COVID-19 has unexpectedly acted as a major boon to the voice commerce ecosystem. Amazon Pay Head of Product Kris Zanuldin told Karen Webster in a recent conversation that we’re seeing the first stage of a new voice technology era, as consumers reform their commerce habits and merchants scramble to catch up with them. For both consumers and businesses, Zanuldin said, this is an interesting point in time to explore voice as an integrated part of the shopping experience.
“We’re approaching a future for voice as an enabler, Zanuldin said. “It’s a complement to a lot of other experiences, not mutually exclusive with them. And in some ways, voice will allow you to do things you just can’t do with other technologies. But when you combine it with them, you have something pretty magical.”
So how to unlock that magic? For starters, it’s time to break voice out of a silo, Zanuldin said.
While coming up with a voice-specific strategy seems tempting, he said merchants need to ask themselves a much larger question about the total experience they’re looking to create for consumers’ digital commerce journeys. Zanuldin noted that Amazon’s longstanding advice of starting with the customer applies especially to voice, as consumers are getting habituated to a host of newly digitized commerce experiences.
“My best advice to a merchant is to find that one ‘hero use case’ for your digital-first customer and try to figure out [the] best possible experience you can create,” he said. “And I think you'll most likely find that voice will play a very big role in that.”
Tapping Voice’s True Potential
Consumers have learned to trust the Amazon Alexa voice assistant over the past five years or so. After all, Alexa tells jokes, finds recipes, makes lists, offers reminders to do important things and much more.
Over time, Zanuldin said, that has opened consumers up to the idea of using Alexa to make purchases. He said that’s key to understanding the bigger-picture power of Alexa and the voice platform as a whole.
His favorite example of this is the Alexa-enabled microwave ovens. These have an obvious usefulness, in that it can be a lot easier for people to operate a microwave oven via voice when their hands are otherwise occupied in the kitchen.
But, Zanuldin added, “the real power of the Alexa-enabled microwave is its ability to know all the thousands of combinations of heat, time and power for every single thing you could put in a microwave. It is the experience of having a friend you could just tell: ‘I want to cook fish in my microwave, please cook it for me.’ Alexa already knows the exact combination of data to do it best. That's the power of Alexa in a voice-enabled world. The interface made it more convenient, but the true power is Alexa's intelligence to take what you were asking and turn it into something.”
Extrapolate that into the world of commerce, and the Alexa interface is just the starting point of a purchasing journey. The real opportunity that Alexa unlocks is the power of the intelligence that goes through it.
Consider a product search, where consumers often run into too many options all at once — creating what Zanuldin calls “the tyranny of choice.” A customer isn't just searching for the item or service itself, but also a way to make a quick decision. Zanuldin said Alexa can act as a trusted adviser, using its extensive data on both the available products and the consumer making the purchase to get to that choice.
“I think with voice, we are going to find that customers are more and more okay with giving up the nearly infinite selection choice over to Alexa, to narrow it down for them,” he predicted. “And I think that’s where we envision it in the future. It’s a road to get there — but eventually, just like any trusted friend, you will ask for a recommendation. And more likely than not, you’ll take advantage of that resource.”
Managing The Multichannel Future
Consumers don’t generally have an hour or so they can set aside every day or two to complete their shopping in a single shot, Zanuldin said. More often than not, commerce runs in parallel to other life activities, beginning on one channel and being completed in a different one.
That can mean starting a shopping list with Alexa that runs over the course of a day before the customer actually finishes on mobile. Or it can work the other way around. Customers might put together a shopping cart on their desktops while at work, then instruct Alexa to finish off the transaction from the car while they’re driving home later.
Zanuldin said the challenge for merchants is figuring out where to place voice in the context of an overall digital commerce strategy. That means actually digging into their customers’ needs, wants, pain points and requests to figure what that “hero use case” will be.
That might mean finding a way to maximize the customer’s multichannel commerce journey, making the switch between mobile, web and voice channels feel like a seamless, natural part of the shopping experience. Or it might mean leveraging a voice assistant’s built-in ability to understand a user’s standard commerce habits to steer the person to one purchase or other.
“Human beings are creatures of habit,” Zanuldin said. “You’d be amazed at how often you order the same dish [at] the same restaurant on the same days. And for that, Alexa is perfect. If you really don’t want to go through the hassle and you know what you want, this is the easy way to kick off that transaction.”
At the end of the day, Zanuldin said, Alexa is an enabler of commerce journeys that are customizable to a consumer’s specific needs. As he noted, it’s another way for merchants to connect to their customers and better serve their needs: “I think we are seeing a great deal of progress toward its integrated future."