How Alexa can benefit your company Credit: Zapp2Photo /
Voice & Data Convergence

How Alexa can benefit your company

We tend to think of voice-activated virtual personal assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home and Microsoft Cortana as being for home use. The VDAs have made a splash in living rooms and kitchens around the world, but companies are also starting to realise the benefit for business.

Andy Fawcett CTO of FinancialForce has used Alexa and Salesforce APIs to create a solution that lets Alexa integrate with FinancialForce software and perform tasks such as updating project statuses or booking vacation requests. “The potential for businesses of any size to have a digital assistant that can immediately find and report crucial information, as well as slicing and dicing the data according to user commands is incredibly exciting,” Fawcett told Tom’s IT Pro. “Bringing Salesforce and FinancialForce to Amazon Echo makes interacting with complex business software as easy as chatting with your neighbour, partly because all data is pulled from one single source of truth.” This integration is just the beginning as more providers look at ways to embed their software into voice-controlled systems like Alexa.

In fact, Harvard Business Review reported that Alexa can already answer economic questions for clients of the Swiss global financial services company, UBS Group AG. According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), a new partnership between UBS Wealth Management and Amazon allows some of UBS’s European wealth-management clients to ask Alexa certain financial and economic questions. Alexa will then answer their queries with the information provided by UBS’s chief investment officer without even having to pick up the phone or visit a website.

How could VDAs transform businesses?

Claus Jepsen, chief architect at Unit4, believes VDAs are a game-changer for businesses. “Enterprise systems are often vast in nature and sometimes quite difficult to navigate with many screens,” he says. “Natural language communication will open up a wealth of functionality because you don’t need to be an expert in the technology.”

Jepsen adds that the other big difference is the combination of natural language interaction with a VDA that has inbuilt Artificial Intelligence. “It is not a one-way conversation, the VDA itself can contact individuals with information based on their role, objectives, deadlines and historical behaviour,” he says.

Peter van der Putten, director of decisioning solutions at Pegasystems and guest researcher at Leiden Institute of Advanced Computer Science, says: “Intelligent Virtual Assistants are not just a way to save customer service costs. Many customers actually prefer more automated forms of self-service as it will get them the things they want quicker, and in some cases people have started to trust systems more than employees – which should be a warning signal in itself for companies.”

He adds that the value of these assistants is that they can help you if you don’t really know what you want, by entering into a dialogue. For van der Putten, the typical uses are things such as booking a flight, dealing with credit card issues or upgrading your mobile phone contract or other customer service type situations.

Customer engagement company Rant & Rave’s product team can integrate “Rant & Rave for Amazon Alexa” into a brand’s Skill so that customer feedback can be gathered through the device. Kenny Bain, CEO of Rant & Rave, cites the example of a hotel room with an Amazon Alexa device installed, where guests could feedback on the service easily and simply by voicing their opinion. “This gives the hotel verbatim feedback that will be fed into the Rant & Rave platform which can be synced with the brand’s CRM; the sentiment will be analysed, and the insights will be seen by the hotel team that can act on it and resolve issues quickly,” he says.

Tim Tuttle, CEO of MindMeld, talks about voice adoption and the future. Check out: The rise and rise (and future) of voice

How can Alexa bring new customers to the enterprise?

Dan Stoops, solutions architect for innovations at Genesys, has focused on the enterprise to consumer use of Alexa, where enterprise brands are using Amazon’s Alexa to deliver a FAQ knowledge set to consumers. The Genesys Hub uses Alexa to answer typical questions like office hours, locations or policies and then invites the customer to have more complex conversations with Speech Storm or live agents.

Stoops, whose background is in speech recognition, says that Alexa is a great tool because it sits out in the middle of your room and listens to what you have to say. Alexa can be used, for example, to control a thermostat. More significantly, though, Amazon has opened its technology up to brands that want to develop ways to use Alexa to interact with customers.

