AI-powered virtual assistants and the future of work

This year marks an inflection point where digital natives move beyond the omnichannel experience and now are expected to be serviced by a growing number of digital concierges -- virtual assistants that provide a new level of personalization in an all-digital world.

A decentralized company that is globally and intelligently connected, one whose employees can work from anywhere, whose customers and partners can succeed from anywhere, and whose definition of success includes all its stakeholders, is a boundless company. A boundless company has a new operating system that includes a shift in mindset and greater adoption of emerging technologies. 

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The future of work has us moving away from a physical office and tethered workflow where you are chained to your desktop, laptop, or mobile device and advancing to a much more interactive experience through every digital channel -- smart speaker, webchat, messaging, SMS, and email. Many enterprise's end-customers are digital natives, as we see younger buyers who grew up in a digital omnichannel world.

This year marks an inflection point where digital natives move beyond the omnichannel experience and now are expected to be serviced by a growing number of digital concierges -- virtual assistants that provide a new level of personalization in an all-digital world. Gartner predicts that both the consumer and businesses will be spending $3.5 billion by the end of this year, 2021, on what it refers to as Virtual Personal Assistants (VPAs).

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The era of  Virtual Personal Assistants (VPAs) and AI-powered future of work

Consumers have been provided virtual assistant innovation with products like the Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, and Google Home. And these same conversational technologies have been well adopted in the workplace for efficiency and streamlined workflow that can both reduce costs and accelerate revenue.

Gartner predicts that, by 2025, 50% of knowledge workers will use a virtual assistant on a daily basis, up from 2% in 2019. By 2023, Gartner predicts that 25% of employee interactions will be voice-based communications.

I was recently connected with Jim Kaskade, CEO of Conversica, a company that has spent the last 14 years perfecting its AI-based virtual assistants for enterprise marketing, sales, and customer success teams.  

"Liza, can you tell me how sales are performing in California for the year-to-date?" Liza is a virtual assistant persona that is used to access Conversica's executive dashboard of key metrics via smart speaker. This is one of many examples of using conversational AI to enable sales teams. But when I dug in into Conversica further with Jim, I realized that AI is having an even greater impact on the end-consumer, not just our enterprise employees servicing them.

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Jim KaskadeChief Executive Officer, Conversica

"Since our founding back in 2007, we have believed that the end-users demand for better digital experiences would place more and more pressure on enterprises to automate. Our belief was not much different than Salesforce's with its focus on sales automation starting in 1999. The difference is that we believed we could couple employee sales force automation with consumer sales automation. This means that there is a fundamental shift from the sales team member to the end-consumer. We are doing so much to help our marketing and sales teams better understand their end-customers and, don't get me wrong, that mission doesn't stop, but we have to take an outside-in view of how to apply advanced analytics to how we interact with our customers better based on that understanding, and that is where advanced AI-based virtual assistant technologies come in," Jim Kaskade.

History of the Virtual Assistant

Communication between people and machines started back in the early 1960s. The first natural language processing computer program, ELIZA, was developed by MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum. Not much later, another advancement in digital speech recognition was produced by IBM with its Shoebox voice-activated calculator, presented to the general public during the 1962 Seattle World's Fair.

The 1970s was the decade of voice recognition where companies and academia including IBM, Carnegie Mellon University, and Stanford Research Institute collaborated. The result was "Harpy," a machine that mastered about 1,000 words, with the vocabulary of a three-year-old that could understand sentences. 

The 1980s produced products like IBM's voice recognizing typewriter, named Tangora, after the world's fastest typist. It had a vocabulary of 20,000 words. The birth of the first virtual assistant; however, began with IBM Simon in the early 1990s. It was a digital speech recognition technology that became a feature of the personal computer with IBM and Philips.

In the early 2000s, the first chatbot, familiar to most today, was technically invented by Colloquis, which launched SmarterChild on platforms like AIM and MSN Messenger. It was entirely text-based and was able to play games, check the weather, look up facts, and converse with users. It is also considered the precursor to Apple's Siri.

