Voice Activation

Grooming Alexa (And Users) For The Future Of Voice Commerce

Voice commerce isn’t just about buying things. It’s also about returning things, exchanging things, tracking orders, reordering and improving the customer experience by answering questions whenever, wherever and however they’re asked.

At least, Linc Global VP Luke Starbuck says it could one day be about all of those things. Such capabilities do exist today, said Starbuck, but they are in their early stages and are far from ubiquitous among merchants with an online presence, even those who are trying to take an omnichannel approach.

The Amazon Alexa Skills Voice Challenge aims to change that by urging developers to create new voice-activated skills that will shape tomorrow’s omnichannel experience. And yes, Linc Global is working on one, but it’s a secret (for now).

Starbuck said Linc aims to take automation beyond the core capabilities of customer service, and that natural language understanding will help drive voice experiences that go beyond simple commerce, returns and exchanges to address consumer needs related to the commerce activity.

Voice Potential

Today, Starbuck said, voice technology is focused on controlling “smart” objects and if you’re Amazon, a little bit of voice-based buying and product selection. However, only the most innovative companies are even recognizing the possibilities with voice, let alone implementing it to its full potential.

On the tail of a very strong year for voice technology adoption, Starbuck said that’s going to have to change. The more people who own and use a device like Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo smart speaker, the faster consumer expectations will rise.

Customers, said Starbuck, prefer to use different channels depending on their needs, location and often even their mood. The battle to keep them coming back relies on meeting their high expectations, which revolve around convenience and choice of how to interact with the brands they love.

Yet if brands are too hasty in rolling out voice capabilities, it could backfire, Starbuck cautioned.

Creating a good voice experience is nothing like crafting an email, website or mobile app. The artificial intelligence (AI) behind the experience must be adept at differentiating customer requests, down to specifics like size and color.

“The experience has got to feel great,” said Starbuck, “because people only give these sorts of things one or two chances before they move on if they’re not getting what they’re looking for.”

Why and How Voice Will Grow

In the 1990s, average consumers (that is, those not working in the computer science field) had to work really hard to learn how to use a computer. The iPhone simplified that learning curve in the 2000s, while the iPad soon drove adoption and learning through all generations.

Voice is unlike either of those things, said Starbuck. It’s the first medium that does not require the user to learn a new way of doing things.

Unlike any screen-based commerce experience, voice commerce does not require consumers to locate or pick up a device. The only requirement is that they stand within earshot of the speaker. Since average smart speaker users tend to have one or two placed strategically around their home, the capability becomes essentially ubiquitous — and, added Starbuck, it’s fast.

Here’s just how fast. To make a return using a mobile device, customers must locate the confirmation email to find the “return” option, then tap through the webpage to complete it. Despite developers’ best efforts to make this intuitive and easy, Starbuck said it does take a psychological toll because of the mental effort required to navigate the process.

With voice, however, the same process can be completed in 30 seconds, with straightforward prompts to guide the customer along the way.

Even as some devices like Amazon’s Echo Show begin to incorporate screens for specific purposes, voice remains the primary experience, making this new means of information-gathering and commerce accessible to anybody.

Developers, Take Note

Starbuck said the onus is on developers to create an experience that truly does feel intuitive and easy.

For example, to return a pair of flip flops that were purchased online, a customer should be able to say, “Alexa, I want to return those flip flops I bought” and should not have to reference the “Hawaiian Classic ’59 in pink,” or whatever the specific product name might be.

That takes natural language understanding, Starbuck said, which requires a lot of heavy-lifting in terms of AI — and not just any off-the-shelf AI can do it. Brands need an AI that’s built specifically for commerce, which differentiates products and requests — even individual voices within a household.

More than that, they need a voice-activated AI that works together with other channels the merchant may already be using. It’s not enough to have multiple channels, said Starbuck. True omnichannel means that the same customer journey can travel seamlessly across many different points and methods of contact. Channels cannot be siloed.

Say a customer needs to discuss the return of those Hawaiian Classic flip flops — a return she initiated at home using her Amazon Echo. But now, she’s on the train, where voice is no longer a practical way for her to ask the question. Yet Facebook Messenger and SMS texting are right in her hands.

If the voice experience is kept in a different silo than the Messenger one, then the customer will have to explain herself all over again. A brand with true omnichannel capabilities, however, brings her history to whichever channel she chooses in the moment. Her product history, size preferences and status of orders or returns can all inform how the brand interacts with her across all channels.

“You can’t get very far in voice if you’re going to treat it as a standalone,” Starbuck said. “It really needs to be connected back to all of the other channels that you operate on today.”


Starbuck said two of the next hurdles that voice commerce must overcome will be authentication and discoverability in terms of people finding and activating skills.

He explained how Linc Global kills two birds with one stone: Tt the moment of purchase confirmation, customers have the option to opt in to real-time updates on the status of the order via SMS text, Facebook Messenger chat or Alexa notifications.

Starbuck said that solves the authentication issue because customers are led through the process of linking their account with the merchant to another trusted account. And it solves the adoption issue by creating a value proposition that truly adds value to the consumer, then giving it well-timed visibility to encourage follow-through.

Offering real value up front opens the door for more value offers later, Starbuck added. Tracking orders is just one need that consumers might have. Once they’re connected, the possibilities are endless.

Yet it’s important to ensure that the customer is in control of his own experience. If he tries one type of notification and doesn’t like it, then it must be in his hands to change that. And if he’s a customer of multiple brands that are using Linc Global’s solution, it must be his choice to opt in with each brand — not Linc Global’s choice to aggregate data across brands.

“It’s less about the brand deciding what’s good for the consumer and more about the customer having the power of choice,” Starbuck said.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.