We’ve all got wallets full of plastic, but voice commerce is growing in popularity, allowing us to make purchases, check our balances, and pay our credit card bills all with a simple vocal command. As more companies offer their services through Alexa-equipped devices such as Amazon Echo – and other voice and home assistants – you may need to be careful about what you say as you walk around your house. The founder of Voice XP, Bob Stolzberg, talks about the future of voice commerce and how it will affect your life. He also gives us a demo of how it works.
So, let’s get Charged Up! about a hot technology that will make purchasing easier than ever before.
Jenny Hoff: Bob, thank you so much for joining us today. Let’s talk first a little bit about your background in your company, and then what is voice commerce, because it’s something that we hear more and more of every day when we have all this technology out there that we can correspond with to make purchases. But talk a little bit about what voice commerce is.
Bob Stolzberg: Absolutely. Well, Jenny, thank you so much for having us on the podcast. It’s so exciting to share this information with the people and the consumers out there, to hopefully help them have a better experience and make it easier to manage their money. I’ve been in the IT industry for over 20 years. I recently left corporate America to start this company, VoiceXP. We are pioneering voice experiences with some of the largest brands in the world. A little bit about our company. I’d love to give you the elevator pitch, but let me show you what we’ve done for others because it really is the best way to communicate it. Check this out. “Alexa, start Shark Tank.”
Alexa: Welcome to the Shark Tank Skill. Get ready for our new season starting on October 1st. For a list of command, please say “help.” How can I help you?
Stolzberg: “Alexa, what’s the VoiceXP elevator pitch?”
Alexa: Trusted by global brands and the only one-stop shop offering the complete voice experience. VoiceXP is the highest-rated managed software as a service provider for enterprise grade internal and external Alexa skills. To learn more, please say, “Alexa, tell me about VoiceXP.” Is there anything else I can help you with?
Stolzberg: So what we do is basically create Alexa skills and Google actions and provide a managed service for global businesses and brands so that they can focus on their core business and we’re helping them get their messaging and marketing and content and better experiences through this voice technology for their customers. One good way to think of it is like a website. But instead of looking at a screen and typing on a keyboard, those user interfaces to get this information, you’re asking Alexa or Google for it. And VoiceXP creates these conversations. We host them and maintain them.
Hoff: Fantastic. And so let’s talk a little bit now about the development of voice commerce, specifically. About how it’s changing our spending habits. How it could change our spending habits. How it changes our relationships with our banks, with our credit cards. Let’s talk a little about what are the developments already happening and where can we see this go?
Stolzberg: Well, we saw a huge spike in voice commerce this year. In fact, Amazon’s Prime Day was the perfect example of that, where there are over 3.3 million Amazon devices sold on that day. We saw Amazon roll out voice ordering and it really hit a large scale on this last Prime Day. So people could do things and say like, “Alexa, order me an HDMI cable,” and it will add it to their Amazon shopping cart, ship it through Prime, do everything in automated fashion. So you can literally say, “I want to order that HDMI cable or diapers or dog food” – whatever – and it will literally show up on your door within that free two-day shipping window that Amazon Prime gives you.
Why this is so important and has such a big impact is because this technology is so complex now that it makes it super simple to transact and to have a marketplace in commerce. So you can literally just ask for the things that you want to buy or interact with software using your voice to manage your money instead of a traditional way of looking it up in your checkbook. You used to have to keep a ledger and a balance, then online banking happened and people are still using their website, and then you saw integrations with your banking software. And then mobile came out, so you could just do all your banking from the comfort of your mobile phone.
Well, now it’s going to get even better. You can still control your banking and get all the information just by using your voice.
Hoff: What’s an example of that? Somebody wanting to check their credit card or check their balance?
Stolzberg: Sure. There are, right now, at least two credit card companies, more on the way that have an Alexa Skill that allow you to interact with your banks and your credit cards. Let me give you an example. “Alexa, start American Express.”
Alexa: Welcome to American Express. To get started, please say the four-digit PIN you’ve set up when enabling the skill. Great. You’re all set. You can say things like “check my account balance, make a payment, or get MX offers.” What would you like to do?
Stolzberg: “Check my account balance.”
Alexa: Your remaining statement balance for your MX Everyday card is $2,083.68, and your total balance is $2,115.19. What would you like to do next?
Alexa: Here are some things you can say: “Check my balance, make a payment, get MX offers, check recent charges, when is my payment due.” Would you like to hear more?
Stolzberg: No, thank you.
Alexa: What would you like to do next?
Stolzberg: Exit. It’s that simple.
