Amazon's new Echo with Alexa, 2017

This past summer proved to be the official tipping point for voice-first shopping for many consumers. With Amazon’s Echo Dot ranking as the “best-selling product from any manufacturer in any category across Amazon globally” during Prime Day 2017 and Google Home pairing up with Wal-Mart and The Home Depot, the era of AI-assisted selling officially had its breakthrough during the first half of 2017. Additionally, according to a recent Gartner study, sales of voice-activated speakers with artificial intelligence capabilities will reach $3.52 billion by 2021, signaling that adoption of voice-enabled speakers will only continue over the next few years.

The intuitive nature of voice-first commerce

Though e-commerce continues to gain ground on in-store purchasing, we are collectively a group of consumers who often use our voice throughout our purchasing journeys. Whether it is asking for a different size or color, checking if our product is in stock or simply expressing how we want to pay, we are used to these interactions.

While voice feels natural in a store environment, e-commerce has been a domain of scrolling, typing, tapping and swiping, and it is only recently that technology giants like Google and Amazon have capitalized on our natural instinct to use voice, to make searching and shopping even more instant and frictionless.

But the habit builds quickly and voice-assisted shopping is here to stay. In fact, according to recent research by NPR and Edison Research, of the consumers surveyed who now own smart speaker devices including Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa, “65 percent of smart speaker owners indicated that they would not want to go back to their lives before getting one of these devices” and “42 percent of owners say that their device is now ‘essential’ to their everyday lives.”

With several big box retailers announcing partnerships with either Amazon or Google, there will be an ongoing battle for market control between Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, especially as we head into the holiday sales season. One of the major catalysts for this growing emphasis on voice assistants is brands recognizing the importance of creating a customer-centric purchase and service journey, because building stronger relationships leads to future purchases and increases share of wallet and the lifetime value of a customer — critically important measurements in today’s low-loyalty and competitive environment.

Additionally, as voice assistants gain popularity, brands are seeing a concrete opportunity for ROI, beyond the hype and buzz. Not too long ago, voice devices and assistants were something everyone was claiming as futuristic, but retailers are quickly realizing that the future has arrived. The increasing popularity of devices and the push for consumer adoption by device manufacturers has created the perfect storm in which brands and retailers can leverage existing customer data, AI and branded voice assistants to drive stronger relationships, bolster direct-to-consumer sales and service, and cut costs while driving revenue increases. Where some retailers are considering commercial agreements with the retail side of Amazon and Google (Express), others have recognized how the technology available on Amazon’s and Google’s platforms can be used to engage directly with their customers and provide real-time commerce experiences.

Preparing on the retail front

With voice-first devices continuing to make their way into consumers’ homes, retailers need to prepare to meet increased expectations from their shoppers. Movement is underway already; according to our recent study in partnership with BrandGarage, 87 percent of the 104 retail executives we surveyed plan to increase the use of AI to service their customers moving forward, to alleviate points of friction and improve margins and revenue through their customer service and engagement. Though holiday shopping occupies much of the focus in the fourth quarter, considering voice as a key part of a customer-centric 2018 strategy is absolutely necessary in order to deliver the experiences that customers want, and to establish expertise and drive results in this new channel. Expectations are high for an avalanche of device sales through the holidays, as the Amazon Echo Dot outsold the Kindle last year through the gift-giving season. That means millions of additional voice-enabled households come January, and millions more consumers building new habits and expectations.

Why is AI important?

Retailers face a serious challenge in meeting ever-increasing customer expectations, often needing to improve response time and offer new channels for customer service. Solving these challenges by adding more staff is often not possible, or comes at a great cost. The stakes are high, however, as 82 percent of customers will look to other brands after just one bad customer service experience. To meet expectations, retailers must be available at all times to answer inquiries across a variety of channels, even if it’s 2 a.m. and a customer wants to chat on Facebook Messenger. As customers get used to near-immediate service from innovative brands, retailers are recognizing that new gaps are being created between what used to be acceptable, and what is now seen as slow or unavailable. By implementing AI as part of their strategy, retailers can not only minimize costs, but also ensure they are readily available to answer inquiries and solve problems at any time of the day by using automation.

When used as part of a customer care automation solution that includes voice-enabled and specialized technology, AI offers new ways to solve old problems. For example, with the help of AI, a customer can ask for an update on their package and get an answer immediately, they can organize a return without touching a phone or keyboard, get their questions about shipping answered, and easily reorder their favorite products. In addition to voice assistance on the Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa platforms, the same AI frameworks and specialized functions can be used to power personalized experiences through chatbots on Facebook Messenger.

Preparing for the future of voice, today.

Voice-enabled shopping is just gaining momentum. Soon, consumers will expect to utilize voice as well as additional conversational channels such as Messenger as preferred channels of communication during their shopping journey. Recent predictions show voice searches will account for 50 percent of all search in just two years, and it will continue to grow from there. While retailers may be tackling challenges that are more pressing and urgent, the opportunity to enhance customer care and serve modern shoppers on channels they prefer is clear.

Shoppers increasingly desire frictionless and instant experiences that not only give them the product of their choice as quickly as possible, but also the service and communication that builds trust and increases their likelihood to return again. Voice assistance is a channel where brands and retailers can provide exceptionally fast and convenient service, and at the same time cut costs and scale more effectively.

Luke Starbuck is vice president of marketing at Linc.

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