The shift to voice tech

04 March 2020

Voice technology is quite broad, as it pertains to anything from voicemail to conference calling to Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby, Microsoft For Teams [fill in the blank]. 

From reading that list, you’d think voice tech is mainly for consumers and a new concept.

However, any purist will tell you that voice recognition actually dates back to 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.

Now, we are in 2020, yet there’s a huge chasm between what businesses know about voice-enabled technologies and what they do about it.

In 2018, Globant, the IT and software development company, surveyed more than 600 senior decision makers and found that while the vast majority of respondents see big benefits to voice technology, just 31% said they use it daily in the workplace.

However, Steve Murray, solutions director at digital contact centre specialist IPI says voice technology and speech recognition tools in particular, will become a crucial aspect of how enterprises and brands communicate with their customers. “Change is already happening with the way consumers interact with digital technology and voice is at the forefront, with the likes of Siri and Alexa leading the way,” he says. “These virtual assistants are already being used by consumers in a multitude of ways, from checking the weather to asking for directions and as this trend continues to grow, enterprises would be remiss not to get on board and meet their customers’ demands for voice-enabled self-service technology.”

He says, “from the enterprise side”, delivering on customer service that satisfies both the customer and the contact centre agent is crucial. “With voice tech, not only do customers have another option for resolving their query, often without the need for human interaction for simpler tasks, but the human agents will have more capacity to interact with the customer who really needs to speak to them,” adds Murray. “Automating a number of tasks with speech recognition software will be beneficial to the enterprise and customer alike.”

Dave Cornwell, head of solutions at O2 Business, concurs and says voice tech will “definitely” change the way enterprises work and here’s why. “Whilst human-to-human, and human-to-business interactions via SMS, WhatsApp, chatbots and the like continue to grow, voice communications will remain a vital part of enterprise,” he says. “The first half of this new decade we expect to see a dramatic reduction in legacy voice services and legacy infrastructure, largely driven by vendor and service provider moves. With it, we will finally see voice move more towards IP.”

Curtis Peterson, SVP of operations at RingCentral, says that while voice technology is still in the early stages of implementation, there’s certainly a bright future ahead.

“By 2021, Ovum estimates there will be more voice assistants on the planet than there are people,” he says. “Voice-technology is making a huge impact on the B2C world thanks to voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, Duplex. And voice-based AI technology in the B2B world is starting to make its mark with the aim to change the way enterprises work.”

He adds that “the aim of voice technology for enterprises” is to help boost staff efficiency and productivity. “Specifically, voice-based AI technology will be able to schedule meetings, highlight topics discussed in meetings or setting task reminders,” Peterson continues. “All this is designed to take hours out of work, saving time spent on simpler, mundane tasks. When it comes to communications, we will get to a stage where AI will be able to pull out actionable intelligence from a range of communications, without any human input.”

Konftel is a company with a rich heritage in audio conferencing and Stefan Eriksson, the company’s marketing and communications manager, says user interfaces have transformed and developed enormously during the last decades and voice hold greats promise to open-up for yet another big leap. “The technology as such has been around for quite a long time and lately it has matured significantly and proved to be really useful in consumer applications,” he says. “From our perspective, voice tech can be used to improve the user experience in meeting rooms even further. Already the ‘one click to conference’ features found in some distance meeting solutions has made it straight forward and simple to start or join a meeting. When users can rely on voice commands to do the same and optimally also control other functions, it lowers the barriers to use the conferencing technology.”

There are other perks too, according to Simon Moxon, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) at conference call provider Meetupcall.

“By utilising conferencing solutions to conduct their meetings remotely, enterprise businesses can save money on both their travel and human resource costs,” he says. “As well as this, as enterprises look for more ways to reduce their carbon footprint, reducing travel costs to meetings that can be conducted remotely is a quick and easy way to achieve this.”

Of course, any company will always want to trim its bottom line when it can, so the financial argument makes a lot of sense. But what about the day-to-day running of a team?

“As a network manager, maintaining an internal VoIP platform can be a real pain as you have to be very careful with your firewall,” adds Moxon. “You can get hit for telephony fraud which can cost thousands if your firewall is not properly configured and maintained, which makes it far easier to use an external voice tech supplier.”

For Murray, first call resolution always will be a top priority for both the call centre and the customer, because agents want to be able to help the customer the first time they get in touch and customers likewise want a swift and effective solution to their problem. “Automated speech recognition tools can do just that,” he says. “What’s more, if customers with simple issues, like updating contact details or cancelling a subscription, can have their query resolved via voice tech, then human agents will have more time to spend with customers with more complex queries. This extra time will also encourage them to deliver a higher level of customer service and happy customers are nothing if not good for business.”

Apart from cost benefits and expediency, Murray says voice tech could be seen as an important recruitment tool to attract and retain younger workers who may already use a phone-based digital assistant.

“Certainly, there is a definite advantage to showcasing the use of voice tech in the contact centre,” he says. “As more tech-savvy generations enter the workforce, showing them that brands have a digital know-how is key, especially to dispel concerns over the legacy technology that is often associated with call centres. Of course, there is the worry that this automated technology could be replacing agents, but if advertised as a digital assistant that can help with their workload and allows them to spend more time with customers, new agents coming into the contact centre will know that their time and training is valued.”

Still, not every enterprise uses voice tech, so there must be solid reasons for their reticence. One of those, unsurprisingly, is privacy, says Cornwell.

“Customers’ main concerns around voice recording are always around where and how data is stored,” he adds. “As we all know, meeting or voice call transcripts can include personal details or commercially sensitive or privileged information. This makes it more important than ever to opt for a supplier that is independently accredited (e.g. CAS(T) certified) and complies with BS10008 legal admissibility requirements.”

