I’ve spent part of the summer catching up with a few folks that I’ve talked with for this series in years past. And although it’s been less than a year and a half since I last spoke with Opus Research founder Dan Miller, in the fast-moving area of conversational interfaces like chatbots and voice assistants, it feels more like a lifetime.
Dan, whose company is gearing up for their Conversational Commerce Conference next month, coined the phrase “conversational commerce” in 2011. So I wanted to catch up with him to ask where we are today with conversational commerce on the heels of the reportedly low voice shopping numbers for Alexa on the eve of the conference. I also got his take on what impact the Cortana-Alexa integration might have on adoption of voice assistants in business.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. To see the full conversation, check out the video below or click on the embedded SoundCloud player.
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Small Business Trends: As you come into this year’s event, where is voice in the landscape of things? How far behind is it? Is it catching on with folks? Or is it really still mostly all about chat bots, at this point?
Dan Miller: That’s complex. I’ve written about the parallel universe in that, you don’t want to measure which modality is in front of, or behind the other. Because if you take an individual-centric approach, a customer-centric approach, that all companies say they’re aspiring towards, you’re really talking about putting tools under the control of the individuals. And I bring this up in the context of, is voice better than text? Are people going to use bots as opposed to talk to their personal assistant? It’s so obvious that it’s not either, or. It’s a matter of convenience, and at least this is what we’ll be talking through in a number of sessions; how to offer consistently correct answers to your customers or prospects at scale. And that means across all modalities.
There’s just the observation that today, a brand should invest in the resources that today, they’re powered by your CRM system, by your knowledge management, by existing back office stuff to help inform live agents. That should be consistent with what would be presented by a voice-enabled IVR [Interactive voice response]. It’s the same information that would show up on a website, often as a chat bot.
Web chat is the fertile gateway into offering conversational bots. In other words, you’ll see a lot of “bot platform” specialists come in and say, hey, give me your transcripts. Give me your chat transcripts for my platform to ingest. I’ll identify the major areas that people are calling about, the categories. And within that, we’ll know how they talk about those things. So I can build a conversational bot. At that point, do I care whether it’s rendered in text or rendered in voice? Yes, because you want to respond in the appropriate modality. But wouldn’t having those answers apply, whether it’s over a voice channel, live person to live person, over a voice channel through a speech-enabled IVR?
Well, I’ll tell you what the new wrinkle is. What about these smart speakers that you talk to, that have moved the voice channel to be everywhere that’s in the house, is it in the 40 million, 60 million? Whatever many million houses now have their intelligent endpoints that you can talk to. That means you can’t ignore voice. You can’t say, oh, voice is behind or ahead of. You can say, hey, when somebody talks to my skill on Alexa, or to me through Google Assistant, I want them to get a consistent, and a response that I’m proud of, that is engaging, and all that sort of stuff.
Small Business Trends: So, since you are doing a conference called Conversational Commerce, one of the hot things that cropped up last week was this report from the folks at The Information, on voice shopping via Alexa. Quite honestly, the numbers are pretty low. I think it was two percent of those that have these devices, who have actually done some kind of voice shopping. And then only 10 percent of those folks did it a second time.
So there was a lot of cackling. There’s a lot of, “This stuff is, this is just nothing. Nothing to see here folks.” I would love to get your take on it. Is it already lights out for voice shopping because of what we saw last week?
Dan Miller: Absolutely not. I haven’t written up my comment on this. Here’s what’s in my head though; you have to think of Jeff Bezos’ master plan here for Amazon. And you can’t just think of voice in a vacuum or isolated, or how it relates to the other modalities. There’s a strategy that will connect online, offline activity, you know, “Order here, pick up at Whole Foods.” So the first step is getting those sensors out there. And Alexa’s just one of many sensors that Amazon has managed to have close to your person. Voice is one of the many modalities for ordering.
But first thing’s first, get people using them in ways that are organic to their lives. If the thing’s a speaker, people think of them as a speaker. They get their news, they treat it as a radio in many respects. They’ll get the weather. There’s longstanding areas that people are happy to get the most recent news on. And even though that assessment of how people were using it, looked like so few of these culminated in a transaction, they still defined a relationship that people were forming with Alexa. They’re talking to Alexa like a person. And you don’t buy something from every person you walk up to. But you’re conversing, and that’s step one.
And then I think everything’s going according to plan. I think you’re going to see more information about local activities, because that showed up in the usage. In as much as those activities culminate in a purchase. I think you’ll find that they’re engaged in much more commercial activity, even though it’s not shopping, that culminates with buying and ordering.
I’m in the percentage that doesn’t mind saying, “Hey Alexa, we’re out of paper towels.” And she figures it out. Oh, last time you ordered these, and next day delivery, like last time. I mean, the mechanism is there to make it really easy.
