26 July 2022

Why Alexa isn’t coming for your job – yet

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Back before the pandemic, the tech consultancy Gartner had some bold predictions about the use of digital assistants in the workplace.

By 2021, they thought, ‘25% of digital workers will use a virtual employee assistant on a daily basis.’

And by 2023? 25% of employee interactions with apps will be via voice.

There were some things Gartner couldn’t predict: most notably the pandemic. But while that accelerated the use of tech across industries – the presence of digital assistants in the workplace hasn’t taken off like some might have expected.

That’s not to say that people aren’t using them at all. From Alexa and Siri to Cortana and Google, many of us are used to reaching into our pockets, or shouting out to our smart speakers to find the information we need. And several seasons of lockdown gave people more time than ever to invest in their personal tech setup.

Now? From New York state distributing devices to provide companionship to the elderly, to Amazon’s most recent re:MARS event, where Alexa was shown to impersonate the voice of relatives – there have been massive advances in the ways this tech generates natural-sounding speech.

But while the most famous digital assistants are getting more and more personal in the way we use them, they’re revealing many ways in which they’re not quite ready to take over in the workplace.

So, where are we now?

That’s not to say they don’t help us do business at all. At its heart, a digital assistant is simply a predictive chatbot. Like any you’ll find on a company website or Facebook Messenger, their job is to listen to your question, search for the information you ask for, and serve it up to you.

However, a chatbot on Messenger has a very limited pool of information to work with – like opening hours, menu options, and locations for example, all set in advance by the page owner. They’re what are commonly called narrow AI – which simply means they’re focused on a completing one task. Ask a restaurant’s chatbot who the first man on the moon was, and you probably won’t be getting the answer any time soon.

On the other hand, the likes of Alexa, Google, and Cortana have almost all the web, and millions of apps at their disposal to find the answer to your queries.

So, what a digital assistant can do depends on what pool of information it can draw on. And that’s one reason why they’re not yet taking off in the workplace – connecting a digital assistant to company databases can be lengthy, expensive, and poses risks to security.

And when nearly every worker in an office has a keyboard at their fingertips, shouting your queries out loud is less appealing. There could be sensitive information at stake; multiple users might find themselves talking over each other; and there’s always the self-consciousness that comes with breaking the silence – especially when what you’re talking to is nothing more than a little black cylinder.

A limited role

That’s why, as it stands, we only tend to see this technology used in customer service roles – and you’re much more likely to have a digital assistant work for you, than work with you as your colleague. In these types of customer-facing roles we want the assistant to share information – we want them to advertise and advise.

Whether it’s on the other end of a phone helping you make bank payments, or via webchat helping you find the information you’re after. And in specific contexts, like directing customers to the correct department, a digital assistant’s ability to catch and interpret keywords can play a helpful role in getting callers to the right people.

Many businesses have found the benefits from automating common tasks using phone-based chatbots, like taking a card payment or checking a balance – and in doing so have freed up resource among their team to focus on more complex or value-adding tasks. Because when it comes to dealing with customer requests, the technology is nowhere close to matching the natural effectiveness of a real agent – especially in specialized, high-stakes industries that call for legal qualifications, like financial advice.

So could an AI really replace the person you’re looking for one day?

We’re not sure. An awkward, robotic voice at the end of the phone is often associated with scam calls – and it’s a sure-fire way to make a person hang up in seconds. But companies like Amazon have spared no expense in creating digital voices that sound the part, complete with natural mannerisms. There are start-ups too, offering a roster of ‘supercharged’ AI voices; but getting a unique AI generated voice in-line with your identity is unlikely to be as cost-effective as hiring a voice artist.

And how a virtual assistant sounds is just half the picture.

Learning to listen

People call a business for all kinds of reasons, but they also call in all kinds of moods. From playful jokes to impatient sarcasm, a caller’s attitude affects not only the way they talk, but what they expect the other person to say. No matter how smooth a digital assistant’s voice might sound, they simply can’t infer tone.

This is much bigger part of the caller experience than it might sound. Mirroring is a common technique seen everywhere from boardrooms to bars – it’s about matching the gestures of another person to build rapport. For customer service on the phone? It means matching a caller’s pace, volume, and tone to reassure and create trust.

Take mirroring out of the picture and you’re left with crossed wires, inefficient call handling, and customers leaving with unresolved issues, bad impressions, and the frustrating feeling that there’s no human faces behind the brand. And as digital assistants begin to sound more and more real, until they can understand tone and emotion – if at all – customers will only find themselves more confused.

And this brings us back round to the reason people pick up the phone in the first place. A customer calls with the expectation of speaking to a real person, and getting the assurance that it brings – whether they’re giving an order, looking for confirmation, or just want to feel that their complaint has been heard. In the age of social media, the human-to-human interaction is the telephone’s greatest USP.

Ultimately, digital assistants aren’t yet able to provide that kind of assurance, no matter how real they begin to sound – because we don’t just call to hear voice, but to be heard too.

A home outside the home?

That doesn’t mean virtual assistants can’t find a place. If companies want to use virtual assistants to interact with customers, the best place to start is with the units already in people’s homes. Making websites, apps, and social media more compatible and readable for digital assistants gives potential customers immediate access to frequently asked questions and important information you want them to hear.

Going beyond the living room, there’s potential to feature as helpful hubs in public places – whether playing playlists, making announcements, or giving local recommendations and directions.

But when a potential customer finally has a unique request and picks up the phone? Perhaps for now, it’s best to leave it to the human professionals.

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