A Custom Voice Assistant
Jun 24, 2021

What is a Custom Voice Assistant?

A custom voice assistant or branded voice assistant is a voice user interface that has been designed and developed for a specific company based on the unique needs of their customers and the specific use cases for the product or service they want voice-enabled. 

While many people associate voice assistants with the top third-party providers of voice services—Alexa and Google—the ubiquity of voice assistants has had a significant change on the voice AI industry. Trends in sonic branding, omnichannel customer experiences, and digital transactions have all created a shift from dependence on these large multi-use platforms to voice experiences that are tailored for specific users and use cases. 

The rise of custom voice experiences for specific use cases has spurred the big voice AI platform players to offer their own forms of custom voice assistants. Companies considering adding an intermediated voice assistant to its products or services should be aware that just because a voice assistant platform can be modified to allow for certain customizations, such as a wake word or specific commands and information, that doesn’t mean it provides the two most critical aspects of a branded voice assistant: ownership of data and control over the customer relationship. These two key elements continue to drive the adoption of independent, custom voice assistants for brands across industries.

A brief history of voice assistants

For those organizations looking for independence from third-party voice assistants, the majority have relied on their mobile apps to deliver a branded voice experience. Given that 84% of recent survey respondents from 8 key industries indicated they have a voice-enabled mobile app, it’s clear that companies are beginning to see the benefits of custom voice experiences.

Although voice-enabling mobile apps has been the low hanging fruit of voice AI adoption for many companies, at this stage in the voice-first era, brands are looking beyond a one-channel voice assistant experience to omnichannel experiences. Creating a customer experience that is the same across channels has been the catalyst for companies developing a single voice assistant that can be deployed for phone ordering, contact centers, websites, in-store kiosks, mobile apps, and products. To understand how we got to this stage of the voice-first era and to have an idea where we might be headed, it’s important to understand the history of voice assistants. 

Here’s a timeline of key technology that has led up to the rapid adoption of voice assistants:

  • 1980’s – The rise of personal computing. People searched for information and communicated via a keyboard, a mouse, and a screen. 
    • Result: Every company needed a website
  • Early 2000’s – Mobile phones with computing power gained popularity. Now, people had information and communication on the go. Touchscreens replaced keyboards and the IoT was born. 
    • Result: Every company needed a mobile presence
  • Today – The introduction of voice assistants allowed people to search for information and entertainment without needing to find their phone. Hands-free interactions spurred the demand for touchless, convenient, and rapid interactions between people and the products and services they use everyday.
    • Result: Every company needs a voice strategy and a path toward its own omnichannel voice assistant
  • Future – Interfaces are integrated and multimodal

For a deeper dive, check out Voicebot.ai’s detailed history of the voice revolution beginning in 1961 and detailing all the technology that has contributed to the voice AI we know today.

Building a custom voice assistant

When it comes to developing a voice user interface, companies are discovering the challenges of building it on their own. The realization of the time required and the difficulty of hiring the talent capable of building a voice AI platform has spurred brands to look outside their organizations and seek voice AI technology partners. 

If your company has launched your voice-first initiative, but you’re finding the task bigger than your internal resources, identify a voice AI provider with a proven track record. You’ll want to identify a voice AI provider that not only has the technology, but also has enough experience and expertise to offer you the guidance you’ll need to design and build your unique voice solutions. 

When you’re searching for voice AI technology, find a platform that gives you the flexibility to create custom commands to match the way your users express themselves, and custom domains to deliver the information and functionality your unique product or service requires. Advanced ASR, NLU, and TTS technologies are foundational to creating a conversational assistant that can understand and respond with both speed and accuracy.

The best way to expand your product experience and strengthen customer relationships is through a custom voice assistant. To ensure the interface reflects your brand attributes, your voice assistant needs a custom wake word. In fact, your wake word should be the first thing to consider when building your voice assistant. Before embarking on a voice AI strategy, identify a partner that can provide a custom wake word to activate your voice assistant.

If your voice assistant is connected to the cloud, you’ll want it to have access to a large library of content domains. Content domains provide the knowledge base for voice assistants. Without access to a wide range of sources of data, voice assistants remain limited in their functionality.

Developers of voice assistant solutions will want to avoid the hassle of individual contracts with each data set provider. Instead, find a voice AI platform partner that can provide access to hundreds of domains that are linked together in a knowledge graph—allowing the voice assistant to combine information from several sources to deliver the most complete answer.

