny keyboard. And two, they have to dig through FAQ or community forum pages to find the answer they are looking for.
Speech is the perfect vehicle for addressing both of these issues. Even though traditional customer service applications might only require tapping through a few pages, that’s enough to stop many consumers conditioned for instant gratification.
Powerful Phones, Cloud Computing Rampant
Modern mobile devices can run increasingly sophisticated applications faster than ever. Manufacturers have also made it really simply for developers to make applications for myriad platforms.
Also, now that developers can host data in the cloud, the phone doesn’t have to carry all the application’s technological muscle. This is particularly useful for speech recognition applications that require millions and millions of algorithms to interpret language.
NLP and Speech Recognition Better Than Ever
Natural Language Processing deciphers meaning from the words interpreted by speech recognition technology. This is far beyond static Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) systems that only respond to prompted questions asked in a very specific way. NLP technology developed by Artificial Solutions understands and remembers conversation context.
A banking customer could ask for example, “What was my balance yesterday?” A NLI-enabled virtual assistant would recognize that “balance” refers to the dollar amount in the bank account and “yesterday” means to exclude transactions from today. It could also remember the context of the conversation if customer followed up with, “What about the day before?” The application would understand that the customer is still referring to their account balance, and that “the day before” means to exclude transactions from today and yesterday.
At the same time, speech recognition technology developed over years listening to landline customer service conversations has resulted in better language understanding than ever before.
Together at Last
Siri was the first to put NLP and speech recognition together in one mobile experience. Previously the technology was only used separately, or in environments without a screen (IVR's, for example).
“User experience is most natural when it uses what we’ve evolved over millions of years to perfect–language,” Norman Winarsky, Ph.D., told me. He is the vice president of SRI Ventures, the venture, license development, and commercialization arm of SRI International, which created Siri before Apple bought the technology.
Smartphones created this opportunity to leverage voice and visual at the same time.
Potential to Become the Support Channel of Choice?
These technologies have clearly tapped into an unmet need in the customer service market: better, more enjoyable self service. Customers don’t have to wade through frustrating IVRs, sit on hold, or fish through massive community forums. They get instant answers to their questions from a friendly, virtual agent that already knows everything about them.
Ashley Furness is a market analyst for research firm Software Advice. She has spent the last six years reporting and writing business news and strategy features. Her work has appeared in myriad publications including Inc., Upstart Business Journal, the Austin Business Journal and the North Bay Business Journal. Before joining Software Advice in 2012, she worked in sales management and advertising.