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Virtual assistant technologies will gain big traction in the next six years, with 1.8 billion active global consumers tapping the tools by the close of 2021, a healthy boost from today’s 390 million worldwide users.

Yet the use of virtual digital assistants (VDAs) may be a bit slower within retail for a few reasons, according to research firm Tractica, which released the industry figures this week. Tractica’s report on VDA market activity defines VDA as automated apps or platforms that help users via natural language in written or spoken form. Right now smartphone-based consumer VDAs are the best-known offerings, but other versions are arriving, such as smart watches, fitness trackers, PCs, smart home systems, and automobiles.

While a VDA is typically deployed to boost customer interaction, from interactive voice response to mobile apps to kiosks and wearables, which are all a good fit for customer-facing businesses, in retail the VDA should be used for specific reasons.

“Whether a business-to-consumer or business-to-business business, it is important to guide customers through the buying process and to answer any queries or complaints after sale, especially as ratings and reviews are now a pivotal part of the buying decision process,” explained Tractica Principal Analyst Mark Beccue in an email interview with Retail Customer Experience.

Right now retail enterprises are leaning on VDAs for customer service to lessen the reliance on live agent operations. But as the technology advances the same VDAs will also be able to operate as a sales agent and drive customers to relevant products, he noted.

“Key to their success in this vertical is personal context, such as history, location, and preferences. It is too early to tell if retailers will be able to deliver in this area, but many believe contextual, personalized service such as this is the future of marketing,” he said.

One of today’s most well-known VDA is Amazon’s Echo/Alexa device which lets users order products using a voice command as well as access a myriad of Amazon’s services, from music to interactive entertainment and information pools.

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The true e-commerce value will be when a VDA acts in a ‘push’ e-commerce capacity, said Beccue.

“Some enterprise VDA vendors are tinkering with predictive-probability models to identify up-sell/cross-sell opportunities unearthed during customer support/service work by the VDAs. It would make sense for most companies to proceed in this area with extreme caution,” said Beccue, adding, “it will be interesting to see how Alexa fares as a conduit to Amazon marketplaces, though Amazon appears to be positioning Alexa as a profit center like Amazon Web Services and not strictly as another way of buying things from Amazon.”

A key aspect to retailers benefiting from such technology is understanding its opportunities and its weaknesses.

“Retailers, and most any enterprise, will need to understand VDAs can only do so much, that it most likely doesn’t make sense to completely automate customer service. There may be a temptation to automate too much. The nuance of spoken and written language is too complex for most machines and it will remain that way. Retailers must be deft at mixing artificial intelligence agents with human touch,” said Beccue.

Given the increasing expectation by consumers to be able to interact with retailers any hour of any day the VDA presents a prime capability, said Beccue, but one to be treated with kid gloves.

“Deploying VDAs which can quickly find the right answers at any time is a key driver for the growth of VDAs. Yet, in essence, it doesn’t make sense for companies to get too pushy or aggressive in using VDAs for sales and marketing,” he advised.

Many retailers may have a misconception the VDA can provide options to a slew of customer experience and engagement challenges, said the analyst.

“VDAs will not cure cancer or bring world peace. They will be most effective when they are pointed at more specific knowledge domains with specific tasks in mind, such as focusing on a specific retailer’ domain and the available personal data which is available to the retailer about customers.”

Reprinted with permission from
Photo courtesy of Amazon

Judy Mottl

Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

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