IMAGE, on the day a businesswoman is scheduled to fly out of town, she is faced with a sudden emergency that requires her to leave for the airport immediately. While rushing outside to hail a taxi, she realizes she needs to find and book a new flight. Pulling out her smartphone, she asks, "Can I get on an earlier flight to Boston?"
A reassuring automated voice responds, "Yes. There is space available on flight 1215, departing at 2:45."
"Perfect. Book it," the woman says as she climbs into the cab.
In this scenario, there's no searching or typing to find a flight. It's done in a few seconds by a virtual digital assistant that knows her schedule and transactions. It's not pie-in-the-sky technology. In fact, it's one of the scenarios that Nuance Communications depicts in a promotional video featuring its speechenabled personal virtual assistant, Nina.
A year after Apple introduced its voice-activated virtual assistant, Siri, app developers are betting customers will benefit from voice-enabled virtual assistants designed for the enterprise.
Already, there's Nina and Lexee. Created by Nuance Communications and Angel, respectively, both are software development . kit (SDK) solutions that add voice-enabled customer service capabilities to mobile applications. A bank, for example, could apply Nina or Lexee to H its mobile app, giving customers a virtual assistant that will verbally assist them in checking their balance or other tasks related to the bank. There is also Sophia, which Taptera designed to serve as a mobile voice-enabled virtual assistant for Salesforce.com users.
Lexee, Nina, and Sophia--which were all launched a few months ago--arrived at a time when more than half of mobile subscribers use a smartphone. By July 2012, 55.5 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers owned one, up from 41 percent in July 2011, according to Nielsen. And while the number of smartphone owners is increasing, so are the tasks the devices are being used for, according to Gene Alvarez, research vice president at Gartner.
"When our flight has been cancelled, we'll use our phone to book another flight or use it for help finding our hotel--we want our phone to help us when things go wrong," remarked Alvarez at IBM's Smarter Commerce Global Summit in September.
Virtual assistants are a natural outgrowth of our expectation for on-demand service, wherever we are. By 2015,50 percent of online customer self-service search activities will be done via a virtual assistant for at least 1,500 large enterprises, according to Gartner.
Part of the appeal of virtual assistants is their ability to "let people express their needs more naturally than having to navigate a visual interface or a conversation tree like 'For X, press 1,'" comments Matt Lease, assistant professor in the department of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information. "Virtual assistants let people reuse the same communication skills they have already developed for communicating with other people," Lease states.
In addition, speaking to a virtual assistant on a mobile device is convenient in situations when people have difficulty using a small keyboard on a phone or are occupied and unable to read information on a screen.
A virtual assistant can also be a way for an organization to set its customer experience apart from that of other companies. More than two-thirds of customer experience leaders recently surveyed by Forrester Research said their firms want to differentiate their offerings based on customer experience. As numerous companies have shown, delivering great customer service can lead to decreased operational costs, increased purchases, and long-term loyalty.
This past August, Nuance Communications introduced its Nuance Interactive Natural Assistant (Nina), a voice-powered app that lets companies add speech-based virtual assistant capabilities to their iOS and Android mobile customer service apps. …