Small Business Trends: There’s an educational component that I don’t think has been fully addressed. And I also think the use case that you just outlined about, reordering paper products or things that are easy for us to do because we know exactly what we want. That’s a perfect use case currently. But the vast majority of use cases start with somebody searching for something, or looking for a recommendation. And right now, I don’t think the process flow is there yet.
Dan Miller: Actually, that’s very perceptive. I used to talk a lot to “dialogue designers,” and I had this idea of when I thought about the protocol for invoking, for waking up Alexa, and then telling it to open a skill, and then carrying on a conversation with a brand, is not a dialogue that’s very pretty. It’s at least a “trialogue”. We’re not going to have success developing a conversation providing command line stuff to your smart speaker. It’s kind of wrong-headed.
Now is the game over? The fact that people aren’t shopping through this, is it game over for voice commerce? We’re at a point in the hype curve, because the expectation was, people are going to be shopping with this. So at this point, there will be disillusionment. It’s early days, that’s what we keep telling ourselves. There’s a lot of missing pieces, both in the dialogue [and] design. And another topic that we chat about, consistency across what I call walled gardens.
I remember at our first Intelligent Assistant conference, four years ago, we had the people that developed Siri, the people that were working on Cortana, I don’t think that Alexa had made the scene. But at the end there’s that reporter from the local TV station, asked the guy from Microsoft, “Does Cortana talk to Siri?” He said, “Yes, I’m sure they do.”And, I mean, we’ll work out the details…
There’s an expectation that my personal, virtual agent, which I don’t have quite yet… I want it. My personal assistant, this entity that’s on my shoulder, that hears what I say, and goes and figures out how to do it for me. That’s going to be the thing I carry on my conversation with. Which means that, yes, Cortana should talk to Alexa and that sort of thing. And we sort out those gaps. Or we could start by sorting out, but you identify the gaps and you start filling them.
It would start with not making me have to have that first order decision, which will become more subconscious. But what device do I want to use? The one I have. What agent will I talk to? The one that is associated with. What do I want to do? Well, that’s contextual. That’s of the moment.
Small Business Trends: All right, so two quick questions. I’m assuming you view this [Cortana-Alexa integration] as a win-win for both Microsoft and Amazon. Is there any, either one that actually, you feel, is the big winner in this? And then the other piece would be, what does this do to enterprise adoption of voice? Does this move the needle, or is it just this is a nice, but it’s still waiting and see?
Dan Miller: Well, first of all, everything’s got to be a win-win-win. This shouldn’t be about the two suppliers, it should be about who’s consuming this stuff. And I use that advisedly because I’m not a big fan of the term “consumer.” Because it just makes you feel like you’re just there, devouring things, which isn’t what happens. So, in a way, it should be a bigger win for Microsoft, just that I would think that Alexa in many ways, has exceeded the expectations of its developers and maintainers. And that Cortana was sort of languishing in my opinion.
Small Business Trends: I totally agree with you.
Dan Miller: So if this can bring activity from any point of ingress, that takes advantage of the formidable stuff that Microsoft has in its coveted resources, in its tools, in its developers’ support programs, this is like super win.
And then, whether it incorporates voice or not, both companies have invested significantly in some of the best brains in the business, to build voice-based conversations. Well, I mean, it’s too ironic. Voice is a natural way to interact with resources within a company. It’ll be everywhere, and it’ll work better, and sound more lifelike. All this stuff will happen. Its impact on, like I said, in the parallel universe, it’s not like there’s a pie where voice succeeds at the expense of chat. But you will find more and more instances where it feels much more natural to just talk to things. You know, it’s the Star Trek vision. It’s like, “Computer.”
Small Business Trends: I’m guessing the pie can expand as voice gets used more, and chat continues to be used a lot. So it’s not like, it’s a zero-sum game here. It sounds like things can grow and grow and grow as both these technologies get more introduced and used by consumers, or customers.
Dan Miller: Maybe as a closing thought, because what you just said inspired in my … We’ve been getting briefings from a lot of companies that are treating and recognizing that voice conversations, be it, in calls like ours, in company conference calls, that the recordings, or it could be transcripts, but the voice-based conversations themselves are a tremendous asset.
In this saga of big data in analytics, it’s an element of unstructured big data that some new tools for doing analysis to do something as simple as, when we hang up, and you sick one of these agents, assistants on, just to evaluate what we talked about, it can almost, within a matter of minutes, deliver a summary. Identify what the topics were, what the main points were, identify in the voice files, where they were brought up and who said them. Yeah, I think we’re moving into a golden age of voice. Voice is an asset. Voice is the basis for better customer care, better employee productivity, all that stuff.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.