Chatbots versus voice assistants

Siri, Alexa, or chatbots—what is most useful for your business?

Written by on August 28, 2018

Siri and Alexa have made a big splash in the consumer electronics market over the last few years. Unlike chatbots, they are nowhere close to disrupting the B2B sector—but they are frequently alluded to.

We, at Freshchat, we sometimes get asked about our integration plans with Alexa or Google Assistant. A few weeks ago, for example, one of our prospects had a somewhat left-field query about Freshchat’s integration possibilities with microcomputers which was also tied to a query about voice assistants. The client said he wanted to connect our messaging platform to Raspberry Pi to light one of the bulbs hanging respectively on top of the members in his support team. Every time a rep responded to a customer query within the first two minutes, the integration would lead the corresponding bulb to light up.

Somewhat like this:

a light bulb moment

Like every young product company, we listen to all great ideas from customers with fascination and put it enthusiastically in our development pipeline. We also tell customers that chatbots can carry out most of the functions that they are looking for in a voice assistant—although the chatbots may take the reference to light a bulb jokingly.

Alternatively, if their use case is purely support, we point them to Freshdesk which integrates with Alexa and Echo Dot.

There is no denying that voice assistants are the new favorite fascination among the urban households. In fact, experts project that 50% of all searches will be voice initiated by 2020. The future clearly belongs to businesses who can dip their toes into the emerging world of v-commerce (yep, the market already has a catchy moniker) where Alexas and Siris and Cortanas are steadily occupying kitchen countertops and living rooms across the globe. In fact, businesses are tapping into the promising space of voice interface because 22% of voice assistant owners in the U.S. are already using voice commands to shop.

 

They share same roots, but go different ways

Voice assistants are nothing but chatbots with a pretty voice. Chatbots and voice assistants both fall under the same category of virtual assistants and fare (more or less) equally well in most areas of comparison such as intelligence, adaptive learning, and natural language processing (NLP).

What majorly distinguishes voice assistants from chatbots are their vastly different use cases. Chatbots are employed by businesses to engage with customers, while voice assistants are mostly personal gadgets designed for individual consumer use.

Voice assistants are like personal aides to help you prepare your grocery list, make phone calls to your mother-in-law, or play your favorite music, fix a meeting on your calendar (duh! You can do that with chatbots too!). Or, they can be like friends who can tell you dad jokes and source answers to your worldly queries when you are bored.

 

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Another thing that differentiates Siri and Alexa from their chatbot counterparts is that you can interact with them via speech—while folding your laundry or feeding your goldfish—without actually having to look at or touch their screen.

But do voice assistants pose a danger to chatbots’ future? I don’t want to be too quick to judge.

 

Chatbots rule the roost

Although the progress being made on both fronts are built on the same foundation, chatbots have an upper hand in terms of functionality, mostly for businesses. While Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant are caught in a nebulous smarter-than-thou turf war, chatbots are taking the business world by storm. Many new chatbots today also can take voice inputs from consumers, a capability that rivals the voice market and is helping chatbots expand their range of applications.

Granted, voice assistants are better at NLP and inferring the meaning of a logical string of words fed to them. Here is an example of how bots, apps, and IoTs understand language inputs:

How chatbots like LUIS process natural languages

Source: Language Understanding (LUIS), a Microsoft-owned cloud-based service that helps build natural languages for bots.

But the new design norms for building chatbots and their responses are sophisticated and extremely human-like. Many messenger bots, for example, are designed to understand typos, text-speak or shorthand, and urban pop culture references.

Take Microsoft’s Zo for example. Zo is a 22-year-old, quick-witted, and open-domain female chatbot with #friendgoals—in her own words.

