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Amazon’s Gauthier: Alexa Says “No” To Ads

Amazon Pay’s VP and GM, Patrick Gauthier, shares what he loved most about the winning entries in our 2018 Voice Challenge with Amazon Alexa – as well as how Amazon Pay will fit into skills such as these, and the one thing Alexa must never do.

Amazon has a lofty vision for Alexa, and Amazon Pay’s VP and GM, Patrick Gauthier, says the entrants in the 2018 PYMNTS Voice Challenge with Amazon Alexa played into that vision beautifully.

In case you missed it, the winners of the competition were announced on Thursday, April 5 – see who stole the show in categories such as “Most creative application of voice tech,” “Most commercially viable,” and “Easiest to explain to Mom.”

In a recent interview, Gauthier and Karen Webster discussed how the Challenge was designed to force new thinking about Alexa: not as a cylinder sitting on a countertop, but as an ecosystem pulling in various touchpoints, including the Echo Show with its screen, the car with its Alexa integration, and other opportunities to bring the virtual assistant into different environments around specific use cases.

“The demonstrations made good use of the interface and simplifying the transaction flow across multiple points, but it wasn’t just about interface,” Gauthier said. “It was about assisting the customer, and that’s a higher order of ambition. That’s the opportunity that lies ahead of us, not to do what has already been done on a PC or a mobile but to make these [voice commerce] activities more human.”

Here’s why Gauthier said the Voice Challenge entrants – especially the winners – hit that nail right on the head.

What the Winners Got Right

Gauthier said he liked how PSCU, winner of the “Easiest to Explain to Mom” category, integrated context by leveraging multiple touchpoints – the home, the office, the car and even the smartwatch – to help the customer navigate through each.

PSCU developed more of an Alexa sidekick than a skill with its assistant-within-an-assistant, CURTIS, the Credit Union Real Time Information Skill. CURTIS uses Alexa’s interface and voice to convey information and complete services between credit unions and their members.

The demo video shows Troy, a credit union customer, checking balances and paying bills by voice as he goes through his morning routine. That conversation continues as Troy heads to work, as he’s in transit and in his office.

Though CURTIS is still just a concept today, Gauthier said that “it speaks to the frictionless dimension that we’re trying to develop.”

Gauthier also liked how USAA – which won in the “Most commercially viable” category – had played around with prototyping, noting that this approach can reveal so much more about how to improve the lives of customers than drawing up concepts on a whiteboard.

In USAA’s demo video, its skill walked a customer through the process of filing an insurance claim for a totaled car, receiving the payout, shopping for a new car and completing a new vehicle purchase. The skill could also help customers handle more day-to-day car insurance needs, such as paying monthly bills or adding a driver to the policy.

Ditto with FIS and the notion of having Alexa provide the interface to a personal banker to help a young couple find and buy a new home. Gauthier said that FIS, which won “Best of Challenge,” used Alexa to democratize the notion of a personal banker. The FIS video showed how “My Bank[er]” reduced the series of discrete and time-consuming steps involved in finding and buying a home into a single flow across multiple touchpoints, including receiving an alert of a fraudulent card transaction on their way to see their new home and being issued a new card that was instantly provisioned to the couple’s Apple Pay account.

All three entries proved that concepts don’t have to make it all the way to fruition before the benefits become clear – and, Gauthier added, it’s a great way to get people excited about the possibilities for the voice user interface.

More Than a Mobile Replacement

Gauthier said that the goal with Alexa is not just to replicate or replace what can already be done on a PC via web browser or on a smartphone via mobile app – rather, the voice channel has opened up all-new opportunities.

For instance, high-consideration purchases like airline tickets may be easiest to make on the web because of all the pieces and steps involved. However, there are follow-up micro-decisions that should not require the user to boot up and log back in.

The day of the flight, he may have the option to upgrade his seat, purchase in-flight WiFi access or reserve a specific meal on the plane – and those decisions, said Gauthier, are more easily made through an assistant like Alexa.

Instances such as recurring billing could also become more frictionless with Alexa, he said. The customer can simply ask her to remind him to pay each month, or even automate payments. This, said Gauthier, makes the difference between an average voice commerce experience and a great one.

The Place for Amazon Pay

Equally important, Gauthier said, is having Amazon Pay as part of the Alexa experience. Amazon Pay, Gauthier pointed out, is not just checkout; it’s a commerce identity that makes it possible for customers to extend their identity to a third party so that they and that third party can confidently complete transactions using information from that customer’s Amazon account.

For example, in PSCU’s demo, Troy wants to buy an engagement ring. He has Prime status, so the purchase can be shipped overnight. On top of that, the system knows to factor in rewards points that Troy has earned and apply them to his purchase. These functionalities are simply folded into the system.

Amazon Pay, said Gauthier, will enable such examples to proliferate beyond the pages of Amazon.com. Surfacing such capabilities represents a critical building block in removing friction for consumers, he said, saving them the hassle of registering accounts – as long as they have Alexa and an Amazon account, they can simply move forward with their business.

Ad Avoidance

With so many opportunities ahead, Gauthier was adamant that advertising by Alexa would not be one of them. There are indeed instances in which Alexa could provide shopping suggestions, but he said these suggestions must be solicited by the user or they will quickly begin to feel invasive.

“I don’t know many consumers that find ads popping up in life to be convenient and friction-free,” he commented. “We care deeply about the customer experience being natural and personal. Your personal assistant in the room sitting next to you would not be a walking billboard for advertisers, and Alexa shouldn’t be either.”

However, done right, he says there are ways that brands could tactfully place offers in front of customers if and when the time is right – and if and when the customer wants them.

Taking the FIS Voice Challenge skill, since Alexa was a part of that couple’s process of finding and purchasing a new home, Alexa is also smart enough to conclude that the customer will then need furnishings and other goods to put in that home.

She should be ready to offer those suggestions as soon as the customer asks for them, said Gauthier – especially if she’s observed other clues from the homeowner, either new or established, such as purchasing interior design magazines. However, Alexa must not offer those suggestions or new homeowner promos unless and until they are requested.

“Alexa expands the trust that customers have in Amazon, and we are not going to do anything that compromises that,” said Gauthier. “There’s a really fine line between, ‘You are in this context and you’re asking for help,’ and doing advertising or spamming. With the latter, somebody is pushing something on the customer. With the former, we are assisting them.”

And that, he said, is what Alexa as a great personal assistant is all about.

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