The era of Smart Speakers and the Virtual Assistant

The Siri voice assistant was released as an app for iOS in February 2010. It was the first modern digital virtual assistant installed on a smartphone, introduced later as a feature of the iPhone 4S on 4 October 2011. Others followed including IBM's Watson, Microsoft's Cortana, Amazon's Alexa, Facebook's  "M", Google's G-Assistant, Alibaba's AliGenie, and Yandex's Alice. And, thus, the era of the smart speaker for the end-consumers began. But also behind the scenes of the general public were advancements in businesses' use of AI with virtual assistants (but to a much greater extent than Conversica's example of Liza as an AI interface to sales performance data).

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Future of Virtual Assistants For the Enterprise

With businesses across all verticals, 2020 kicked off a decade of innovation with Conversational AI and the use of cloud computing with advanced platforms being offered by Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure. But now, it's less about science projects with a voice-activated typewriter, and more about applied AI solving real problems. True innovation is in the application rather than the AI itself.

Across every vertical, over 50% of companies surveyed by McKinsey's "The state of AI in 2020," have already deployed AI within at least one business function. And with an acceleration of digital transformation last year due to COVID, the use of virtual assistant technologies can be coupled with the benefits of expanded omnichannel and digital in general.

In this first of many in a series, we are going to double-click across the use cases and impact across various industries such as Retail, Automotive, Financial Services, Healthcare, and Life Sciences, and more. Up first, let's take a look at two particular instances of how this impacts: The retail industry (B2C) and the technology industry (B2B).

Retail and Virtual Assistants

Like in many cases, the retail industry tends to experience consumer-level disruption earlier than other industries, and we're seeing a significant impact on retail e-commerce during the pandemic. Over the last 12 months to 18 months, investments in engagement technologies such as live video, virtual stores, and chats have increased steadily. Per Forrester, over 90% of customers say their behaviors are different due to COVID as they avoid physical stores, put discretionary shopping on hold, and buy exclusively online or as much as possible online. 

It's no surprise that e-commerce participants are increasingly turning towards chatbots and virtual assistants to provide 24×7x365 support to their online shoppers. Chatbots on websites have become a standard approach to connecting the growing number of online digital prospects with the human call center. Salesforce customer service research forecasts a 136% increase adoption of AI-powered chatbots. AI is transforming workers' roles, and customer service agents are no exception. Overall, 70% of agents believe that automating routine tasks would allow them to focus on more complex work. A whopping 84% of service organizations with AI report improved prioritization of agents' work -- the top benefit -- and a similar number (82%) have increased first contact resolution (FCR) rates for customers. For nearly four-fifths (79%) of these teams, AI has led to increased customer satisfaction or Net Promoter Scores, and three-quarters even report happier agents. Sixty-nine percent of teams with AI have even seen increased case deflection as a result of their adoption, a boon to agents and customers alike. Seventy-four percent of AI users report reduced agent email and calls, and three-quarters even credit AI with increased agent morale. Salesforce marketing research also indicates explosive trends toward the adoption of AI and voice-enabled technologies. A whopping 84% of marketers reporting use of AI applications in 2020, up from 29% in 2018."  Marketers with AI have an average of seven use cases, up from six in 2018. 70% of high-performing marketing organizations have a fully defined AI strategy.

However, with advances in technology, the simple selection of questions that lead to connecting with a live person doesn't scale and is now being replaced with a more intelligent agent that is more human-like and can actually hold a personalized, contextual conversation. This means servicing a high volume of digital touch without involving the call center or a sales representative. It also means allowing for a much higher level of scale with an expected timely response. But even more importantly it provides for the personalized experience the digital natives expect at scale.

Virtual assistants can have an even greater impact. The future involves a whole new concept of guided selling for real-time ecommerce transactions. Ecommerce transactions are already seeing massive transformation as shopping moves from traditional website storefronts to "shopping at the edge" -- live video, virtual clienteling, social commerce, and more as brands engage the customers on the channel of their choice rather than being forced to go to a particular site to complete their purchase. As the purchase experience is brought to the consumer versus bringing the consumer to the purchase experience, they will benefit from their personal concierge, an in-app agent. The consumer's experience becomes ideal, and the enterprise benefits from reduced cart abandonment and increased market basket. 