Hoff: Yes, that is very simple. And so could you use this for let’s say somebody just frequently forgets to pay their credit card on time or they really want to automate it so that Alexa is there to remind them to pay their card on time? Is there a way or will there be a way soon in the future where Apple will tell you through Alexa you’ve already hit your budget for this month on groceries or you’ve hit your budget for this month on entertainment? Do you see that happening?
Stolzberg: Absolutely in the future. I think the more technology integrations that we have with this, the more those features will be rolled out. Let me give you another example of how easy it is to simply set a reminder to pay a bill. What I’m about to show you is nothing new. You can do this on your phone but this is just an easier way to do it. “Alexa, set a reminder to pay my American Express bill on October 1st.”
Alexa: What time October 1st should I remind you?
Stolzberg: 9:00 a.m.
Alexa: OK. I’ll remind you October 1st at 9:00 a.m.
Stolzberg: And that was my screen because it chose me to pay my American Express bill. I can also do something like this, “Alexa, what are my reminders?”
Alexa: Here are your reminders. On October 1st at 9 a.m., pay my American Express bill. On September 1st at 9 —
Stolzberg: That’s pretty cool, huh?
Hoff: Yes. Absolutely. That’s really cool. I think that is one of those positive things that will come out of, well, it’s easier to shop more. It’s easier than ever to shop, even easier than one-click purchases on Amazon. Now you can also set that almost as a secretary or an assistant to remind you to do things that if we forget can end up costing a lot of money. In that vein though, there’s always security concerns when technology is introduced, that changes how you access financial information. What are the security issues with using these devices to access your bank information, and are there protections like voice recognition in place?
Stolzberg: That’s a great question. The security is always evolving and improving from the different providers and platforms that are out there.
For example, Google with its Google Assistant offering – so you think of Alexa as Amazon and Google Assistant belonging to Google, as Alexa runs on Amazon devices like an Echo Dot or an Echo Show, Google Assistant runs on devices like a Google Home or an Android phone. So security with both of these companies and the others is top of mind, both from a platform level, meaning this is what the providers and the people who make the technology are building in to keep it secure. But there is also the application layer of the security which is banks like American Express and Capital One are building in.
So, for example, when I started by American Express Skill, it asked me for a four-digit PIN that I had to set up. Now, to enable that functionality right, I had to go into an app on my phone, the Alexa application, and I had to interact with American Express to create that PIN. It took me two minutes or less to sign up on their site as an existing customer with a credit card to go, “Yes, I want to check that stuff through Alexa.” I want to set a PIN so that it knows when I tie my account, I have to be able to tell it or enter that PIN to interact, right?
Stolzberg: So that’s a really basic way, just having a PIN where I’ll use that. We see other security mechanisms that are even stronger being implemented. For example, if I were to ask Alexa for my statement and I wanted it to be really, really secure, I could have it send a message to my cellphone, via email, or a text message that has a multifactor code. Not just four-number digits. Like letters and numbers mixed up so it’s really secure. Or it could be a link that I click and once I click that link, it really authenticates me. It knows that message was sent straight to my cellphone, straight to my authorized email. I’m the only one that got it. So when I click that link or tell it the code, it’s going to authorize me.
Like we saw in the American Express example, “Yes, you’re validated. You’re cool. I’m going to give you the information. I’ll let you interact with the software.”
So again, we see basic security mechanisms coming out with just PIN numbers. We see more advanced methods with alpha-numeric and things tied to personal devices. But ultimately, I’m sure you’ve heard this before, it’s buyer beware. This is new technology. It hasn’t been tested tried and true like interacting over the telephone with your bank. We always learn of new exploits or problems with online banking. We should expect the same type of things to happen with voice commerce as well.
So, if you’re a really paranoid person and you’re worried about whether someone can get into my bank account, the risk is low, but it’s absolutely possible. If that’s something that you’re not comfortable with, stick to the checkbook.
Hoff: I wonder about voice recognition developing more because I know we just saw Apple releasing their iPhone X and how they’re going to use face recognition to be able to log in to that iPhone. Do you think that the voice recognition will get sophisticated enough that that would be enough to authenticate who the person is? So ease of convenience but also including that security?
Stolzberg: Well, there are top minds working on that right now. Google has the capability to identify multiple voices from people. So if you’ve got a family of four in your house, it knows that was little Johnny and Suzie and mom and dad or whatever your situation is. They can tell who people are, individuals. Amazon only has the capability right now to detect one voice. So it could be anybody asking for that stuff.
