Take a note, Alexa – Voice technology comes into its own for enterprises

7 July 2021

A decade ago, Apple introduced the new voice recognition app called Siri at the event introducing the then-new iPhone 4s. (Photo by KEVORK DJANSEZIAN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Voice technology has been one of those verticals where the transformative potential for organizations has so far outweighed the tangible real-world impact. That hegemony is now being challenged, albeit not in manner that was originally anticipated, with voice technology taking over the white-collar workplace – instead, inroads are being made in other areas of the business.

Initially, virtual voice assistants were expected to dominate the office. To that effect, Amazon even launched Alexa for Business way back in 2017, with setting up appointments, initiating meetings from different conference rooms, and verbally requesting for information from different departments, all being touted as possible use cases back then.

This initiative was stalled at the get-go, and to this day Amazon along with other hardware big boys have yet to figure out voice assistants for business use. Apparently, Amazon could not convince its own partner ecosystem to entirely adopt Alexa for Business, with notable players like co-working space operator WeWork among a handful to hold off on committing to the voice partnership, with some raising concerns around the security of the technology.

But that’s not to say voice technology is not drawing business advantages for other verticals, outside of the office. Voice assistants have seen noticeable adoption in the retail sector, with Wal-Mart for instance introducing the Ask Sam voice app in its stores to keep track of employee data. Things like staff schedules, stock inventory, even recipes can be tracked using this voice-driven tool – enhancing floor staff productivity by keeping them operating on the floor where their needed, instead of spending the time looking up things like the duty roster on a computer in the storeroom.

Voice tech has also found an unexpected place in the agriculture technology space. Companies such as agritech startup AgVoice have been using voice technology to improve its data management capabilities, with founder Bruce Rasa claiming that voice has improved performance efficiencies by up to 50%.

Improvements in artificial intelligence (AI)-driven voice tools also means that warehousing operations are being made more efficient – specifically in increasingly automated fulfillment centers, where enhancements leveraging on speech recognition and natural language processing (NLP) have greatly increased the adoption of voice to improve partially automated tasks.

NLP and speech recognition have been intrinsic in improving voice assistant performance in various industries and also in consumers’ homes, but perhaps the role of voice technology within the enterprise will not be confined to voice assistants. Startup Gong, for example, is utilizing NLP and speech-driven customer insights to improve data analytics for sales teams, with such strong returns that the company is already being positioned for a US$2.2 billion valuation.

And the big tech players like AWS, Microsoft, and Google are all casting towards voice to improve the back of enterprise, not just for applications like WalMart’s Ask Sam, but to enhance customer support as well. Improving their virtual call agents by investing in contact center voice technology, is helping streamline the focus of human customer support, who are better equipped to handle the trickier customer feedback, while the AI handles the more mundane requests.

For companies looking to harness voice recognition tech, in the contact center (based on-premises or otherwise) or within a customer support capacity seems like the most seamless fit. Barriers to entry will most likely be a commercially available voice option, but with the iterative addition of voice capabilities as a SaaS component or as a standalone new function, the technology should progressively start helping reduce cost overruns in the CS department. It remains to be seen what other departments will see advantages from voice tools, going forward.