Beyond the smart speaker: custom voice assistants across industries

Regardless of the industry you’re in, voice AI solutions are becoming part of the competitive landscape. If you’re like the majority of companies and you’ve entered the voice-first era with a voice-enabled app, you’ve already solved some of the most common challenges of voice AI adoption. If your company is still looking for a reason to enter into the market with a voice-enabled product or solutions, you might be interested to know a few of the trends. No matter what stage of voice AI adoption you’re in, one thing is clear: the market is hot and competition is heating up.

Here is a snapshot of how voice assistants are being deployed across industries:

Internet of Things (IoT)

As the market matures, IoT manufacturers are looking for disintermediated voice solutions that allow them to create voice experiences that grow brand exposure and create customer connections that build loyalty. According to a report by Opus Research, 88% of IoT and Smart Home companies surveyed reported “controlling brand identity and UX” as the greatest business value of a voice assistant.

Instead of adding your product to a network controlled by a singular master device, custom, branded voice-enabled devices deliver the ability to increase product functionality while realizing revenue through purchasing opportunities for customers. For consumers, the ability to control the device while standing in front of it and the added security of knowing that their data isn’t being shared creates loyalty and trust with brands.

Financial institutions and voice-enabled banking

By offering a voice interface and making it easier to navigate menus, search faster, and interact with a virtual bank teller, voice assistants are improving the banking experience. In addition, the restrictions of visiting in-person branches due to COVID-19 this past year have made mobile banking and call centers increasingly relevant options for many customers. Interacting with a custom voice assistant equipped with custom domains and commands gives customers better, faster, and more accurate banking experiences while delivering greater efficiencies for financial institutions. 

Voice assistants are becoming the future of banking and the key to creating a consistent, positive customer experience. Soon, financial institutions will be divided into two categories: those that have voice-enabled services and those that don’t. 

Retail and voice commerce

As an industry, retail is maturing in its adoption of voice assistants and is now looking for omnichannel voice experiences. Unwilling to compete for consumer mindshare with third-party platforms and other retail operations, top retailers are looking past the voice-enabled mobile to create unified user experiences that boost brand recognition and loyalty while allowing them to maintain control over their data, valuable customer relationships, and brand experiences while decreasing operational costs.

Mobile apps, websites, customer support centers, and in-store kiosks are all touchpoints that can be voice-enabled. Voice assistants in every channel can smooth the friction of making a purchase, thereby encouraging repeat customers and larger orders. Multimodal experiences that combine view screens and hand-free interfaces will be major contributors to the success of voice commerce in retail.

QSRs and fast casual restaurants

In the restaurant industry where long menus and frequent substitutions are the norm, voice user interfaces are faster, more flexible, and more hygienic than using a touch screen. Instead of engaging in a series of types and swipes to access menu items, customers can simply ask the voice assistant for what they want, the way they want it.

Phone ordering is a convenience for customers that often results in operational headaches for restaurant owners and managers. Since most don’t have a dedicated staff member to answer the phone, employees must stop other tasks to take phone-in orders. Too often, those orders are misunderstood or misrecorded—resulting in lost revenue through food waste and customer dissatisfaction. A voice assistant that’s integrated into an existing POS can not only take the customer’s order, but record it accurately, take care of the payment process, and remember names and orders for repeat customers.

Interested in learning more about voice assistants for restaurants? Watch this phone ordering voice AI demo.

Hospitality and travel

By making rooms touchless, personalizing stays, and providing a virtual concierge, voice assistants are becoming a key amenity for the hospitality industry. The ROI on custom voice technology investments can be proven based on decreasing operational costs, greater understanding of guest needs, controlling brand identity, and monetizing the experience. 

As voice assistants are increasingly incorporated into the hospitality industry, we’ll see further innovation and improvements in the guest voice experience. Hotels not currently budgeting for voice-enabled technology may want to seriously consider the guest benefits and business value of in-room voice assistants and voice-enabled kiosks before customers choose hotels that are offering these high-tech amenities.

For airlines and the transportation industry, voice assistants are coming at a time when consumers are increasingly in search of travel deals on the internet through mobile phones, call centers, and smart speakers. In response, travel companies are looking for ways to improve customer service and convenience at every touchpoint via voice experiences. Providing fast, accurate, and convenient booking opportunities is one-way airlines and other travel companies are rising above the noise of daily airfare wars.

