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Will Alexa smart speakers replace traditional “brick” phones at work?
Based on exciting advances in smart speaker technology—especially from Amazon’s Alexa-enabled devices—the standard desk phone could go the way of the dinosaur.
However, there are many challenges for Amazon and third-party developers to address in order for devices like the Echo and Echo Dot to replace office phones outright. There are also signs that forward-thinking office phone manufacturers (and other hardware makers) are racing to add Alexa voice-enabled technology to their equipment in order to stay relevant and multi-purpose.
Either way, current trends point the way to exciting possibilities for “smart office” capabilities that will become available to all businesses—whether for just a few employees or thousands.
In another recent article we wrote (“How Smart Devices Will Impact The Workplace In 2019”), we referenced the tremendous growth in the use of Smart Speakers by consumers. A few of the key stats included:
Given the broad acceptance of Smart Speakers in homes, it’s only a matter of time before businesses also embrace Smart Speakers. And Amazon is leading the way for Smart Speakers in the workplace.
In the past year, Amazon has released several major offerings aimed at driving voice-enabled technologies in the workplace.
Amazon already has become the world’s largest provider of much of the Internet’s back-end infrastructure—or about 42% of the cloud market by revenue, according to research firm Forrester. Now it is out front in equipping companies for the so-called “Voice First” technological revolution.
In November 2017, Amazon announced their Alexa for Business initiative, to enable businesses and organizations to “bring Alexa into the workplace at scale. Alexa for Business not only brings Alexa into your workday to boost your productivity, but also provides tools and resources for organizations to set up and manage Alexa devices at scale, enable private skills, and enroll users.”
Alexa for Business is intriguing—especially given consumers’ acceptance and use of Alexa on a personal level.
Amazon touts many interesting types of features that can be developed as “private skills” for businesses, such as:
In fact, the possibilities for business-specific Alexa Skills are vast; there are already more than 40,000 publicly available Alexa Skills.
One of the key differences with Alexa for Business is that it gives companies the ability to deploy specialized, private skills.
However, as noted more below—Alexa for Business is not yet refined enough to truly “scale” easily and efficiently.
Amazon is also providing the most affordable, enterprise-level voice technologies to developers.
Amazon Connect launched in March 2017. In its announcement, Amazon said, “This new service from Amazon Web Services is based on the same contact center technology used by Amazon customer service associates around the world to power millions of customer conversations. Setting up a cloud-based contact center with Amazon Connect is as easy as a few clicks in the AWS Management Console, and agents can begin taking calls within minutes.”
While Amazon Connect is aimed at enterprise clients, there is the potential to bring these same advanced calling features to small businesses. However, the setup and implementation process is clunky now, along with practical, day-to-day use.
While Amazon’s major releases of Amazon Connect functionality and Alexa for Business are steps in the right direction, there are significant hurdles to overcome before either of these main offerings are truly viable to smaller businesses—particularly from the standpoint of using Amazon’s technology to make business phone calls.
Here are some of the current limitations of Alexa for Business and Amazon Connect:
The first and possibly greatest challenge is for an organization to decide how to set up users’ accounts for professional use of Alexa technologies—separate from their personal use.
From the broadest perspective, the overall Alexa for Business suite of offerings appears to be the best “fit” for most small businesses vs. Amazon Connect. After all, Connect was designed to serve more traditional “call center” environments. Below, we talk more specifically about the related challenges of assigning phone numbers to individual employees within Amazon Connect.
One key point to understand with Amazon in general is that each user must have an Amazon account. Clearly, it would not make sense for businesses to assume their employees would want to associate their personal Amazon account with any business usage of Amazon’s services—such as using an Alexa device to invoke skills. That means each person (i.e., employee) of a company should be asked to set up a separate Amazon account that represents their “business” profile.
Surprisingly, Amazon currently requires everyone invited to join their company’s Alexa for Business account to link it to their personal Amazon account (if they don’t have an Amazon account, they have to create one). This immediately will raise concerns about the potential for “crossed lines” between personal and professional use of Amazon devices and/or Alexa technology.
Amazon actually suggests in their FAQs that users’ connect their personal account to their Alexa for Business account. “We recommend they use the same account that they use at home so that they can access Alexa for Business capabilities whether they are at home, on the go, or at the office…this allows them to use their personal Alexa devices for work, at their desks or in their homes.”
Amazon notes that “users may choose to use any Amazon account they wish to enroll in your Alexa for Business organization.”
Practically speaking, it is tough to imagine most people being comfortable with attaching their personal Amazon account to a business’ account. Few people we talk to want to do this, despite Amazon’s reassurances that businesses will not have access to or control over anyone’s personal Amazon accounts.
Things get even more complicated when you start looking at the current Amazon apps for Alexa, which are intended for general consumer usage. There are far too many distractions and features to consider the primary Alexa apps as useful for work purposes.
