Public Relations

Customer service at the touch of a button

Companies are using voice technology and sonic branding to improve the customer experience

TO the annoyance of women called Alexa everywhere, Amazon’s voice assistant is today so ubiquitous that an estimated 8.2 million people now own an Alexa-enabled device.

But it’s not just Amazon. Since voice assistants first hit the market in 2011, the rate of adoption of devices from Amazon, Google, Apple and others is growing year-by-year. Indeed, more than 56 million smart speakers were sold worldwide last year, up 69 per cent on the previous 12 months, according to market analyst firm Canalys.

And it seems that early adopters remain keen and actually integrating voice assistance technology further into their lives. Creative content marketing agency BrandContent found that more than one fifth of UK adults use voice search on three to five occasions per day. More than a third spend up to 15 minutes using it, whilst two in five spend at least half an hour per day.

Voice assistants give us our time back

The opportunities for brands, therefore, are ripe for the picking. Some have already recognised this, such as insurance group Aviva which has created a voice app that updates customers on their pensions and delivery service Just Eat, which allows users to order takeaways simply by asking their voice-activated devices.

Indeed, Just Eat was the first food delivery app in the UK to launch a skill for Amazon’s Alexa-enabled devices, allowing customers to order food, leave ratings and check arrival times via voice, but director of technology Daniel Richardson acknowledges that, although it is doing well, the current skill is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Most companies have yet to fully explore the possibilities posed by voice communications. ‘Change is just taking place,’ says Sharon Flaherty, director at BrandContent, who equates voice’s current stage of development to when apps first launched. ‘It’s still early. Its [uses] are currently quite basic.’

Flaherty points to the explosion of podcasts as an indicator of the future path for voice technology. According to Ofcom, the number of podcast listeners has almost doubled over the past four years, growing from  3.2 million in 2015 to 5.9 million last year. There has been a big shift for consumers and the way they consume content, moving from eyes to ears.

‘We have fast-paced lives,’ says Flaherty. ‘Voice assistants give us our time back. They will continue to integrate more into our lives. It’s super exciting – voice essentially gives us life beyond the screen. Things we get out of screen, we’ll be able to get from voice.’

Last year, legal expenses insurer DAS UK Group became the first company in its sector to launch a skill for Amazon Alexa; it enabled customers to ask questions about common legal issues. It also launched a skill that provided customers with cyber security information and guidance, helping people understand risks and learn how to stay safe online.

‘Launching our own legal and cyber skills is about challenging ourselves to be at the forefront of new developments, helping us to communicate with our customers, and making our products more accessible and ever more relevant,’ says Kevin Neal, head of strategy and innovation at DAS UK.

‘The numbers of people already using it for fairly simple transactional activity or for entertainment has grown massively in just a short space of time so it was important to get involved as early as possible.

‘Using voice assistants for products such as insurance, yet alone legal insurance, is not an obvious fit. It’s a technical product, and an area of low interest and experience for most people. But that’s exactly why it’s worth trying. As voice becomes more commonly used and the behaviour of simply asking your voice assistant a question becomes an instinctive first step, how can we extend this to include engaging with products that are normally just consigned to the bottom drawer of your filing cabinet with the rest of your paperwork?

‘Reducing the barriers for engagement, and making it as easy and natural as possible, will help customers understand more about their cover and the options they have, which will ultimately help them get more value from the products they have purchased.’

Flaherty suggests it could also be helpful in the public sector, such as police forces who will be able to use voice assistants to reassure people affected by crime, and, once devices get used to people’s voices, they could even be used to trigger calls to 999. ‘It is a great example of how voice can be used to provide reassurance whilst saving time,’ she says.

They can help older people feel less lonely, and with more households joining the smart home revolution, where items like lights and heating can be controlled remotely, voice assistants can replace physical controls, which might be unreachable or difficult to read. Local brands are also likely to benefit by voice search, as people look for local services such as takeaways and driving instructors.

‘There are huge opportunities,’ Flaherty adds. ‘For people who may be vulnerable, it can set reminders to take pills. It can help carers by providing company or reading them books. The possibilities are endless.’

She believes it could also help companies, such as utilities, reduce call times by integrating with customer diaries, calling them back and making appointments at appropriate times. ‘They already use chatbots, so why not this? It makes them more efficient and increases customer satisfaction at the same time,’ Flaherty posits.

This is an ethos that mobile phone network Vodafone certainly subscribes to. It is the first in its industry to develop a skill for Alexa that enables customers to access their Vodafone account using just their voice.

A spokesperson explains: ‘Voice and voice assistants, and digital technologies, are helping to make it easier and quicker for our customers to interact with us. It’s all part of offering the best possible customer experience – we are available 24/7 via MessageUs, our instant messaging service, via our AI chatbot TOBi, and via digital assistants like Google Assistant or Alexa. Vodafone is working to ensure that it’s quick and easy to reach us, round the clock.

‘At the same time, we know that sometimes customers just want to speak to a human agent. We believe a blend of digital and human interaction is vital to offer a world-class customer experience.’

Vodafone’s voice skill is designed with the customer at its heart, and industry experts this is the best approach rather than conducting a meaningless exercise in innovation.

‘Companies need to ask themselves whether they can make a better experience for their customers on a voice app. Just because it’s a shiny thing doesn’t mean it’s for everyone,’ says Flaherty. ‘It has to have a real-life application.’