So imagine browsing and shopping through a virtual store and having Liza, your virtual assistant, helping you as you browse -- recommending products that are popular; options to add accessories; answering questions about size, availability, delivery / pick up options; warranties, and more. This would especially be relevant for buying experiences for more expensive or complex products that may require a dialogue with a salesperson. Products such as luxury goods (e.g. plans, boats, automobiles) or those requiring significant fit requirements (e.g., shoes) would fit really well here. Liza would be there throughout your shopping and browsing experience ensuring that your purchase experience is positive.  

Not only will Liza be there to help you purchase, but she will also follow up on your order by email or SMS or messaging app to ensure you are happy. Effectively, Liza will be there to support the shopping, buying, and owning experiences throughout the consumer's journey. So any issues or questions, talk to Liza!  And Liza never sleeps, is always there on-demand, is extremely polite, and always remembers your previous conversations!

One retailer explained a challenge that their individual stores were having with after-hour inquiries, which increased during COVID-19. In response, they "hired" Marisa, their virtual assistant, who now follows up during any time of the day, and works with customers after hours to engage with a person the next business day. She also assists with retail store shows and events to not only make sure attendance expectations are exceeded, but that post-show follow-up is handled.

The impact of virtual assistants is not limited to just B2C, but they can also have a huge impact on B2B Commerce. Hanover Research believes that by 2025, the B2B e-commerce sector will grow to be as significant as its B2C counterpart. B2B e-commerce is expected to draw 12% of all B2B sales by harnessing B2C e-commerce strategies to acquire new customers, upsell/cross-sell with current buyers, and empower buyers to more easily serve themselves.  

Technology Companies and Virtual Assistants

If you are a technology provider serving other businesses, then embracing Conversational AI can assist you in providing personalized and differentiated experiences that build relationships with B2B customers. The one-enterprise-to-many-SMB-customers is a known challenge for many technology companies. By using automation where each interaction can be context-aware and informed by past interactions, B2B enterprises will benefit from improved customer acquisition, reduced churn, increased revenue per customer, and reduced cost to serve.

As one can imagine these businesses are, by definition, savvy about the latest in the cloud and cloud-scale innovations such as Conversational AI, and it comes as no surprise that they would embrace these technologies faster than other industries. In fact, many larger B2B enterprises either build their own solutions or use cloud frameworks to build their solutions. 

Technology companies find that 80% of their volume is not yet ready to talk to human sales representatives. Virtual assistants can work to offload marketing and sales teams, focusing their energy on the 20% that is ready to engage a live person. Intelligent virtual assistants will drive pre-event registration; re-engage retired leads; proactively prospect with account-based programs and outbound sales plays; follow-up on software and content downloads; progress pipeline with opportunities that have no recent sales activity; and drive usage for no or low usage customers who are at risk of churning with incentives like service credits.

A typical technology customer at Conversica might have virtual assistants in different functional organizations like marketing and sales; they might be aligned with different product groups; and finally assigned to operate in different regions of the world speaking different languages and in different time zones (see graphic). 

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The virtual digital team is multi-language, geography, and time zone-based.

A World with AI-Based Virtual Assistants

Virtual Assistants, in general, provide a unique opportunity to create a new digital workforce that augments the human workforce, and in a way that ultimately benefits the B2C end-user consumer and/or B2B end-customer. With Conversational AI and cloud-enabled services, virtual assistant technology can be applied to external customer-facing use-cases effectively, helping companies address the needs of the digital natives, and scaling omnichannel digital touch with omnichannel digital virtual assistants. And most importantly, "out-of-the-box" virtual assistant applications have been developed for augmenting specific enterprise teams - like marketing, sales, and customer success teams - which can turn a once complex build-it-yourself project into a simple SaaS-deployment project.

This article was co-authored by Eron Sunando, vice president of Commerce Cloud at Salesforce. Sunando leads the Go-To-Market discipline to drive growth through new product innovation and industry expansion for Commerce Cloud globally.