Making a business case for Alexa

alexa everywhere primary
Thinkstock/Amazon (Thinkstock)

I have been fascinated with the idea of a personal voice assistant since the day Amazon made their Echo devices available. Once in awhile I come back to it, try to write another skill, see what is new. I published a couple of articles on the topic. I struggle to find a good use case for a business application. A lot of it has to do with technical limitations.

On February 23, 2017, Amazon published a blog post celebrating over 10,000 skills. The good news is that this is a three-fold increase since September of 2016. The bad news is that the majority of the skills are solutions in search of problems.

According to Amazon, the highest customer-rated skills are interactive games. The top five categories for skills are News, Gaming, Education/Reference, Lifestyle and Novelty/Humor. What’s lacking is any success with business apps. Allow me to take a stab at the explanation.

Kitchen-table conversations

Navigating the health insurance and other benefits information is always perplexing. My wife and I coordinate our benefit enrollments such that we each get what’s best for our family. That usually happens at the proverbial kitchen table.

I can easily envision a use case for Alexa where a family can plan and track their benefit enrollments by asking appropriate questions, for example:

  1. “What is my medical co-pay?”
  2. “How many vacation days do I have left?”
  3. “I need a sick day.”

Private information

Amazon Echo devices are meant as family hubs. As of today, they can’t recognize the person talking to them. It is possible to have multiple profiles on the same device, but switching between them requires no authorization. That means that questions that may reveal sensitive private information (i.e. compensation) out loud may not be appropriate for an Alexa skill.

One way around it is for the Alexa skill to tell the user the answer to their question contains private information and send it to a companion app on their mobile device as a push notification. The interaction can then continue on the mobile device. I am not convinced this is the best approach and perhaps until Amazon figures out how to secure Echo devices such use cases may not be appropriate.

Push notifications and insights

In business application space, if the user has to ask questions or look for information then perhaps the User Experience is broken. One shouldn’t need to wake up every ten mins to check the clock whether it is time to wake up. Likewise, one shouldn’t have to query services such as payroll that are expected to run like clockwork.

These services should proactively notify the user of any insights that may be valuable. If there is a change to net pay, send a notification to the user indicating why and what changed – before they call the service center. If their 401k is underperforming S&P 500, let them know and suggest an adjustment. If they usually book an August vacation in March, and it is already April, ask them what their vacation plans are.

Amazon is cautiously rolling out support for push notifications. Nobody wants their speaker to wake up and say stuff out loud unprovoked. While I can imagine Amazon utilizing the ring light on the Echo as a “messages waiting” indicator, it is not clear to me how this will work with a multi-user device such as Alexa.

Some final thoughts

Alexa is an uncharted territory as far as business applications go. As it stands today, it is a solution in search of a problem. However, Alexa and other voice bots are becoming more popular and can serve as useful channels to reach customers. It is important to pay attention to the developments and new functionalities and revisit them on occasion. You never know when a competitor may come along with a killer Alexa skill that you may regret not implementing sooner.

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