There is a quiet revolution in the making that will have a significant, far reaching impact on the Customer Service sector in the U.K. I have been taking a look at, and implementing this new technology into one of my virtual and vr tours websites called 360Jungle . There is much talk of how Artificial Intelligence (AI) will shape our future. Recent tech advances in voice recognition, coupled with some excellent cloud AI services like www.api.ai (recently snapped up by Google) mean a revolution in customer service is now achievable.
Successful retail, service and manufacturing businesses already target a range of consumer channels including In-Store, Online and Mobile; there is now a fourth – Voice/AI. Expect to start seeing another icon alongside existing digital marketing channels:
Google have recently launched their Google Home product, initially in the US, but coming to the UK soon. This 'always on' device combines both voice recognition and AI, and places in directly in the heart of your home. Google Home uses the Google Assistant to deliver a growing range of voice enabled services.
Google are also about to launch an upgrade to their Wear OS - Wear2. This OS is targeted at a new range of Android smart watches whose launch is imminent. Wear2 incorporates the Google Assistant, so this same voice recognition / AI tech will be with you wherever you go. It may seem odd, even embarrassing to be seen talking to your watch, but remember back to the time it was embarrassing to use your mobile phone in public - I predict that talking to your own virtual assistant will be common place, even fashionable in years to come.
Harness Virtual ASSISTANTS in Business Today
So what can business do right now to harness this new digital media channel? You can make a start by using the excellent www.dialogflow.com website to construct a virtual assistant / bot that can represent your business via the Google Assistant directly into consumer homes. This same virtual assistant can also be used via Live Chat on your business website and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, acting as a first line customer service agent.
What services can business offer their customers via the Voice / AI channel:
- The ability to have an interactive discussion about your products, services, prices and availability.
- Find local re-sellers of your products and services.
- Allow customers to request literature / brochures.
- Find out your store opening times.
- Request a call-back.
- Listen to the latest company news.
- Potential to place orders – initially more viable for B2B where up-front payment is not required.
- Get answers to support questions for your products and services.
- Find out about special offers and get discount codes (after hearing about the business’s new products and services).
- Log a complaint.
N.B Google don’t currently allow you to collect customer email addresses via their Google Home device, but there does not appear to be the same restriction when using your virtual assistant via your website.
Creating Your own Virtual Assistant
It’s really easy to set up a virtual assistant using www.api.ai and best of all its currently free! I would recommend watching this excellent video on YouTube before starting out:-
To set up a virtual assistant you don’t need any software development skills, so the barrier to entry is low. This type of role is a great fit for the operational side of a business as this is where the customer service knowledge / skills are.
For an enterprise level approach, I would recommend using something called web-hooks to connect your assistant to a web api, for reasons explained later in this article.
Once created, you can submit your assistant as a voice app to Google, and also embed the virtual assistant into your website using a handy one line code snippet provided by api.ai.
Ongoing Training of Your New Virtual Assistant
One of the key features of www.api.ai is that it allows you to ‘train’ your virtual assistant to handle different types of customer enquiry as they come in. If your assistant is asked a question it cannot answer then you either add a new answer for the next time the question is asked, or direct it to use one of your existing answers should it suffice. Over time, this ‘training’ leads to a more rounded customer experience.
This technology won't replace everything a customer service agent can do, but if your assistant can handle just 20 percent of enquiries, with the other 80 percent being handed on to a real agent (with all prior call history) then this could show significant cost savings for larger businesses. The other key benefit is that your virtual assistants are available 24/7 and are infinitely scalable!
Other Uses for Your Virtual Assistant
Besides being a great medium to reach consumers in their own home, your new assistant will allow you to reach out to potential customers in other scenarios, for example:
- A potential customer / client sees one of your delivery trucks whilst out in their car and is interested in knowing more about what you do. Via a ‘hands free’ device such as a mounted phone or smart watch they can ask the Google Assistant to ‘talk to 360 Jungle’ to find out more about a company’s products and services.
- Re-sellers doing inventory checks can connect to your virtual assistant to check your stock levels, and potentially create a shopping list for read-back / ordering at a later date.
Businesses should also think about wider uses for their virtual assistants. One possibility is to use these assistants in call centres to work alongside their human counterparts to act as a knowledge base to be tapped into by employees. Assistants can serve up links to resources previously hidden behind complex business system menu’s and extranets. Interactions with assistants can be via the keyboard (i.e. typing questions directly into a search box), or via a microphone using inbuilt browser voice recognition.
Your virtual assistant could also revolutionise how visitors interact with your business website. Rather than having to traverse a potentially humongous menu structure, your visitor can ask the assistant directly to show you the latest news, or what your newest products are. Content can then be delivered more interactively rather than in a traditional rigid hierarchical manor. This video demonstrates a similar technique on the Google Pixel phone (at around 4mins 40 seconds):-
AI Technical Considerations
So, what type of technical approach should business use to implement AI? For my 360Jungle website I have created a web API that is connected to my assistant via a www.api.ai web-hook. The assistant passes enquiries to my API, which in turn responds with an appropriate answer.
I have found that it is best to create 2 assistants – one for use by the Google Assistant, and the other to act as a virtual assistant / bot on my website / social media channels. Both assistants utilise my core API for answers, but my website assistant can do things not currently permitted via Google Assistant such as the collection of customer email addresses.
Using the web-hook approach allows me to tap into existing database / service resources without having to replicate them all to api.ai.
Creating a Voice App for Google Home
To make your assistant available on Google Home you will need to go through a submission process with Google – in effect you are deploying a voice app. This submission process can take a number of weeks and can include a number of re-submissions. My voice app went through 4 submissions before being approved, and Google are strict! Expect a rejection for spelling mistakes, leaving the device mic open, trying to collect customer emails etc.
Voice App Discovery and Voice SEO
In terms of voice app discovery, I predict a bit of a gold rush for invocation phrases (the phrase you say to the Google Home device to find / connect to your assistant).
For example, my invocation names / phrases for 360Jungle virtual tours are:-
- Ok Google, talk to three sixty jungle
- Ok Google, let me talk to three sixty jungle
- Ok Google, can I talk to three sixty jungle
- Ok Google, talk to three sixty jungle about virtual tours
Notice that my last invocation targets a keyword phrase that I want my voice app to be associated to. Long tail invocations like this are used by Google to place customers deeper into your assistant, perhaps by-passing your introduction and onto a more specific subject within your voice app. Think of them as deep links into your website or phone app.
I suspect Google will also use the contents of your assistant for discovery too, so your assistant answers should be relevant, keyword rich and above all, useful to the end user.
My experience so far leads me to believe that the combination of Voice Recognition and AI is powerful, easy to harness and here to stay. The benefits to business are clear and available right now, and the barrier to entry is extremely low.
My recommendation is to register your invocation names with Google asap to secure your brand discovery, and most of all – get using it!
If you want to try out my voice app, use the invocation names mentioned above on your Google Home device. Alternatively, you can talk to Roxanne, my virtual assistant at https://www.360jungle.com (click the Live Chat link), or watch my voice app in action on Google Home via YouTube. For more information on writing voice apps you may find my article on top tips for writing Google Home applications useful.