Alexa, what will customer service look like in 2025?

This is the second of Brent Leary's Voices Carry columns.Today, what about conversational interfaces and customer service in 2025? Is the real deal now enough to sustain their existence beyond the hype? Brent thinks so.

Good morning, this lovely Tuesday wherever you are. Once again, I have the distinct honor to introduce Brent Leary, CRM, conversational interface, social thought leader. His diverse interests are legion and he articulately writes about all of them and has become a recognized expert in multiple domains. Here is the second of his "Voices Carry" column on conversational interfaces. You'll being seeing this most every Tuesday until he decides he doesn't want to do it here anymore.

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What will customer service look like in 2025?

I was asked this question as part of a great panel taking place at PegaWorld in Las Vegas. I was honored to join the following group of experts for this cool session:

  • Mike Asebrook - Director Product Marketing, Pegasystems
  • Ben Barton - Team Lead, Expert Customer Service Consultant, Pegasystems
  • Leslie Dickens - Vice President, Corporate & Product Strategy, NASCO

And if that weren't cool enough, the moderator was the guy that's sharing his blog with me to write this stuff. Although, if past panels with him are any indicator, if there's a Yankees game going on at the same time, those sudden outbursts from him had nothing to do with the subject matter at hand...

TechRepublic: 6 strategies to reduce customer frustration with IoT devices

In preparation for the panel I decided to put some thoughts together, so why not do it here? And yeah, I could talk about chatbots and automation/AI, or what percentage of the contact center will be taken over by robots running the show. Or how real time support with IoT and connected devices are going to impact customer service's relationship to other areas of the business. Or where blockchain will fit in with all of this. Rather, I guess I'll do what I've been doing more and more since 2014, and ask Alexa. Because I think voice assistants will play a major role in shaping customer engagement in the not too distant future, and that includes customer service from both a reactive and predictive perspective, in some pretty fundamentally basic ways.

Typing is for algorithms, talking is for assistance -- from assistants

One of the more interesting developments is the rather stealthy way one of the foundational aspects of what we do on the web is quickly transitioning and transforming our behavior. We've been searching for information and answers to problems forever, and for more than two decades the web has been the place we've turned to when we need answers and info. And that has traditionally meant typing into a box a few words we hope will help the algorithms running in the background find the best answer for us. So we've had to adjust our communication efforts away from our natural speech patterns to fit computer processes and procedures that quite honestly have been foreign to the vast majority of us. Let's face it, writing for algorithms was forced on us and we had to fall in line to get what we wanted.

But over the past couple of years, with Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities really hitting their stride we've been able to use our voices instead of just our fingers to request the information we've been looking for. So much so that by 2020, according to a Comscore survey, 50 percent of all searches will be done by voice. To me that's an astonishing statistic that really drives home just how quickly voice technology can disrupt a fundamental activity like search is today. But the reason why people are turning to voice search makes all the sense in the world. When asked for the main reason, the respondents said:

  1. It's easier - 32.6 percent
  2. I can do it when I can't type - 26.2 percent
  3. It's faster - 25.7 percent
  4. It's fun - 15.1 percent

So it's easier, it's accessible, it's faster and it's fun... and whatever that last .4 percent said. That all adds up to an accelerated transformation of a fundamental activity because we're able to go back to using our natural way of communicating to get what we need and want. Which seems like a possible propellant to changes in consumer behaviors and expectations in other important areas, like customer service and experiences. And what customer wouldn't want their experiences to be easier, more accessible, faster and fun...and more natural to boot. With more interactions taking place each day through digital assistants, the transformation is already happening, and it may happen faster and more vociferously with Alexa leading the way.

Why isn't getting assistance whenever you need as easy as asking Alexa or Siri or Google Assistant?

Picking up on that easier theme from above: About five years ago I had the opportunity to interview Travelocity founder Terry Jones for my conversation series over at Small Business Trends. And of all the interesting things he said that day, one thing has lasted with me the most:

Constantly innovating is so important to keeping up with today's customers. We expect from every website what we get from the very, very best website. Customers will ask why isn't Larry's Insurance Company website as good as Amazon? We get frustrated when it isn't.

It's easy to see now that Terry Jones was right, Amazon raised expectations for everyone who's looking to do business online with customers, and it's not just about the look, feel and ease of use of the website. It was also because of the processes and experiences they introduced that are also now expected by customers of just about every company on the web today. Not only free shipping, but free expedited shipping is pretty much a must have now. And relatively free and easy return policies have also been adopted out of necessity due to the Amazon effect (although return policies are not as free-wheeling as they used to be with Amazon...).

Also: AI and jobs: Where humans are better than algorithms, and vice versa

I think history has a pretty good chance to repeat itself, but instead of asking for your website to "be like Jeff's", this time by 2025 people may be asking you why your customer service isn't as easy as asking Alexa...or Siri or GA (Google Assistant -- man they need to come up with a better name than that). Because all of these assistants and the technologies that complement them (AI, NLP, IoT, etc) will constantly get better, and the data that will be available to make them smarter will get more vast, varied and voluminous. This will mean if companies like Amazon are able to leverage Alexa to provide more and better service experience to its customers, Larry (and the rest of us) is going to have to do the same thing, or else customers might get frustrated all over again. And chances are the frustration will come faster and be more catastrophic.

Primed for an explosion of interactions

Right now, every minute, there are billions of searches taking place and probably even more service requests being initiated and handled. But what will happen when it becomes easier and quicker to ask for something? The numbers we see today are going to pale in comparison to what we'll see in the future. The types of issues that will crop up will grow as sensors in devices will interact with service processes (and other devices) in realtime to provide insights that can help keep customers happier and on board longer. So the scale we'll be operating on will be tremendous, and customer expectations will continue to rise. And a more natural way of communicating with customers will help deliver better experiences and provide a better pathway to grow healthy, long lasting relationships over time. And, according to a Google study:

  1. 72 percent of voice activate speaker owners say that using their speakers have become a part of their daily routine
  2. 41 percent of voice speaker owners say talking to their speaker is like talking to a friend or another person

Now, of course, these folks are a part of the early adopter crowd. But these numbers point back to some of the numbers mentioned earlier. When technology can be used to allow us to communicate in a more natural fashion -- and make fundamental, daily things easier and quicker to do -- we tend to gravitate towards them at scale. And we're beginning to see it happen with voice-first technology. Are we there yet? No. On we on the road to getting there? I think so. Will we get there by 2025? I'm not sure. But I'm guessing I'll be able to ask Alexa when the time comes.