Smart speakers, like the Amazon Echo – the hardware that is home to the now famous digital voice assistant, Alexa – have become a common feature in many homes around the world.

The USA leads the way with around 45 million speakers1. and over 18% of adults owning one.  In the UK, YouGov research shows that they are not quite as ubiquitous, with market penetration of 10% in early 2018. But that number is growing quickly. It doubled from 5% in less than 6 months.

Amazon is far and away the market leader with almost 70% market share in the US and 75% in the UK. That share is dropping in both markets as heavyweight competitors; including Google, Apple and Microsoft; play catch up.

In the small business market, Alexa isn’t very busy yet. But that might change.

Alexa – a quick primer

In UK homes, the most common uses of Alexa are to play music, ask general questions (perhaps, ‘What time is the royal wedding?’), set alarms and reminders, and to get news and weather updates.

Some of these features are provided ‘out-of-the-box’ by Amazon, similar to a smartphone with some pre-installed apps. But the usefulness of Alexa really starts expanding when new ‘skills’ are added.  A skill is the voice assistant equivalent of a smartphone app. Amazon provides some, while third party developers can do the same.

Amazon is actively encouraging developers to boost the number of skills in its ‘skills store’, and also to help businesses maintain and improve the existing skills being used.

Here in the UK, it hosts regular workshops and ‘meet-ups’ for developers: to keep them up to date, provide technical information, to help with ideas for new skills and to provide training. Without doubt, this is also done to spread the word about the potential of its voice products to developers’ employers and clients (large and small businesses).

The strategy appears to be working. More than 1,000 new skills were added to the Amazon UK skills store in one month recently (although not all of these are UK-developed skills). Many come from the media sector, such as using voice to control a game or ask for playing instructions; or to access news services and radio stations.

But it’s becoming a mixed bag of content. Virgin Trains has a skill that can be used to arrange journeys, book tickets and ask questions about its service. Takeaways can be ordered using Just Eat’s skill, and Ocado’s skill can be used to add to, modify or check on a food order.

There is even a fuel finder skill that allows users to check for the cheapest petrol or diesel prices nearby.

Alexa’s journey from home to work

Although Alexa is being used in many homes, and large consumer brands are experimenting and finding useful applications for the technology, use by smaller businesses is still in its infancy.

Daryl Jewkes, a freelance Alexa skills developer, says there is currently a big push by Amazon in the UK to get their speakers into the business market, get more skills developed for business customers and encourage businesses to develop their own skills.

What are Alexa’s uses for smaller businesses?

Productivity and management tools dominate.

The most common uses of Alexa by businesses are productivity tools. Commands can be given to add calendar entries, set reminders, manage task lists, invite people to meetings, book conference rooms, or set-up and join conference calls.

Amazon offers many of these tools through its ‘Alexa for Business’ service, which interfaces with business products such as Office 365, Exchange, and iCal.

Third party developers have also developed tools for businesses. Some enable users to access data from software products, such as Salesforce or Google Analytics, using voice commands.

The e-commerce platform Shopify – used by many small businesses for their online sales – has developed a skill that enables businesses to access information on orders, inventory, and store performance summaries. Typical commands would be: ‘Alexa, ask Shopify what my sales were this week?’ Or ‘Alexa, ask Shopify what my best-selling products are this month?’

And the online HR management platform, WebHR, allows managers to get information on employee demographics, attendance and birthdays. Managers could instruct Alexa to: ‘Ask WebHR how many male and female employees we have?’ or ‘Who is not at work today?’.

Businesses can also develop proprietary skills. A use Jewkes sees strong potential for is to provide management information. So, in a similar way to asking for a news update, Alexa could be set up to interface with existing systems and asked to provide information on the previous day’s sales.

There is also some overlap between home and office use. In either location, Alexa could be used to play background music, or order coffee or pizza.

Increasing use for sales and customer service

Small businesses can now use Alexa as a sales channel and to improve customer service.

Jewkes says that he continues to see a surge in the use of Alexa to make purchases, following the recent introduction of payments functionality in the UK. He also says that some newer Alexa devices, which have screens, can combine visual sales catalogues with voice commands that makes researching and buying products very easy.

Voice is also ideally suited to complement or replace text based ‘frequently-asked-questions’ or product tutorials. As an example, a UK accountancy practice, Paul Austen Associates, has launched a skill called ‘Tax Guru’, which answers common tax questions.

Brian Westendorf, director of digital experience and mobile at AIM Consulting – a US technology consultancy offering Alexa skills strategy and development services – says that office productivity and personal assistant type tools dominate Alexa use in the US as well.

But he does see customer-facing uses gaining a lot of interest. Physical shops are starting to explore installing smart speakers as an information service for customers. They can help to find the location of products in the shop and to provide information about a product. Brian says this is particularly useful where customers struggle to find time with busy employees. And Alexa can store a lot more information than any human employee.

Next steps for SMEs

Jewkes’ advice to businesses thinking about the potential uses for Alexa, is that it is important to remember that voice is just a new ‘interface’. For example, it adds functionality to an existing online store; it is not a new store.

He also says that businesses should be wary of ‘novelty’ uses, and not use Alexa just because the functionality is available.

Voice should only be used where it is a better interface than a computer or a smartphone.


1 Customer Intelligence Research Partners

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