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The Growing Need for Conversational Voice AI

Sourabh Gupta Founder & CEO, Skit.ai
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

As customers moved online during the pandemic, company help lines started seeing a massive surge in support requests. This brought call centers to a standstill as it turned seemingly normal tasks—paying a bill, ordering a carryout meal—into complex processes that might take hours. The biggest problem was, of course, the lack of human operators to handle calls.

But another problem that had already been brewing for years was the rise of the interactive voice response (IVR) system—and the consequent poor customer experience. Customers want conversations—real-time, two-way exchanges of information—that resolve their problems quickly and accurately. This requires massive resources and computing power. Answering a hundred calls an hour is hard; imagine answering a thousand of them. 

There used to be two ways to achieve that level of coverage. One was to hire hundreds of call center employees worldwide. Unfortunately, the Great Resignation has made it far harder to find humans to field phone calls at an acceptable cost. The other solution was to use an IVR system. IVRs get the job done for customers who need to check their balance or activate a bill payment, but they’re not great for those looking for support in booking a tricky airline connection between two cities or in placing a takeout food order.

Either of these solutions comes with a set of constraints affecting customer experience and business outcomes alike. But there is a third solution: conversational voice AI.

The Third Way: Voice AI

Imagine this: A customer who lost a parent to COVID-19 needs to file an insurance claim for the deceased over the phone. With IVR, the potential for a negative conversational experience is high. An impersonal voice saying, “Enter your account number and press pound”—especially when they’ve already entered it—is irritating, to say the least. It creates stress and anger during what should be a simple transaction, if not an empathetic interaction.

What’s more, the customer’s opinion of the brand—the insurance company, in this case—will never be the same.

Conversational voice AI can listen, react, and converse. It understands nuance and knows when it is outmatched. Some customer journeys require human intervention. But, in most cases, the AI works just as well as a human. Better yet, it never takes time off for lunch.

Why Voice AI Will Proliferate

We are at an inflection point. With the surge in popularity of IoT and smart devices, people find it increasingly easier to speak, command, and converse with AI voice agents than to type queries. We currently talk to our phones, our appliances, and even our cars. And who doesn't prefer the ability to tell the remote control what they’re looking for versus tapping out a movie title letter by letter?

Voice is our preferred means of communication. While IVR investments are reaching a plateau, the general speech- and voice-recognition market size is expected to hit $9.4 billion in 2022 and $28.1 billion by 2027. And it’s clear that most of that cash isn’t going toward building phone menus.

Besides, gone are the days when brands could solve a customer’s problem with an A-B-C menu system. IVRs aren’t quick enough to meet customer demands. According to Salesforce's latest State of the Connected Customer report, 83% of customers expect to interact with someone “immediately” when they contact a company. 

But human agents alone may not represent a complete solution, either. Customers want to deal with service issues when it’s convenient for them to do so—and that's not always going to be during working hours for the service representative. A voice-AI system can be made available 24/7, customizing and cataloging responses even if no person is around to take the call. While voice AI can solve many of those calls on its own, it also makes humans smarter and faster by augmenting their own work and intelligence—compiling conversation history, recommending solutions, and more.

The Voice-AI Epoch

Voice is, in certain ways, more accurate and convenient than text. Humans speak and perceive things differently via speech than they do through text. For example, critical feedback such as anger can’t be identified via text. Text-based systems rely on predetermined word choices such as bad, poor, or terrible—but what if your customer ranted using none of those options? Who among us hasn’t screamed something at a prerecorded message to get a human on the phone? With voice AI, customers don't have to resort to these measures because voice-AI-powered solutions can be far more powerful than chatbots.

An impulsive food-delivery customer, for instance, might prefer to speak out their order (“No, actually, add three egg rolls”) than to tap their order into a phone or a computer. Voice can turn these simple interactions from a half-hour chore into a quick call—and it’s easier to talk to customers than it is to send them to a website. Less friction means less confusion and fewer errors.

As this technology evolves, voice AI will empower agents to shift their focus to high-value, non-repetitive tasks that will make better use of their skills—improving their engagement, satisfaction, and quality of work. We could call this rise epochal, a sea change in how we interact with computerized systems.

It only makes sense that a voice-controlled world is on its way. Voice AI is convenient, responsive, customizable, and fast—four factors that influence most customer decisions today.

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