“The nice thing that Amazon does for Alexa is they do make the innovation process quite reasonable. You can get a free account from Amazon. You can buy your own Echo and put it in your room as a development team. You can load it up with voice recognition commands and test out responses to what you have created, but it is never exposed to the real world.

“You can do that completely within your lab but it is a full Amazon Echo experience,” he says. It is only when you publish it that customers can add it to their Echo and use it in the real world. This means the cost to develop such solutions is relatively low.

Genesys’ clients include banks and Stoops says this is a good example of the kind of client that can benefit from being able to access customers through Alexa. “Banking is a good one because the bank has a long ongoing relationship that is multi-year and multi-feature. From a bank’s perspective, every time they can add another product to your banking that’s a great thing and Alexa is a good option for this,” he says.


What about the challenges associated with sensitive information?

Offering ways for consumers to engage with a bank through Alexa has its own challenges, though. Stoops explains that the challenge occurs when you move from questions that are simple and general like “what are your opening hours?” to more specific questions like “what’s my account balance?”.

Giving the answer to the first question through Alexa is pretty easy even though it is asked in an open room and the answer is delivered back into an open room. With the latter question, though, there are two core issues. Firstly, Stoops explains, Alexa and the bank needs to be sure that you are who you are so that your private information is not given to someone who should not have access to it.

Secondly, the answer to the question needs to be delivered securely. Genesys’ solution to both of those issues is that if a customer asks for a balance through Alexa, the response is delivered through an email or a text message securely to a device such as your Apple Watch.

Information requests like these can be handled in this way, but more complex commands like transferring money out of the bank is something that Alexa cannot do because of the required level of authentication. In such a scenario, Alexa will ask if the bank can call the customer. The authentication process can then be done on the phone. “Alexa becomes the gateway to established governance policies for these enterprises when it comes to authentication,” Stoops says.


Is this just another side to the consumerisation of work?

It is all about offering one more channel to customers. Voice technologies company Nuance Communications’ customer service VA, Nina, for example, has evolved to provide a consistent experience across customers’ preferred channels, whether Web, Mobile, IVR, Messaging on Facebook Messenger and SMS, and now IoT channels such as the Amazon Echo via Alexa.

Seb Reeve, director of strategic solutions in EMEA at Nuance Communications, says: “As customers increasingly adopt home-based VAs, such as Alexa and Google Home and use them to buy services, whether from Amazon or train tickets, then we’re going to see more customer-facing organisations turning to VAs to sell their services, so as not to miss out on potential business to a competitor that has adopted that channel before them.”

Reeve adds that, for that reason, we are likely to see consumer-facing services rolled out on VAs first. “But – as the consumerisation of IT has already shown us – as consumers increasingly expect this service at home, so too will they want to use this service to help them work more effectively. At that point, we’re likely to see enterprise-specific services developed for these channels.”

Some early examples already exist. Amazon Alexa and related technologies can be used within organisations to quickly and easily draw on existing data sets and make information available much more easily. Dynatrace, for example, launched its own virtual digital assistant, davis, earlier this year, to help organisations manage the performance of digital services such as websites, mobile applications and IT ecosystems. It allows anyone in the business to ask Alexa, or type an instant message into Slack, to find out how IT or the business is performing and identify any immediate problems that need to be addressed.

“It’s a lot like having an equivalent of Siri for IT operations; making digital performance management much less complex and more accessible for non-IT specialists,” says Michael Allen, VP for EMEA at Dynatrace.

“For example, IT execs can ask ‘were there any performance problems today? What caused those problems, and how do I fix them?’ whilst the CEO might ask, ‘what impact did those issues have on my revenues?’ Drawing on Dynatrace’s AI capabilities, davis can then call on the huge wealth of performance data that it captures to find the answers and come back to the user with a simple response. This level of accessibility will become increasingly important as IT continues to play a more crucial role in business operations.”