Telecom voice-enables call centers

Today, call center automation does little to reduce the frustration of customers seeking answers and support. In fact, these interactions frequently lead to greater frustration. When customers call, IVR systems are often not flexible or accurate enough to really understand or help the caller. Even in normal times, these systems fall short at the most basic level, the main menu.

Leaders in the telecom industry are putting customer experiences at the top of their list of goals for the near and distant future. To achieve these goals, omnichannel voice experiences that begin with voice-enabled contact centers are already on their roadmaps. Some, such as Deutsche Telekom, have developed their own smart speakers to meet consumer desire for voice search and entertainment at home that doesn’t pose a threat to their data privacy. 

Automotive and the connected car

Driving has become more than just a method for traveling from place to place, it has become an opportunity to be entertained and to remain connected to home and the rest of the world. As more people spend more time in their cars, the opportunity to capture their interest and build brand loyalty has not been lost on leading automakers. Today, auto manufacturers are looking toward the future of connected cars that go far beyond vehicle operation or asking for directions.

Making cars a part of the Internet of Things (IoT) has been a growing trend since 2005 and is expected to accelerate in the next few years. Keeping the experience hands-free with custom voice assistants is a critical element of that trend.

Entertainment and news top user lists

Not surprisingly, the Smart Audio Report found that the recent pandemic and the requirements to stay at home have increased people’s usage of smart speakers for getting news and entertainment. In fact, the current circumstance may be the driving force behind a greater demand for voice assistants.

One of the first uses of voice assistant technology was to give users a way to play music, get information, and be entertained in a hands-free, frictionless environment. The entertainment industry has been a key element in those experiences and will continue to be a primary use of voice assistants in the future. How they participate is yet to be seen as many have entered the arena with their own voice-enabled apps and as content providers for other voice assistants. 

As other avenues open up, the entertainment industry is poised to take advantage of opportunities in a variety of channels.

Multilingual, multimodal, and multi-assistant voice assistant strategies

For those companies not yet implementing a voice AI strategy, and even for those who may have voice-enabled a mobile app, there remains confusion over the benefits of adding a skill or action to Alexa or Google or deploying a custom, branded voice assistant. The angst so many business leaders are feeling around the choice of a voice assistant is easily alleviated by the implementation of a multi-voice assistant voice strategy

Allowing two or more voice assistants to exist side by side (assuming that one of them is a brand-owned assistant) checks all the boxes for delivering the familiarity and comfort of a known voice user interface without the risks. Without a custom voice assistant as part of the mix, companies face brand dilution, lack of ownership of customer experiences and data, and possible loss of their competitive edge.

Once a brand has decided to voice-enable a product, service, or app, other critical decisions must be made before development can begin. Depending on their customer and prospect base, brands must make critical decisions about how many languages their custom voice assistant will be able to speak fluently. 

For global companies, this is a critical consideration since users may not initially adopt your voice interface if the assistant doesn’t speak their language. While making the decision to launch a voice assistant in only one language may seem like a simple solution, the fact is that convincing those users to switch to a voice interface later is a lot harder and requires more effort than onboarding them with a voice assistant that speaks their language from the beginning.

In addition to a voice user interface, brands should consider which other modes of interaction will be needed. Multimodal interfaces that allow hands-free interaction, but don’t insist on a voice-only approach deliver the largest range of possibilities for people to interact with your brand no matter where they are or when. 

Most companies that have mobile-optimized websites, mobile apps, or customer care centers that deliver great service are wondering why they should prioritize voice user interfaces (VUI). The reality is that they should be enhancing all the channels they have with voice, not replacing other modes of interaction. Voice experiences, like any other UX, have been created to enhance experiences by offering greater convenience, functionality, and hands-free accessibility.

The future of voice assistants

Business leaders in 8 key industries agree that voice assistants will soon become their omnichannel vehicle providing consistent answers and recommendations to customers, prospects, and employees.

While challenges remain, advances in technology and a greater understanding of the value of voice AI are propelling businesses to redefine their voice assistant strategies to include development of a custom, branded voice assistant complete with a branded wake word.

In the future, the voice AI technology sector will likely lead the way to new models for monetization. Opportunities will exist for those implementing voice assistants as well as for the content domain owners. The content domains will provide the information necessary to create experiences beyond the command and control of hardware devices and products as well as the opportunities to deliver more value.

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.

Karen Scates is a storyteller with a passion for helping others through content. Argentine tango, good books and great wine round out Karen’s interests.

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