With Einstein Voice, conversational CRM is about to go mainstream

With Dreamforce around the corner, Salesforce jumps into the voice assistants race with Einstein Voice.

I have to say right off the top here: Chuck Ganapathi was right! Or at least he's well on his way to being so. Chuck, the founder and CEO of Tact.AI, a startup focused on changing the way sales people interact with their CRM systems using their voice, told me a couple of months ago that every major CRM vendor will announce a voice offering by the end of the year.

I believed him, because I've been waiting for a while for that to happen, but all the vendors I talked to didn't seem to be moving in that direction.

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When I got my first Echo device in November 2014, I immediately started thinking about how this could make CRM applications easier to use, but more so about how it can make customer experiences better. I started doing presentations on voice-first and customer engagement in 2015, including the last three years at CRM magazine's annual event, CRM Evolution. And while we've seen tremendous interest and uptake on the consumer side, that hasn't been the case on the enterprise side.

To be fair, there are companies like Tact that have been at this for years and deserve credit for being pioneers in the conversational CRM space. You've also had companies like Zoho that have created their own voice assistant. Zoho's Zia allows users to ask CRM-data specific questions. Earlier this year, Oracle demoed a use case it's working on with an unnamed enterprise customer around asking Alexa for things like how much vacation time they have or how much pay to expect for this pay period. But the vast majority of CRM and CRM-ish vendors I've asked about what's going on with voice-first in their platforms said that it wasn't a priority. The focus was on text-based chatbots, and voice was just not that high up on the list. Well, as of now, I'm guessing it's about to move up a peg or two on those priority lists, with Salesforce's announcement of Einstein Voice Assistant, which gives users the ability to talk to Salesforce on any device.

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It needs to be restated that Salesforce didn't invent conversational CRM. It didn't invent AI either, but when it rolled out Einstein two years ago at Dreamforce, it put an industry stake in the ground for the importance of AI from a customer engagement perspective. And from that point on the entire industry -- from customers to vendors -- turned their focus to understanding how to best use AI/machine learning/deep learning to get a competitive edge on customer experience and engagement. Just go check out Google Trends and see how the chatter completely jumped through the roof after that event. And I predict that Einstein Voice can and probably will have the same kind of impact on both enterprise customers and competing vendors. And it's for the same reason that Einstein's did this for AI, because Salesforce is the market leader, and it has the biggest stage in next week's Dreamforce 2018 to completely own the industry's mindshare. So, any major announcement it rolls out is going to have a huge audience (170,000-plus attendees and millions of folks on the livestream) and immediate impact.

The preliminary details received from Salesforce are that Einstein Voice Assistant will allow users to:

Conversationally update Salesforce: Einstein Voice Assistant will automatically transform the unstructured voice data into action by updating Salesforce records, notifying team members and creating tasks. With Einstein Voice Assistant, users will be able to update Salesforce in real-time and run their business from anywhere.

Get personalized daily briefings: Salesforce users will be able to start off every day with a tailored readout of key Salesforce metrics and priorities via their preferred voice assistant. Daily Briefings can be configured by admins to focus on what each business user cares about most --from the day's schedule and key opportunity updates, to an overview of their team's pipeline.

Explore Salesforce dashboards: Voice commands will allow business users to surface information they need in Salesforce. Instead of manually opening and filtering dashboards, users can now pull up Einstein Analytics dashboards and drill into detail. For example, a sales manager can run pipeline review meetings by asking Einstein to bring up their pipeline dashboard, dive into a specific region, and identify their top local deals.

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Customers can also build their own voice bots running on the Einstein Bots Platform that are "connected to Salesforce CRM data and integrated with smart speakers. Einstein Voice Bots will enable companies to create custom voice-enabled interactions for their own customers and employees."

I hope to get more detail as to how this all works next week during Dreamforce (like, are we going to be saying "Alexa, ask Einstein..." or maybe "Hey Einstein"). There's a lot more to dig into on this, and I will bring a pick and shovel next week to do just that. But, in the meantime, in the immortal words of former VP Joe Biden, this is a big... deal. If you know what I'm saying.

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In my conversations with a number of CRM vendors -- too many to name or call out individually -- I questioned them on the idea of voice being a long way's out, and said that, just like objects in the rearview mirror may be closer than you think they are, so is voice assistants in enterprise software. Well I think they got a whole lot closer today than they were yesterday. And the Salesforce tide should lift all boats for vendors that are ready to catch the wave, because awareness for how these assistants can improve productivity, adoption, and experiences is about to increase significantly.

I look forward to learning more at Dreamforce next week.

Previous and related coverage:

Siri, Apple is just not that into you

Apple put on its big event heralding the newest iPhones and Apple Watch Series 4, but in nearly two hours of product updates, Siri was only mentioned once for eight seconds.

Why mobile phones aren't voice-first like smart speakers

Hear more about how smart speaker and smart assistant adoption is seeping into more of the customer journey.

Alexa's land-and-expand strategy is racking up the numbers

While Google is outselling Amazon in global units of smart speakers, other numbers show Amazon is doing just fine in expanding Alexa's reach and usage

The Alexa-Cortana integration: Why wasn't this bigger news?

The long awaited integration between Alexa and Cortana came last week. And while many don't view Cortana as a major player in the voice assistant space, the potential is definitely there, even it it didn't fully materialize with the news.