Mike Zagorsek and Pete Balsavias screenshot
Jun 17, 2021
7 MIN READ

How Mastercard is Serving QSRs and Retailers Voice-First Experiences

The popularity of having voice assistant interactions at QSRs and for retailers has grown in recent years. A study by Voicebot.ai revealed that 64% of adults are interested in using voice AI to order food and at least 22% of U.S. smart speaker owners have purchased something using the devices. Consumers are increasingly demanding fast, convenient, and hands-free interactions when ordering food and shopping. 

With the QSR industry worth an estimated $239 billion and global retail industry sales at a record $25 trillion, many companies have become invested in creating voice AI experiences for these booming industries—Mastercard among them with their “AI-Powered Drive-Thru” and “Shop Anywhere” voice solutions, powered by Houndify

As part of Voice Global 2021, Pete Balsavias, Senior Vice President, Global Commerce Innovation, Mastercard and Mike Zagorsek, COO, SoundHound Inc., discussed the importance of a collaborative partnership to build custom voice AI solutions, Mastercard’s innovation in the QSR and retail space, and how they envision the future of voice technology and sonic branding.

During the interview, Pete and Mike spoke about a range of topics on voice AI in the QSR and retail space. You can view the interview in its entirety here or read the recap.

Mike: Mastercard has a few key initiatives and programs, such as the “AI-Powered Drive-Thru” and the “Shop Anywhere” solutions for QSR and retail business. Voice AI is a key part of those efforts. 

I’d love to hear about your innovation strategy and what led up to the announcement. 

Pete: The announcement is a product of hard work and innovation that our team has been working on the past few years. We’re always trying to look ahead at the trends, understand where the market and technology are heading, and what consumers and businesses need.

We expect several trends to continue and even accelerate further. From these trends, we’ve created this new global team focused on commerce, innovation, and new consumer journeys.

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to lead this team of talented individuals and work with great partners like SoundHound. Right now, we’re developing new concepts, such as computer vision stores, voice-enabled experiences, augmented reality, virtual reality, and embedding live streaming.

For us, it’s looking at our core competencies and the assets and resources that we have, where the market is going, and what’s going to be relevant next year and years to come. Then work with partners that co-create and co-innovate together.

My team is focused on the retail and commerce segment of our business and building out new experiences. This isn’t a hobby for us. We’re all in on this. We’re looking to build out these experiences and scale them globally.

Mike: What’s your perspective and advice to folks looking at the market and wondering where to go with voice AI?

Pete: Our approach to innovation with partners is the same as we have with all our clients. We look at the assets in both organizations and the talent to co-innovate and collaborate. We go in with a collaborative point of view and with transparency in mind—it’s a journey. Companies should stay true to their brand and core assets and then lean on their partners.

Mastercard does several things and we’re proud of them, but we’re not a voice company. We’re not a natural language understanding or even a computer-based company. So we find partners and leverage the assets between us to focus on a consumer journey and create something compelling. 

Mike: Can you explain what your multi-rail payment strategy is and how that helped move you forward with some of these projects?

Pete: Payments start with people and end with people. It’s the core product, services, and experiences that are motivating consumers. We essentially ask, what are the problems that we’re trying to solve here?

Things are also changing. People have different expectations from how things were done 1 or 5 years ago. At the core of it, we believe that people want to access and use their money. They want to choose which method to spend. It has to work consistently, and it has to be simple. So we need to offer a broad set of capabilities. Our goal is to not just be a credit card but to be a one-stop partner with a single infrastructure to connect all those types of payments and then embed them through natural experiences and services. 

Mike: SoundHound conducted a research report with Opus Research, and respondents across industries said that for many of them, one of the top three reasons for implementing a voice assistant was to provide a consistent brand experience across channels. 

Multi-rail payments are almost like creating consistent transactional experiences across channels in a way. How does voice play into that? 

Pete: What SoundHound observed through their studies aligns with what we have seen in terms of trends and where we’re focused. With voice, we talked about different channels, whether it’s digital, mobile, or web. 

The brands that are doing well have focused on consumer experience and end-to-end solutions. A lot of expectations are set by other companies, competitors, and in many cases, other verticals.

Part of our approach to innovation and working with partners like SoundHound is to make sure we advise brands and help them bring that technology forward. SoundHound embeds our payment rails and makes it seamless, which is key in terms of having a unique, consistent brand. Companies need to stay true to their brand as well. Your voice assistant shouldn’t be different from your digital messaging and tone. It should all be seamless. 

