We’re embarking on an era where Voice of the Customer (VoC) programmes have the potential to become just that – voice led. Voice-controlled technologies are set to change the way customers and brands interact forever as Voice User Interface (VUIs) gain increasing traction. Iain Millar, Managing Partner, Innovation at Rufus Leonard - the Brand Experience Engineers that have helped clients embrace innovation for 29 years - advises chief customer officers (CCOs) seeking to enrich their customer experience through the medium of VUI. Addressing how to overcome the challenges thrown up by this new conversational world.

Voice-controlled technologies have had a meteoric rise since Amazon launched Echo in 2014. Customers are literally finding their voices as the new generation of smart speakers and virtual assistants enables them to communicate like never before. One in five UK adults are already using a voice-driven virtual assistant, such as Siri, on their smartphones,1  and last year saw the U.K. dominate the European smart speaker market with 3.94 million Amazon Echo and Google Home devices sold.2

Businesses are increasingly recognising the opportunity to engage with customers and shape their experiences via VUI apps. Both Amazon and Google have created free ‘skill’ or ‘action’ building platforms for their personal voice assistants, opening up VUI development to brands vying for a share of voice in this new, noisy marketplace. Brands are using these platforms for campaigns, content discovery and for entertainment; but why not data capture, too?

Accessible and exciting as this technology is, it is still in the early stages of adoption and there’s a steep learning curve ahead for both brands and customers. There are some important considerations CCOs should take on board to overcome the unique challenges posed by delivering a positive brand experience in a voice environment - from content, voice and language design to the all-important customer experience.

  1. Keep customer needs front of mind

First and foremost, brands must consider the desire of their customers to engage in conversation with them via VUI apps. The vast majority of successful and well used voice services are swift, transactional and compliment other channels. People don’t want long, drawn-out conversations with Alexa or whichever assistant they’re talking to. The interactions they appreciate most are short, clear and direct. They have a goal they wish to achieve - tomorrow’s weather, the latest podcast episode, something to cook tonight – and providing the easiest, most direct route to that piece of content will create the best customer experience.

  1. Less is more

While it’s tempting for marketers to use VUI as a platform for a brand’s personality and tone of voice to run free, CCOs need to champion clarity and purpose above all else. Brands entering into this little-known territory will find many aspects of voice interfaces that are quite different to graphical user interfaces (GUI), posing some interesting challenges. Although marketers are used to creating engaging, content-rich websites, this approach doesn’t apply to voice devices. If VUI users want more content, they’ll ask. In fact, pushing lots of related content or allowing your assistant to go on long, conversational monologues will only frustrate your customer. Instead, keep your dialog short, direct and purposeful.

  1. Keep it simple

In a world entirely driven by language and sound, it’s tempting for brands to try to mimic real dialogue and allow both participants to shape the conversation. In a VUI world, common real-life speech patterns, such as open questions, cause a myriad of problems - for the brand, customer journeys become unpredictable and unhelpful, while users become overwhelmed and often stop responding at all. Instead, simple, jargon-free language should guide brand scripts. Save pops of personality and creativity for occasional utterances where there’s no chance a customer might misinterpret what you’re saying. The same might be said for collecting feedback.

  1. Be patient

As great as the possibilities of VUI are, the limitations are even greater. It’s incredibly difficult to synthesise natural dialogue, for example. The devices have set listening times, affecting the kind of interactions you can create. Moreover, the ability of VUI to mimic the intonation of speech – known as speech synthesis ability – is also relatively limited. Although in theory SSML (Speech Synthesis Mark-up Language) gives VUI developers control over pitch, pace and emphasis, the results are often more miss than hit. Be sure to allow plenty of time for your development team to experiment to achieve the desired effect.

  1. Keep memory in mind

The need to convey information by sound alone also dictates a different customer experience technique. It’s normal to display a list of available options in web design but trying to replicate this on VUI presents a whole new challenge. The VUI user is heavily reliant on their short-term memory, so options have to be limited and delivered in a way doesn’t overwhelm the listener. With wordy options, it’s recommended to reduce list items to no more than three. Content-heavy brands, such as newspapers, need to be particularly careful how they surface lists of content. 

  1. Expect the unexpected

Even when you’ve presented a list of options carefully crafted for the listener, the challenges don’t stop there. With VUI, the user has complete autonomy and freedom, introducing unpredictability that’s hard for brands to deal with. In web design, if you present the user with three choices – click here, here, or here – they’re limited to those options, or can choose to navigate off the page all together. In VUI, even if you present the user with a finite set of options – do you want A or B? – they can still say whatever they like.

If you ask, “Was this useful?”. And they say, “Absolutely, it was brilliant!”. How do you deal with that? One way would be to repeat the options “yes” or “no”, emphasising that it is a closed question and there are only two choices; but that could appear patronising. Alternatively, you could try interpreting the user’s response as best you can. But be aware, you want to avoid an error spiral. Instead, CCOs need to dedicate time to considering the best way to handle errors. What are your responses when the user says something unexpected? What personality do you want to convey? No matter how thoroughly you map your customer journeys, you need to plan for the unforeseen.

  1. Collaboration is key

True cross-departmental collaboration is required to work on VUI projects, with the customer experience, marketing and development teams all overcoming the challenges together. Ensure your multi-discipline team establishes a common goal and a common language. Working alongside each other from the outset makes the project more efficient, more cost-effective and more rewarding. Ultimately, this approach will achieve the goal of creating a better customer experience.

Delivering extraordinary brand experience

With voice becoming ever more mainstream it’s an area ripe for experimentation and a great opportunity to extend your customer experience into a new and exciting world. However, remember it is still largely unchartered territory. To embrace it, ensure you understand its intricacies - play with competitor services, research the platform and engage a multidisciplinary team. Most importantly experiment and test with real customers. It is easy to forget that your brand will be speaking in a person’s home where tolerance and patience are short, and boredom sets in quickly. Strive to bring an extraordinary brand experience into your customer’s home. Remember, less is more, so focus on the key benefits you know customers want and find out a lot about your brand with as little interruption as possible.