The era of smart assistants is here, and the race for dominance is on: By mid-December, Consumer Intelligence Research Partners was able to report that Amazon's Echo was leading the pack, with 20 million units shipped, selling more than three times its nearest competitor, Google Home.
Even Apple had entered the fray with its HomePod, a product that includes a Samsung smart speaker utilizing Bixby -- a smart helper mobile app -- that further diversifies the marketplace.
With the increasing number of smart assistants and their use in our world, they likely won't stay put on our night tables and bookshelves for long. Soon, they'll be incorporated into businesses as well, and the makers of these devices are well aware of that possibility. This past fall, in fact, Alexa for Business was announced at Amazon’s re:Invent 2017 conference.
In addition to conference-calling, Alexa for Business touts calendar checking, meeting scheduling, a to-do list and reminder management plus the ability to fetch business-relevant information from Salesforce, Concur, Splunk and others.
With the use of smart assistants for business already under way, those entrepreneurs and small enterprises that take proactive steps in this direction now will be the ones best able to optimize the tech possibilities of the future.
Smart assistants and the office of the future
The biggest benefits smart assistants and other AI technologies provide at this stage is their ability to cultuvate consumer familiarity. While there are a number of rudimentary tasks that Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri can do, consumer interaction with a computer via voice or conversation is perhaps the most important development.
Certainly, today's devices pale in comparison to images sci-fi films present, but teven with those devices' relative lack of intelligence, people are beginning to trust technology. When the technology gets something wrong, for instance, a user might actually find that endearing -- even feeling a hint of empathy with the device.
Yet, as the technology continues to evolve, however, this human empathy will likely evolve into more of an expectation. Already, AI is disrupting customer service, through chatbots and automated customer service representatives. In this way, AI has made it easier for people to communicate with technology on concerns like software-as-a-service customer support, product returns and even e-commerce websites.
Such "solutions," though, are only ancillary to the ways that smart assistants will eventually benefit businesses. More directly -- and in the future -- Google Home or Alexa in the office could be helping to set up your conference calls, search for missing items, coordinate meetings or inform people about what's happening around the office.
So, what can entrepreneurs and small businesses do now to prepare for this next step?
1. Pick and play, but don't overdo that digital assistant.
Pick your device, and place it where it can be used by your teams on a regular basis, such as a conference room. Then, without overthinking the integration process too much, start using it.
For instance, begin by placing phone calls. If the service you're already using can be dialed via a telephone number, calling will work fine. Keep in mind, though, that while you can connect an Amazon Echo or Google Home to your computer as a Bluetooth speaker, you'll be unable to use it as a Bluetooth microphone -- a drawback for companies with voice internet protocol setups that use Google Hangouts or UberConference.
Still, a voice-activated device shouldn't and can't be used for every task, so don't consider it the panacea of your problems. Focus on where it can add the most value to your business and your teams, and hone that capability rather than try to make every process tech-savvy.
2. Crank things up a notch by training your devices --and your staff.
While an impressive 42 percent of smartphone users claimed in a survey to use the AI-based personal assistant features of their mobile devices, in the grand scheme of technology, these products are still fairly new to our culture.
Using a digital assistant at this point requires some mental retraining. In fact, to get the most out of your new gadgets, you'll probably want to train the gadgets as well (and products like the Alexa Skills Kit are great for that).
Staff training is also necessary because these machines are capable of a lot. Know, though, that it will take some time to understand which features work well and which are still wanting. For example, if you want to add events to calendars, the ability to do so via voice profiles is spotty, at best. Google can do this somewhat better than Alexa, but HomePod remains relatively untested, given its recent arrival in the market.
Instead, you might find it easier to create a shared calendar that everyone in proximity can access and add to. This way, during meetings, you can simply ask the device to add events or to-do items that can be transferred later. As time progresses, these systems will become smarter and more capable, so the more you understand their usage scope now, the better you'll be able to scale that usage in the future.
3. Always be looking to tomorrow.
While today's technologies are only the beginning, they aren't just glorified encyclopedias. Some AI platforms such as Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple's Siri and IBM Watson can already (and successfully) supplant a human personal assistant. They can intelligently order food, call a cab, make dinner or travel reservations, provide investing analysis, coordinate social events and more.
Take Fin, built by the eponymous startup, as an example. Fin combines AI with human support to work more accurately and efficiently than a stand-alone digital assistant. But while it might work better, its enhancements and convenience come with a hefty price tag. Eventually, Fin's distinctiveness might also be overshadowed by the behemoth tech companies as their offerings become smarter and cheaper.
To make sure you're always looking ahead, consider how your business could leverage these capabilities today, to either streamline your workday or to add flash to your customer-facing operation; also consider what all that might look like in the next month or year. When clients observe work getting done dynamically and effectively through a smart assistant, they may develop a stronger strong image of your business as forward-thinking.
While a new era of these devices is here and each smart assistant platform can already do amazing things, each is also frustratingly stupid. But with the barrier of entry being pretty low -- particularly for the Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo Dot -- getting started now is easy.
Adoption today is less about the convenience this technology offers and more about participating in a bleeding-edge technology.
After all, this is technology that can be honed through your contributions even as you train your team to be comfortable with these devices' abilities and potential for bolstering your business's capabilities. Clearly, not seizing this opportunity today will only mean that you'll be one more day behind tomorrow.