Currently, it is also extremely difficult if next to impossible to switch between personal and “business” accounts—whether in the Alexa app or on physical Alexa devices. This probably is somewhat alleviated in the designation that businesses can make under Alexa for Business, in which certain devices can be set up as “Shared” devices (such as an Echo Dot in a conference room); however, it does not address the ability of an individual to switch between their “work” and “personal” profiles when using either the Alexa app or their own Alexa device.
It is also silly to expect that people will want to lug their physical Alexa devices between work and home—rather than using specific, company-issued devices that are intended to stay in the workplace and serve as “work-centric” devices. Companies also may want to ensure that only approved devices are used in the workplace, for security reasons.
The current Alexa for Business onboarding process instructs each individual user to download the Alexa app and sign in using their work email address. Right away, the employee will realize he/she has not been asked to set a password for their Alexa for Business account, which forces them to go through a password reset process before they can proceed with setup of their “business” account in the Alexa app. Many will abandon or postpone the setup process as a result.
The next critical setup step is asking the user, in the Alexa app, to associate a phone number with their new “business” account. Of course, one would assume that should be their business phone number—and not a personal number such as their mobile phone, which already may be associated with their personal Amazon account.
We believe strongly that the best approach is to streamline the onboarding process so users automatically are assigned a business account tied to their work phone number—skipping all set up steps except for perhaps setting their password. This also should be done independently of the Alexa app, within a more refined, focused application to use at work.
What if a business wants to use Amazon Connect as their “phone” service?
Presently, there is no way to associate users of Alexa for Business with users of Amazon Connect; they are entirely separate systems. In other words, a business would have to create new, standalone user accounts specifically for Amazon Connect.
There are additional challenges when creating Amazon Connect users (known as “Agents” from their Call Center lingo), assigning them phone numbers and equipping them to make and receive phone calls. We may dive into these deeper in a future article, but for now we’ll stay focused on Alexa for Business.
While the basic building blocks are there to enable expected “business phone” functionality, real-world implementation is still a work in progress. However, it will require third-party developers who are using Amazon’s back-end technologies—likely combined with other cloud technologies—to make this a reality.
For example, it is now possible to dial outbound calls using Alexa via the mobile app and Alexa devices. This functionality is fairly crude though, and only useful for one-to-one calls or to join a conference call.
Additional call functionality that is needed in both app- and physical device form includes:
Current “calling” features are limited now, particularly when using Alexa.
Amazon has said that it plans to add more typical features, such as call waiting, as well as the ability to transfer calls between devices, place calls on hold, leave voicemails and make a three-way calls.
Meanwhile, independent developers like OkClear are also developing separate applications that will make Amazon’s underlying technologies more viable as part of a robust, next-generation telephony solution for businesses. Other calling features could include providing enhanced caller information, approving or blocking unknown contacts, setting up call handling rules through Alexa commands and more.
Amazon Connect issues phone numbers only, which are not dual-purpose to allow for SMS messaging.
It makes much more sense to be able to associate a person’s Alexa for Business account with a business-specific number that can be called or texted.
Alexa for Business does allow for sending “Messages”—which are actually transcriptions of voice memos, or text passages that must be typed directly into the Alexa app.
Newer Alexa devices are able to “Drop In” on different devices—an exciting feature that harkens back to the old “intercom” idea for inter- or intra-office communication without the need for expensive, wired equipment.
Presently, however, the Drop In feature is spotty, often resulting in a person being “pinged” on all of their Alexa devices and connected apps simultaneously—including devices in different locations. That means you can try to call or drop in on someone “at work”—but suddenly their Alexa device(s) at home will start ringing, too!
It will be ideal to be able to separate personal vs. business devices and accounts, so there is no confusion about where messages are routed. Another useful feature will be the ability to create Groups for internal, business-related message broadcasts.
We already discussed some of the key limitations of the existing Alexa app—especially the issue of it being tied to one Amazon account at a time.
We think it makes much more sense for developers to extract the best calling and messaging features available from Amazon and build independent applications that are more relevant to specific use cases in the workplace.
Likewise, the current Web-based version of Alexa provides even more limited functionality; there is no way to use any of the voice-activated, calling or voice messaging features.
Rather than facing the possibility of replacement or outright “extinction,” some B2B-centric phone manufacturers are embracing voice-enabled functionality.
Polycom, for example, recently announced that its first “smart phone” for the conference room, the Polycom Trio, now offers Amazon Alexa features on the device—without the need to deploy additional hardware. This is encouraging news, as the Polycom Trio is the fastest selling conference phone in the company’s history, and is used by more than 57 percent of the Fortune 100 companies.
We are eager to see how things progress with smart speakers' usage in the office, as well as initiatives like Alexa for Business and Amazon Connect.