It is imperative to continue to monitor apps, too. If an Alexa skill is not being used frequently (unless it is like Aviva’s, which does not need regular access), then it’s probably not working as well as it should. With voice in its early stages, being able to look at your customer actions, and evolve as a result, is crucial.

‘The integration of voice and voice assistants enables us to have real conversations with our customers,’ says Richardson. ‘And as we evolve our skill, and inject more fun and personality, those become much more natural conversations. We’ve developed contextual awareness, so if a customer wants to reorder something they ordered last week, our response can be different for them than for a customer who ordered two months ago, flexing the journey to meet each customer’s specific needs. It’s all about ensuring we deliver a seamless online ordering experience.’

This consistency of experience is an important part of what makes voice assistants such an asset. It is a brand’s job to be distinctive, to offer a unique experience to its customers, distinguishable from its rivals and unchanging across all places and platforms where it can be engaged with. Whilst most brands have mastered that when it comes to visuals, such as logos, many have failed to consider what they should sound like. The growth of voice assistants, therefore, has left them wide open.

Companies need to ask themselves whether they can make a better experience for their customers on a voice app

‘Everyone is focused on creating visual content,’ says Flaherty. ‘What if you can’t see the brand? Many companies don’t have an identity that works outside of a screen or page. Nowhere in tone of voice guides do they consider sonic identity.’ MasterCard recently announced the launch of its ‘sonic identity’, a distinct melody which aims to ‘provide simple, seamless familiarity’ to its customers wherever they choose to engage with the brand, whether physically (making a card payment), digitally or via voice assistants.

In January, international banking giant HSBC also launched its own sonic identity as part of its ‘global brand refresh’, the first phase of which focused on its visual identity and brand promise Together We Thrive. HSBC also wanted its customers to recognise the company in non-visual situations, such as when contacting its call centres.

‘The sound we have created is what will identify HSBC to customers, clients, colleagues and members of the public through audio and is a vital part of creating a brand for the future,’ explains Andrea Newman, global head of brand at HSBC. ‘Sound is an increasingly important part of brand building in a world where our audiences are busy and distracted.’

But just how does one go about creating a sonic identity, where there never was one? HSBC partnered with electronic musician Jean-Michel Jarre, who created ‘various versions of the HSBC sound to be used for different moments across all its brand touch points and platforms’.

Newman says: ‘From the moment we started working with Jean-Michel, we could see he understood our brand purpose and vision for the future. We partnered with [him] as he’s a global artist with a rich history in some of our key markets, such as China and Hong Kong. We needed someone who would bring a global perspective which was then tested for local relevance.’

I can see voice becoming a standard channel of communication for finding out information and for starting activity

Its sonic identity is currently heard in HBSC’s call centres in 12 different countries, including the UK, France, China and the US. It will soon be heard in the bank’s marketing campaigns and live events, and when customers use its app, branches or cash machines.

‘As with everything we do in such a global company, we need to make sure we are creating things that are relevant to the 66 markets in which HSBC operates,’ explains Newman. ‘That means understanding the markets and communities we serve and being sensitive to cultural nuances. While the ‘Wayfoong’ track was composed to resonate with a Chinese audience, we didn’t want to create multiple versions per market. Music is universal and can be appreciated wherever you are in the world so it was vital to us that the sound we created would resonate globally.

‘Ultimately a visual brand only tells part of the story. With the new sound identity, we aim to fuse our audio and visuals to create a much stronger brand across all channels.’

It is likely that where HSBC currently leads, more brands will follow. More than half of American households are predicted to own a voice-enabled device by 2022, and YouGov expects a similar percentage in the UK.

‘In the next ten years, we believe intelligent assistants like Alexa will be available all the time. That means ordering online will be as natural as talking to someone,’ says Richardson. ‘Improved machine learning models and ever increasing order volumes mean we’ll have enough confidence to have restaurants prepare food ahead of orders coming in, so that it’s ready to leave or is even already on its way by the time the customer orders, so that when I say Let’s have pizza for dinner to my family, my intelligent assistant will hear me, and help to arrange it all with Just Eat. Ten minutes later, we could be sitting down to eat.’

Neal agrees: ‘Going forward, I can see voice becoming a standard channel of communication for finding out information and for starting activity. I wouldn’t see this completely replacing other channels however. When customers are trying to deal with important issues such as legal disputes, they are always likely to want to talk to an expert directly, rather than rely solely on Alexa or Siri.’

Flaherty believes brands will need to adapt how they communicate on owned media. ‘Voice can allow a brand to show empathy. A lot of brands just don’t have such a unique voice but with voice and speech, it’s easier to relate than it is when you’re reading a website. Content you read is very different to content read aloud. A complicated article won’t sound the same. Say you want to read an article about how to fix a tap – how would you create it to sound natural when speaking, not for reading?’

‘The key point here is that ‘voice’ is a new channel and must be treated differently to existing written communications,’ Neal adds. ‘The language that works well online, or in a brochure, will not necessarily work well on a voice assistant. We’ve found that simplicity and brevity are important, which can be a challenge when dealing with technical and legal information. Our approach is however a continuation of our existing brand values – it’s about simplifying the technical, and helping to educate and inform customers.’

Ultimately, it appears that the advent of voice is less about replacing channels but more about making sure companies are available where their customers want them to be.

‘People will still ask and search you out on voice assistants, regardless of whether you want to be more voice ready. You can’t stop people asking about your brand – you’re in it whether you like it or not,’ concludes Flaherty.