Conversational AI: Time for a Serious Talk

Image credit: iStockphoto/metamorworks

Voice is about to become a competitive differentiator.

The concept of conversational AI is not new. Retail, hospitality, and logistics, among others, already use it for efficiency and engagement.

Many companies, however, do not view it as a core technology. According to the latest Cognizant whitepaper, “From Eyes to Ears: Getting Your Brand Heard in the New Age of ‘Voice’,” this is about to change.

The pandemic speaks volumes

As with many technological advancements, you need a catalyst. While many regard COVID-19 as such for spurring global digitalization, the virus also fundamentally changed how we interact and engage with businesses.

The Cognizant whitepaper pointed out that the touchscreen is an unhailed victim of the devastating virus. Concern over unhygienic surfaces is only one factor; the loss of human touch is another that is sparking interest in human-sounding voice.

Post-pandemic, these behaviors will continue. It is why 93% of respondents in the white paper study say voice will gain further momentum due to the continued interest in contactless interactions. 

“Instead of clicking on a PC or touching our smartphones, our attention is rapidly shifting to using our ears to listen. In fact, 74% of businesses in the Asia Pacific view voice technology as important or extremely important for the business; 50% said they intend to create a formal voice strategy in the next 12 to 24 months,” says Manish Bahl, associate vice president for Center for the Future of Work — Asia Pacific and the Middle East at Cognizant, who is author of the whitepaper. 

We are also employing more voice assistants to keep up with this increased demand for voice engagement. By 2024, voice assistants will outnumber the global population as people become more familiar with engaging businesses with voice, says the whitepaper. For example, Bahl notes that Alexa usage “shot up by 65% globally” within the first two months of pandemic lockdowns.

As voice interfaces expand beyond Siri, Alexa and Google Now, the whitepaper sees companies finding innovative ways of doing business and connecting with customers with voice. These can include voice interfaces becoming embedded in chatbots, applications, products, and services. Soon, supermarket self-check-outs, elevators, autonomous vehicles, and other applications that relied on standard text input will have a voice makeover.

“So, the bottom line is that whether you are a digital or brick and mortar business, you will soon be able to use voice and be heard by today’s and tomorrow’s customers,” says Bahl.

Watch Manish Bahl explain why consumer expectations on conversational AI will soar in the years to come.


The aural differentiator

The business case for voice is getting louder.

The whitepaper reports that companies plan to spend 3% of their revenues on building voice capabilities in the next five years and aim to drive 6.3% of their revenues through voice during the same period. Financial services (8.2%), insurance (7.6%), travel & hospitality (7.2%), and manufacturing (7%) are most bullish in generating revenues from voice.

To meet this high business optimism, companies need to address the challenges from the outset — and there are several. Data privacy (89%) is foremost, followed by creating content for voice (84%), and developing a voice personality (81%).

Companies need to offer consumers transparency in how the voice data is collected and managed and their returns for the data exchange to address privacy. “We call it the give-to-get ratio. It is the ratio of what the consumer is giving and getting in return. Defining this is an important step to getting consumers to trust that you have their best interests in mind,” says Bahl.

Data privacy issues can be addressed by security and authentication features with the ability to recognize voices.

When it comes to voice-centric content, companies have a significant gap. And it goes beyond featuring podcasts. “For example, the way you ask questions will be different from typing it on Google Search. Voice content is also more natural-sounding than text-based content,” Bahl explains.

Companies will also need to keep in mind that consumers predominantly look for a single answer when doing voice searches, unlike a Google search where a list of options is the expected norm.

“With voice search, there is only one winner; Alexa isn’t going to give you 10 options. So, in the world of voice, you either win, or you are completely invisible. This calls for a rethinking of existing web content and understanding how it differs from voice-driven content,” says Bahl.

Once the above challenges are addressed effectively, the benefits are bountiful. Based on the research behind the whitepaper, these benefits include a quicker response to customers (65%), personalization (60%), and an improvement in customer service levels (57%) are the main benefits. Half of the respondents also see value in voice for improving employee experience.

Finding your business voice

Moving the business from visual-driven to voice-centered is not going to be easy. The current Cognizant whitepaper laid out a three-phased maturity model to help companies find their voice.

The three stages of the model are:

  • Discovery: Optimize content to be found by voice-based search mechanisms while honing your organization’s voice skills
  • Enhancement: Build voice functionalities and add them to mobile apps, websites, and products/services
  • Amplification: Use voice capabilities as a new revenue stream

Every stage increases consumer trust, which improves business value.

You need to have a clear voice strategy before looking at additional technology investments. Bahl advises companies not to start from scratch, but instead look at current AI apps and assistants, like chatbots or existing applications and processes, to see whether they can be voice-enabled effectively.

“But the starting point should be definitely why you need a voice strategy,” he concludes.

Looking to learn more about creating the right voice strategy? Read the featured whitepaper “From Eyes to Ears: Getting Your Brand Heard in the New Age of ‘Voice’.” It is available for download here.


Winston Thomas is the editor-in-chief of CDOTrends and HR&DigitalTrends. He is always curious about all things digital, including new digital business models, the widening impact of AI/ML, unproven singularity theories, proven data science success stories, lurking cybersecurity dangers, and reimagining the digital experience. You can reach him at [email protected]

Image credit: iStockphoto/metamorworks