Mike: It wouldn’t be a conversation these days if we didn’t talk about how the world has been changed by the pandemic. It’s had a major effect on the retail and restaurant industries. 

When we talk about contactless interaction, how has that accelerated the types of solutions you’re developing? 

Pete: It’s a significant impact, and we’re seeing some improvements in touchless interactions, thankfully, but we still have a long way to go. It’s also not a surprise in terms of the shift to digital, which includes the voice aspect of it. Mastercard has been putting together strategies and trying to understand where things may go in maybe 3, 5, or 7 years. What SoundHound did for us was speed up the implementation process. 

It’s going to be interesting to see how these trends stick and what is only temporary. Mastercard had started to look at this in terms of making sure we’re relevant. Many companies have embraced curbside, and I think that trend will continue. There’s going to be an expectation now, and companies are not going to be able to take away touchless interactions in many cases.

Mike: Where do you see the intersection of privacy and personalized experiences? What is your approach to balancing those goals? 

Pete: Privacy is very important to us and our consumers. We have to get it right. We believe that data practices should be guided by consumers.

First and foremost, consumers own the data. It belongs to them, and they need to be able to control it. They need to have the right to understand how it’s used. Ultimately, if we’re going to leverage it, they need to benefit from it and it should make their lives easier. 

Most importantly for Mastercard, we spend a lot of resources and energy to make sure data is protected. It’s got to be safe and secure. We’ve got to make sure that we not only follow the regulations and best practices but also make it better so we can provide consumers with unique experiences.

We make it a point to allow consumers to explicitly opt-in at the beginning of the journey to be able to see what we’re going to do with their data if they entrust us with it. We can build compelling experiences but still uphold these principles. That’s key. We spend a lot of time and thought on this and we take this very seriously. 

Mike: For companies who have been thinking about voice, rapid deployment becomes much more of a priority and a challenge in implementing a voice strategy. 

How did Mastercard overcome some of those challenges to get to where it is now? 

Pete: The first thing to remember, which we often forget since we’re in tech, is that voice technology is difficult. It’s evolving and still maturing. For us, it’s finding a partner like SoundHound who can do voice assistants really well. You have to lean on your partners and figure out how to leverage their capabilities.

The other key is transparency in knowing where those capabilities are in terms of maturity and strengths. Creativity and collaboration are important. An example of partnering is the amazing model SoundHound has built around voice, particularly in the QSR space.

What many people forget about, is the inflections of voice and all those other aspects that make it a conversation. What our team has focused on is taking the menu display and the journey up to it in terms of consumer education and considering how consumers interact with the experience in order to augment the voice part.

When you bring those two together, it creates not just voice capabilities, but a conversation capability, and that’s what consumers expect. The less you have to educate the consumer around adopting this new experience, the more likely it’s going to resonate and get adopted.

You also can’t let perfect be the enemy. You have to iterate and get something out there. A company could spend years working on a project and then put it out there and find out it’s too late. So experiment, you know, be transparent, learn, and improve.

Mike: The auditory, sonic part of a voice assistant is closely associated with brands.

I’d love to hear about Mastercard’s efforts to power auditory experiences. 

Pete: Sonic branding is complementary to what we’re doing in the voice space. Audio noise and the immediate connection to an emotional aspect, such as when you think of a song and it takes you back to a certain time, place, or memory, is critical. It’s key to our brand identity

A couple of years ago we released a new sound architecture that included audio branding as well. It’s not just nice to have for us anymore, it’s as important as our visual identity. It also has to be consistent across channels. The more you can make the interaction natural and conversational, the more powerful of an experience it is for the consumer.

Mike: What’s next for Mastercard? What should we be looking forward to in the future? 

Pete: We’ve got a lot of exciting things and announcements planned for the summer around additional experiences out in the market. We’re seeing some positive feedback from some of the things we have in the market today. Working with SoundHound, we’re focused on getting the solutions, which goes back to deployment around the iterations. 

We’ve been initially focused on North America but we’re ready to expand our solutions globally. That’s a key focus for us, and SoundHound supports a lot of different languages, which is a great opportunity. In the end, it’s all about continuous improvement. That’s key to innovation—taking that feedback, learning from it, and proving it. We’re thrilled to have a partner like SoundHound to go on that journey together. 

If you missed it live, or if you want to see it again or share with a colleague you can view the interview in its entirety below.

At SoundHound Inc., we have all the tools and expertise needed to create custom voice assistants and a consistent brand voice. Explore Houndify’s independent voice AI platform at Houndify.com and register for a free account. Want to learn more? Talk to us about how we can help bring your voice strategy to life.

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