A person in a car sitting at a drive-thru
PHOTO: Jonathan Cooper on Unsplash

Voice-recognition applications are nothing new, but artificial intelligence-driven digital voice brings a level of sophistication to the table that has been unheard of before.

Whereas most people do not like using interactive voice response (IVR) technology ("For English, press 1. For Spanish, press 2."), finding them to be annoying, time-consuming and unhelpful, today's AI-driven voice applications are changing customer service and call centers.

Natural language processing (NLP) and conversational AI are often combined with machine learning and natural language understanding (NLU) to create sophisticated applications that enable machines to communicate with human beings in a natural, conversational manner.

How Has Digital Voice Changed?

Like many other types of technology, necessity is the mother of invention. In this case, the last two years of the pandemic forced brands to find ways to deal with a shortage of workers.

“Labor shortages during the pandemic made it difficult for many restaurants to find enough labor to keep their doors open," said Thibaud Denolle, director of innovation and marketing at Acrelec, a CX-focused tech company. "An influx in mobile and pick-up ordering only complicated things further. Many companies are turning towards AI-powered automated ordering systems to solve labor shortages and backed-up orders, a potential game-changer for next-generation drive-thru."

The restaurant industry is using the same digital voice technology as virtual assistants — such as Siri and Alexa — to improve the ways customers interact with brands during the ordering process.

For example, the Acrelec Ordermatic's AI Microphone uses this tech to offer inbound noise and echo cancellation, according to Denolle. "The intelligent microphone and wideband audio perform 92% better than the competition in capturing the customer's voice for speech-to-text processing."

Related Article: Examining the Core Components of an Effective Voice Strategy

Digital Voice in Customer Relationship Management

One digital voice solution, Skit.ai, is changing the experience of AI-driven voice bots. The brand's Augmented Voice Intelligence Platform can have natural-sounding conversations through the use of advanced spoken language understanding systems, speech-first behavioral modeling and natural and fluent response production systems. It can also hyper-personalize interactions to deliver fast and reliable solutions for customers, and its multilingual capabilities eliminate the frustrations caused by misunderstandings or ineffective communication.

Through the use of Skit.ai’s AI-driven voice platform, contact centers across industries, including insurance, banking, finance, retail and ecommerce, experienced up to a 40% reduction in average call handle time, leading to a 50% reduction in companies’ operational costs, according to Sourabh Gupta, CEO and co-founder of Skit.ai.

A 2020 Statista survey revealed that voice remains the preferred method for customers to contact customer service, with 42% of respondents stating that they prefer phone calls to resolve customer service problems.

“Voice has forever been the preferred means of communication between brands and customers, despite the advent of a number of other channels,” said Gupta. “The modern consumer looks for empathy and personalization in every interaction. If a brand wants to provide the best experience in every voice touchpoint, in every call, they need to invest in a solution that is purpose-built to handle human voice conversations.”

Digital voice AI is now able to enhance the customer service experience while freeing human agents to handle more complex issues. “By leveraging voice AI, brands not only improve the basic experience a customer encounters when they dial a support number, but they are also able to present a superior brand experience at scale, consistently," Gupta explained.

"AI-powered voice agents are trained to understand specific intents that the customer might be calling with (‘where is my order?’ or ‘I lost my credit card’), as well as the subtle nuances of human speech, ensuring quick and seamless assistance, without human intervention.”

Along with providing customers with the ability to help themselves, digital voice allows them to obtain immediate results rather than having to wait for a live agent.

“For customers, this means no more waiting for help," said Gupta. "They can immediately reach a voice that’s there to help them and intelligently navigate their issue. Should more help be required, AI-powered voice agents can transfer calls as well as context to their human counterparts.”

Do Customers Prefer Live Agents Over Digital Voice Responses?

Customers typically prefer to talk to a live agent over a digital voice system for reasons based on convenience and speed. Most IVR systems over the past few decades were antiquated, slow, tedious and time-consuming. People don't want to have to explain their situation more than once, and by talking to a live agent, they know they'll be more easily understood.

With AI-driven voice technologies, however, systems can understand the nuances of a conversation and gain instant access to a customer’s information and order history.

"One of the biggest challenges that brands face is finding AI that can hold a productive conversation with a customer," said Brian Podolak, CEO at Vocodia, a conversational AI solution provider. Vocodia, according to Podolak, uses hyper-realistic AI with a human voice to establish a more comforting experience.