Microsoft describes Zo as someone who:

“…hangs out on Kik and Facebook and is always interested in a casual conversation with her growing crowd of human friends. She can chime into a conversation with context-specific facts about things like celebrities, sports, or finance but she also has empathy, a sense of humor, and a healthy helping of sass…she can tell jokes, read your horoscope, challenge you to rhyming competitions, and much more…Zo’s “mind” is a sophisticated array of multiple machine learning (ML) techniques all working in sequence and in parallel to produce a unique, entertaining and, at times, amazingly human conversational experience.”

Here’s an example of my recent conversation with Zo on Messenger:

Chatbots like Zo 1  Chatbots like Zo 2

Chatbots like Zo 3

Chatbots like Zo, Hipmonk, and Mobile Monkey are highly conversational than voice assistants. Alexa and Siri might be better equipped at handling NLP, but it’s a constant battle for their owners to get around their “I’m sorry, I don’t have an answer for that” folly. Sometimes, they can take your commands to a hilarious, opposite direction:

Another great chatbots utility is that they are not just personal but private. Say, you are a female shopper trying to grab an online deal for a 50% discount offer on a Victoria’s Secret apparel you saw on your iPhone X while riding the subway home. Unless you are a badass diva with a devil-may-care attitude, you might feel socially awkward to put your order in spoken words amidst strangers.

But I bet you would be very relaxed to carry out the transaction with the help of a chatbot who comes to your rescue sensing the time you’ve spent on the product page without any action.

Unlike voice assistants, chatbots are omnipresent in our lives. You may have to buy an iPhone X to have Siri or get an Alexa or Google Home as a Christmas gift to experience the voice interaction, but chatbots are inescapable even if you are a minimalistic digital monk. They are active on various business channels such as websites, instant messaging platforms, and mobile apps. They are particularly very useful as the first point of contact for consumers trying to interact with a brand online.

Can you credit the same kind of ubiquity to voice assistants? Not so much. Even the pocket-friendly voice assistants like Siri and Cortana are more like genies who come to your aid only when summoned.

Marketers have many reasons to tune out voice assistants in favor of chatbots. For a start, chatbots are highly scalable. While you can only have Siri or Alexa to respond to one master at a time, a single chatbot can interact with ‘n’ number of people simultaneously. Chatbots are like minion clones present across multiple instances. They are also explicitly positioned as business touchpoints, unlike voice assistants that are alleged of snooping on their owners’ personal conversations.

So when makers of the voice assistants claim superior AI technology in their devices to help their product learn user preferences, customers are more concerned than comfortable. Whereas AI and ML in chatbots are welcomed because they don’t breach people’s privacy without their consent.

Chatbots have more possible applications than voice assistants because of their wide-ranging capabilities. For instance, many live chat vendors (including Freshchat) offer BYOB (bring your own bot) capabilities to business clients to allow them to build their own or hire third-party, highly interactive bots into their platforms. With many other significant progress being made in the field of chatbots, businesses have more things to look up in chatbots than be wary of.

Therefore, when business researchers project that the global market for chatbots is going to be valued at $ 2,166.28 million by 2024, I totally buy it.

 

Make your voice heard, but stay with the bots

Voice assistants and chatbots are horses for the courses and they are efficient in their own rightful territories. Chatbots are great at ushering customers and improving engagement with a brand while voice assistants allow users to accomplish tasks as a secondary, hands-free activity—like listening to audiobooks when they are taking shower.

From a business viewpoint, I think chatbots take the cake for being more practical in the long term. Yes, chatbots are yet to pass the Turing test yet and they might not beat voice assistants on all aspects. But I believe they have earned their stripes for being good concierges across the “conversational interfaces” because they are convenient, customizable, and multipotent. It makes more sense for businesses to invest in chatbots for streamlining their processes and improving customer experience while making their presence felt in the v-commerce arena.

So to customers who ask if we integrate with voice assistant—we say not just yet, because we have chatbots that offer greater possibilities than Alexa, Siri, and what have you.

Have you used AI-based virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa for your business? Do you have an interesting story about using chatbot for a business use case? We would love to hear your experience in the comments below.

Cover illustration by Karthikeyan Ganesh

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