Moxon says “clearly” many enterprises express concerns around security when they are conducting conference calls where confidential information is being shared via telephone lines or VoIP. “As such, they should always look to use a supplier who is ISO 27001 certified,” he adds. “As well as being ISO certified, Meetupcall boasts a 256-bit encrypted conference dashboard and secure PINs that are randomly generated and unique to every user, for every call – meaning there is no danger of unwanted guests eavesdropping on their private calls.”

Cornwell says At O2 Business, its mobile recording product also offers a one-time GDPR announcement to cut the time to give explicit consent for data use. “Companies may also have to consider providing greater disclosure about when and how they are using voice technology,” he says. “For example, this could take the form of the conventional announcement that calls may be recorded and monitored for training purposes – and might need to happen for every call and every meeting.”

The fact a large percentage of enterprises have yet to take the leap might not just be down to cost and fears about the quality, might it just be better-suited to some sectors than others?

“Since a voice tech project is customer-driven, it can be adapted to suit any enterprise in any industry,” says Murray. “Whether it’s travel, leisure, banking or insurance, if customers are demanding to have a fully omnichannel experience that includes everything from social media chat to a virtual voice assistant, then it would behove organisations not to ignore them.”

Since a voice tech project is customer-driven, it can be adapted to suit any enterprise in any industry. Whether it’s travel, leisure, banking or insurance, if customers are demanding to have a fully omnichannel experience that includes everything from social media chat to a virtual voice assistant, then it would behove organisations not to ignore them.

But what about the quality of voice technology as a whole - is it good enough, especially for a business like Meetupcall, whose customers are spread across many verticals, with many in the financial services sector in particular attracted to its commitment to call security and reliability?

“Simply put, yes it is,” says Moxon. “Provided the user has a good enough internet connection then we have found our users rate the quality of their VoIP calls to be at least as good as, if not better, than a traditional conference bridging line. This is especially true of conference attendees dialling in from certain remote locations around the globe.”

He also says the applications available aren’t too limited. “With modern technology it is now possible to conduct an effective ‘remote meeting’ - you can combine a VoIP line with tools such as Meetupcall’s conference dashboard, screen sharing tools and our upcoming ‘Meetupcall Notes’ feature to get everything you need out of a meeting,” he says. “Add video conferencing into the mix and there really is no need to meet face-to-face, other than to put a fancy lunch on your expenses!”

Then, of course, there’s cloud and Simon Kelf, CEO and co-Founder of BCN Group, says that while we have ‘cloud storage’, ‘cloud computing’ and ‘cloud server’, we now have ‘cloud telephony’.

“It is being adopted by an increasing number of businesses as a means of refreshing their communications technology and as a last step to make their IT systems fully digital,” he says. “Cloud telephony is a delivered telephone system suitable for businesses of any size, replacing the conventional on-premise telephone systems and mitigating hardware dependencies. It helps to bring your employees together to maximise productivity, wherever they are; in the office, on the road or working from home.”

He says it ends the need for wires and desk phone units and replacing them for super-fast, efficient apps for mobile, laptops and desktops. Alongside the efficiency benefits it also allows businesses to track, analysis and gather data from communications, which then can be collated into automatic reports. “Multi-phone support means users can have several devices connected,” adds Kelf.

So, for those looking to make the transition and for others who still need convincing, it’s important to know where to start looking.

“It’s clear that implementing a cloud phone system could be hugely impactful on your business operations,” says Kelf. “There are a number of organisations that provide effective cloud telephony solutions, but what should you be on the lookout for when selecting a partner? It goes without saying you will require a partner that has experience, expertise and skills required to meet the demands of your business.”

Of course, there are different ways enterprises can adapt to the emerging voice platform, so it’s useful to know what they are.

“Any organisation looking to implement a voice tech strategy needs to ensure that it is customer-led,” adds Murray. “Rather than employing this technology because it’s fashionable, it’s important to consider why it’s being implemented and how it will affect and streamline the customer journey. There will always be some processes that are more suited to automated voice tech than others, so it’s best to start off small to see where it is most effective before employing the technology in a more fluid and pervasive manner.”

The seismic changes in the technology are clear, as the industry has moved through the digital and VoIP eras to find itself in the age of SIP and the phasing out of ISDN and PSTN services, according to Ian Guest, marketing director at Pure IP. He says trends such as Unified Communications and ‘as a service’ offerings have also contributed to a huge shift in  transitioning voice services to the cloud from the more traditional PBXs.

“There is no doubt that this evolution of voice technology, bought to us by the likes of Microsoft and others, is driving a change for the better,” adds Guest. “However, the sheer speed and nature of the change, particularly around cloud-based solutions, brings with it challenges for enterprise users as they try to keep pace with the technology, and ensure its quality, security, and reliability, while grappling with making the right decisions for their organisations.”

Dr John Yardley, founder and managing director of Threads Software, sums it up when he says “there can be little doubt that the ability to use the human voice does and will have, a significant impact on the efficiency and hence profitability of enterprises. 

“For one thing, most of us speak significantly faster than we type – and in general, the electronic devices we use to input and output speech are far more ergonomic and portable than those we use for text,” he says. “If we could do away with keyboards and displays, we would not only have access to far more information, but we would not have to train people to type – or worse still let them muddle along inefficiently using one finger at a time.

The vast majority of human interaction is by voice, so it is clear that by ignoring it, the enterprise is missing out.”

Not only is voice not going away any time soon then, it continues to reinvent itself.