"AI-driven digital voice systems positively affect the customer experience by eliminating hour-long holds (effectively serving more customers), the tension between call center workers and customers and unhelpful conversations with service reps," he added.

Because today’s customers can do business with a brand 24/7, they expect the brand to offer customer service around the clock as well. And voice AI makes that possible, without the need for assistance from customer service teams. "Making AI-powered voice agents the first line of defense ensures faster resolution while giving human agents a break from repetitive calls and mundane workflows,” said Gupta.

Digital voice also facilitates the personalized and consistent experiences that consumers demand from the brands they do business with, added Gupta.

"Additionally," he said, "by automating outbound calls to customers — such as recommendations, updates and reminders — brands can take a proactive approach to CX, delivering curated experiences, anticipating customer needs and helping them before they can even ask! This makes a direct impact on a brand’s CSAT scores, customer loyalty and retention."

Related Article: How to Let Your Customer Experience Speak for Itself With Voice Content

Unique Uses of Digital Voice Technology

As digital voice technology continues to evolve, many brands are finding unique and wonderful uses for the technology within the customer service space.

The folks at Sanas, the first real-time speech AI, are using digital voice technology and AI to combat accent bias and abuse. Many people in the tech space have experienced biases and abuse because of how they speak, which can cause emotional and mental health issues for those workers. Sanas was founded by young, accented immigrants from Stanford, and they have stepped up to make this type of discrimination a relic of the past.

Using Sanas’ AI-based digital voice technology, accented speakers can present themselves on calls or in presentations with no noticeable accent. They are no longer forced to select the most straightforward words or to repeat themselves again and again due to a listener who is unable to understand them.

“Sanas' technology translates one accent into another in real time — it’s about localization and helping the world understand and be understood,” said Marty Sarim, president of Sanas.

“For example, people with Indian accents are consistently rated as sounding less intelligent by Americans in other regions. An Indian-accented person could use Sanas to localize their accent to strip that out on phone or video calls. Another example could be that a Filipino-based contact center agent servicing English-speaking customers could change their voice to avoid discrimination and misunderstandings.”

Digital voice technology has been in call centers in the past, but Sanas’ use of digital voice is not only improving the lives of customers, it’s also improving the employee experience.

“Brands using this technology have cited that it results in the elimination or reduction in bias and report call center agents feeling less burned out and more confident when speaking to customers since they get to choose the way they are represented," said Sarim. "Additionally, it cuts down on call times, as agents spend less time repeating themselves for customers."

The Challenges of Digital Voice for Customer Experience

As this recent article on trust and AI pointed out, consumer trust in AI depends on how AI is applied and if it is transparent and explainable.

A report from Capgemini revealed that 54% of customers have daily AI-based interactions with brands, and 49% of those customers found their interactions with AI to be trustworthy. Unfortunately, that means 51% of customers found their interactions to not be trustworthy.

“Some customers are skeptical of robotics and would prefer to speak to a human,” said Denolle. “CNN reported on a TikTok of a woman ordering on a McDonald's system, and it flawlessly executed an order for two Oreo McFlurries, with a caption that read, in part, ‘This is the most dystopian thing I have ever seen in the 27 years of my life.’”

The diverse ways that people speak, along with accents, local nuances, slang and abbreviations, pose challenges for digital voice applications. “AI technology has made incredible advancements in helping drive-thrus become more profitable through labor reduction, but not without some drawbacks," said Denolle.

"Some challenges of the newer technology include how people dictate their orders, with the use of abbreviated words or a heavy accent, which may be problematic for AI to grasp fully had it not been trained on the specific nuances."

Along with AI, digital voice applications are being combined with sentiment and emotion analysis to enhance their level of understanding. “Perfecting voice AI is very challenging," said Gupta. "A robust speech recognition stack needs to come with sentiment and emotion analysis engines for different languages, dialects, accents and other proprietary technologies to improve performance."

Digital Voice and Customer Experience Management

Digital voice is providing brands with opportunities to reach their customers with personalized voice content in a way that has only recently been possible.

From being able to provide self-service contact calls, to interacting with customers in a non-accented voice, to providing automated service for the restaurant industry, digital voice is enhancing customer service and improving the customer experience.