Smartphone adoption continues to skyrocket, with 78 percent of the U.S. adult population owning a smartphone according to the latest Flurry report. Meanwhile, consumers increasingly say that they prefer self-service options when interacting with a company. Put those two trends together, and they highlight the value of voice-powered customer service apps.

Today, with nearly 80 percent of customer service calls originate from a mobile phone. But even when a smartphone has a big screen, a physical QWERTY keyboard or both, many people don’t want to type their customer information and query. And when they’re driving or walking, typing is even less of an option.

But with a voice-enabled customer service app, people can simply speak their log-in information and question. Thanks to the popularity of voice-powered mobile assistants such as Siri on the iPhone, Google Now and Samsung’s S Voice, consumers are increasingly comfortable talking to their smartphone when they need information – voice-enabled customer service apps leverage that familiarity.

The key to a great user experience is selecting a flexible, feature-rich speech platform. The ideal platform goes beyond the table stakes of speech recognition to provide Natural Language Understanding (NLU), which uses sophisticated algorithms to determine not only what the person is saying but also the intent.

NLU is particularly valuable when customers don’t use a narrow, rigid list of industry terms. With NLU, an airline’s app can understand what a caller wants when she asks, “When does my plane leave?” and provide the right answer right away. NLU enables the app to understand words and phrases even when the platform has never heard the person’s voice before. This lets users speak to the app as naturally as they would if they were talking with a live customer service agent or a friend.

Without NLU, the app would struggle to find a match in its database because she didn’t use industry terms such as “flight” and “depart.” The app then would frustrate her by providing the wrong answer or by asking her to repeat herself. If she gets frustrated enough, she’ll probably try to reach a live agent, thereby eliminating the cost savings of self-service for the airline and eliminating the convenience of self-service for her.

The ideal speech platform also enables customization, easily controlled by the business that wants to align a user experience to their brand. For example, the platform should provide best practices in human-machine dialog with a visual display – ideally as source code – that the business can use to create a custom persona that matches its overall branding strategy.

The platform also should include a software development kit (SDK) so it’s fast and cost-effective for the business to add virtual assistant capabilities to its existing smartphone apps. That architecture eliminates the expense and lead time of building new apps in order to add speech capabilities. It also eliminates the disruption of customers having to download and learn a new app. Instead, the speech capabilities can be simply pushed out as an update.

The SDK should include a broad selection of pre-designed templates and tasks so the business can quickly implement capabilities such as bill pay, account information and change of address. This selection also should include industry-specific templates and tasks, such as for banking, travel, insurance and retail. These pre-designed templates and tasks can be particularly valuable for organizations that want to add speech capabilities quickly in response to changing market expectations and conditions, such as a competitor’s mobile app launch or upgrade.

When businesses, government agencies and other organizations decide to add NLU to their interactive voice response (IVR) systems, they’re increasingly choosing cloud-based NLU rather than on-premises solutions. One major reason is because as NLU’s capabilities and benefits increase, so does the complexity of implementing and operating an NLU platform. With a cloud-based NLU solution, organizations avoid that complexity – and the overhead costs of specialized staff – but still get NLU’s bottom-line benefits, such as increased automation, and qualitative benefits, including the ability to meet customer preferences for self-service.

Those benefits are driving many organizations toward cloud-based solutions for speech-enabling their apps as well. Another motivation is access to the latest and greatest speech technologies, which vendors often make available to their cloud customers months or quarters before they’re offered to customers with premises-based platforms. That availability gives cloud customers a competitive advantage because they can add innovative speech features to their apps as an additional market differentiator.

Fifteen years ago, organizations began to recognize the power of the Internet for enhancing customer service. Five years ago, they recognized the power of mobile apps for customer service. Today, speech is the new must-have technology for meeting customers’ self-service preferences. It’s a must-have because if your organization doesn’t offer it, chances are good that your competitors will soon.

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About Andrea Mocherman

This was a contributed post by Andrea Mocherman. To see more content like this, visit the Customer experience section of our blog.