Companies like Qubole, a cloud-agnostic big-data-as-a-service provider, are experimenting with what Amazon Alexa and others can bring to the enterprise space. Dash Desai, Technology Evangelist at Qubole recently created a voice-enabled conversational interface that runs against Qubole’s autonomous big data platform in the cloud. The application is called Qulexa and integrates the Qubole platform with Alexa. Users can ask Amazon Alexa or Echo Dot to start a Spark, Hadoop, Presto, or Airflow cluster in their Qubole account, or retrieve results of a saved query.

“Although Qulexa is a sample application, it’s a preview of what I am envisioning where we’re headed when it comes to accessing insights using AI, ML and big data technologies. In ways and at speeds never experienced before,” Desai says.


How will VDAs work in practice for companies?

For those brands wanting to look at offering applications, whether internally or at customer level, Stoops emphasises the need to test in the lab as much as possible before publishing. He also highlights the need to ensure that good governance processes are in place so the right people at the right levels have access to the application content, questions and answers and can debate how Alexa is used.

Allen says it is important to consider whether there is a business case for a VDA deployment before making the investment, or it could end up just being bolted on for novelty’s sake. “A VDA offers the greatest value where it is combined with AI capabilities, to provide fast access to information,” he says. “If an organisation finds that its teams are spending a great deal of time and effort looking for answers within data dashboards, then that’s a good indication that a VDA could add real value, by removing much of that legwork.”

Desai adds that executives should ensure the VDA fits the personality that best reflects their company brand. “Building dialogue is like building a script for a character in a movie or play. They need to understand how users will interact with their VDA application,” he says.

Additionally, executives should consider platform extensibility, watch out for vendor lock-in, and ultimately make sure they have processes in place for a smooth handoff to a real human if things get frustrating, Desai adds.

Kriti Sharma, VP of AI and bots at Sage, says it is important to understand that despite the mainstream hype around VDAs and connectivity in areas such as Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things, this technology is still very new in the workplace. “We must not lose sight of the human element here,” Sharma says. “While the technology might be able to perform tasks much faster than a human, it’s imperative that the technology is launched with a few considerations in mind. Is it performing the tasks accurately? How effectively is the VDA at recognising human tone or accents? The last thing a business needs is to run a task through a VDA only to find that it was inaccurately performed and must be corrected.”

Sharma emphasises that these are all important to keep in mind when considering the implementation of VDAs in the workplace. “The more we use these application though, the more intelligent and effective the application becomes. Designing great VDA experiences for each channel – voice vs text vs invisible apps – is critical to the success and user adoption.”

Sharma believes that ultimately, VDAs will make employees at all levels and within all industries much more effective at their jobs. With a simple voice request to a bot, the ability to perform what many consider tedious and time-consuming tasks that are vital for the operations of a business, and will save precious time that could be used for more strategic and purposeful work, such as providing strategic insight or developing customer relationships.

Sage is exploring, building, and scaling the business applications found at the intersection of products, workflows and user interfaces such as Amazon Alexa and its own chatbot Pegg. “Intelligent automation powering voice experiences is enhancing productivity for accountants around the world, enabling them to manage schedules, maintain deadlines and better communicate and service clients from any location,” Sharma says.

“For businesses, this technology hides the complexities of accounting and lets employees manage finances through conversation, making the process as simple as sending a text or talking to a friend. By digitising information at the point of capture, it takes away the pain of filing receipts and expenses, eradicating the need for paper and data entry.”

Access to applications through Alexa and its competitors is likely to increase as adoption is taken up. Jepsen believes that, in the future, all new enterprise application will come with a conversational user interface for the casual user.

“We believe that with time VDA will be the primary means for accessing enterprise software, and will replace most of the web based self-service applications in use today. Second, we strongly believe that voice, rather than typing, becomes the new norm when accessing enterprise software. As soon as the speech recognition technology, and the VDA are good enough to understand and handle expectations in conversations, users will become comfortable talking to their devices.”


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Bianca Wright

Bianca Wright is a UK-based freelance business and technology writer, who has written for publications in the UK, the US, Australia and South Africa. She holds an MPhil in science and technology journalism and a DPhil in Media Studies.

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