Digital commerce giant Amazon rattled quite a few cages in the contact center industry recently when a report by Kevin McLaughlin in the techie insider newsletter “The Information,” set mid-March as the launch date for a cloud-based contact center platform. This initiated a ripple effect in technology publications, including this piece by Andrew Dalton in EnGadget, who notes that it is moving the same natural language processing that powers Alexa into a cloud-based contact center where it can field customer support queries in either text or spoken formats.
Amazon has a footprint of over 10 million devices (Echo, Dot and Tap) that listen to and understand instructions and questions from individuals “in their own words.” Alexa serves as a timer, alarm clock, media player and control panel for “smart” appliances and alarm systems. More importantly, Alexa is the conduit or medium for 10,000+ “skills,” which is the term used to describe services or “microservices” that can be invoked through conversations with Alexa.
Showcase skills include banking with CapitalOne, ordering an Uber or buying flowers (1-800-FLOWERS). Apparently these high-use, high-impact services just scratch the surface when it comes to digital commerce. As the impending launch mentioned above indicates, Amazon has gained confidence that the voice-based interactions with brands and service providers can skip brick-and-mortar contact centers and make its way directly to “The Cloud.”
This should surprise nobody in the customer engagement discipline. Global contact center infrastructure vendors Aspect, Cisco, Five9, Enghouse, Genesys (including Interactive Intelligence and Echopass), InContact and several others have seen dramatic growth in the uptake of their cloud-based offerings. In a recent call with analysts, Genesys’ CEO Paul Segre was asked what he expects the impact of Amazon’s entrance into the cloud contact center marketplace is likely to be. He said it was something that Genesys “has been expecting” for some time. It is an inevitable development that, in his terms, “validates our approach.”
Segre and his staff also cautioned about reading too much into the rumors. It turns out that the ubiquitous Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the resource that hosts much of the cloud-based contact center activity, including much of Genesys’s own. There are practical limits placed on the distance it will proceed up the value chain at the risk of competing with some of its best customers.
Start By Developing Your Own Alexa Skill
Teaching Alexa to act as a customer service representative or technical support guru is a natural evolution and one that can be done as a service to global brands and service providers. The company has made it very simple to develop new skills and the number of brands that treat Alexa as a “channel” in their digital support strategy is constantly growing.
There are technical constraints, of course. Amazon does not allow third-party skills providers to have direct access to the microphones in any flavor of Echo. Instead, it makes transcripts of utterances available in near real time. It also renders all voice as Alexa, so it has ruled out the ability for a brand to carry out a conversation in the voice of a company spokesperson or media star.
In addition, Alexa is not good at determining exactly who’s speaking to her. The user’s identity is associated with the Amazon account holder that has the Alexa app loaded on a smartphone. Thus, there has been a famous story of a child who ordered an expensive doll house through Alexa because the assumed user was the principal account holder.
That said, Opus Research believes that every company that is attempting to sustain a long-term relationship with its base of clients needs to reach them through voice-first devices. Supporting an Alexa skill is a must, but it must be done in a way that leverages existing customer support infrastructure, while preparing for situations where Alexa serves as a mere starting point that can conduct triage, ascertain the purpose or intent of a conversation and establish a trusted communications path from a customer to a live rep when necessary.
It is important for customer care professionals to take a long-view of Alexa’s potential and Amazon’s overall positioning as a platform for digital commerce. Sharing a vision for digital customer care and Intelligent Assistance keeps humans in the talk path for a long time to come and places well-recognized boundaries between one vision of Amazon, as the disrupter of customer engagement as we know it, to an important supporting role in each brand’s multichannel customer engagement model.
Dan Miller is Lead Analyst & Founder at Opus Research