Now, I’ve been around for a little bit, so I stick to the movie “Sneakers,” where your voice is your passport and for the attackers to break into the top-secret mob lab, they had to daisy-chain all these voice recordings on a tape recorder, to play it back to the computer to verify that it was that person. So, can we circumvent voice authorization using a recording? Yes. That’s absolutely possible. That’s why we have to have other security mechanisms in place to send something to your phone, your email or something that’s personally identifiable to you.
But if you’re OK with just a basic PIN code, that’s OK. That’s still secure.
So Jenny, yes, they are absolutely working to make this a more personalized experience. And the only way they can do that is through a voice recognition but the technology — I mean there are APIs and automation out there that can get to us in 90 percent of a person’s accent. So you can come up with a bunch of Elvis recordings, feed it into the computer, and then type some text, and the computer is going to speak it just like Elvis would because it understands how to shape the audio waves essentially to sound like Elvis. So just voice recognition being worked on, it’s key. It’s absolutely part of security but there’s also some risks and weaknesses in that technology, too.
Hoff: Yeah. Absolutely. Let’s talk about how this could change our spending habits. It’s still early on but are there any numbers out there as far as people changing their habits. Are they purchasing more if they’re using this technology? Are they more aware of their spending since they’re saying it aloud and they’re hearing back the purchase they want to make? Is there any data yet that’s been collected on how this could possibly change our spending habits? Because I’ll say definitely, that Amazon one-click has changed my spending habits. It’s just too easy for me to buy something the minute it comes to my mind.
Stolzberg: I think that the retailers who are early enough to have adopted and implemented this technology are keeping the numbers extremely close to their chest, but it can’t be denied that it’s happening. Amazon is selling a lot of these things. They’re promoting their stuff, just as Google is doing. With Google transactions coming up, people would be able to buy through these platforms.
right now, there’s just a limited set of people that have commerce. With Pizza Hut, you can order a pizza through these devices, but all of that is through payments on their backend. Naturally, Pizza Hut doesn’t want to share their numbers because how would those numbers stack up to what Domino’s is doing, you know?
Stolzberg: So the reality is it’s early. People are guarding these numbers, but there’s no doubt there is heavy use occurring.
Hoff: Yes. What about privacy issues that could arise? I think some people worry that everything you say is being recorded or monitored with these kinds of devices in your house. What are the privacy issues that we should think about or measures that might be in place to prevent that?
Stolzberg: Great question. I have the mute button on at all times. It is hardwired into all of these devices; that when the mute button is on, it is not recording. The way these things work is that it’s always listening for a wake word, for you to say its name. Just like if you’re a puppy dog, you’re waiting for the master to say, “Hey go do that.” If the mute is on, it can’t hear anything. It’s not listening. But if you say that, the wake word, like “Alexa,” it is absolutely recording what you say for a certain amount of time.
Yes, that’s a risk, but it’s also a really good thing, because, for example, the brands that VoiceXP works with, they want that data. Not so they can snoop on you. They don’t care what you’re doing. They want to know how can we improve our experience and our skill or action. They want to make their voice app better and they want to hear how you’re interacting with this.
So it is fundamentally a security risk. These things do record what you say on the Amazon platform. You can go into the Alexa app and listen to what people have engaged on your device. Personally, I like that because I have little kids and they talk to Alexa all the time, and I want to know what they are saying, and I can actually hear them make that voice request. Can that record some confidential or sensitive information? Sure, it could, but it won’t if you have the mute button on.
Hoff: I’m curious how this is going to develop because I could see this really being helpful especially, let’s say, in an emergency. If you’ve fallen and you can’t get to your phone or you need help or you need 911, do you think it’s going to be integrated then with emergency services at some point where just, in general, in a house if somebody is in a situation where they need police to come, and they don’t have access to a phone. Do you see that all being integrated?
Stolzberg: Yes. It’s already starting to happen, where 911 services are being tied in to voice capability callings. Like with the Google Home, I can say, “OK. Google, call 911,” and it will make an outbound phone call to that or any other number.
The actual services will be coming and rolling out, but it’s still early. There’s a liability issue with those. But Jenny, this technology can help so many people. Not just people with mobile disabilities. I don’t want to say elderly people because there’s a lot of young people that aren’t mobile, that have some sort of disability. The same with people who have visual impairment. We’re working with the Missouri Council of the Blind to really have a positive impact with people that are blind or have visual impairment so that they can do some basic stuff that normally would be really difficult or they had to read with Braille.
So again, now the technology is so complex that it’s simple enough to just ask. For example, how do you get more information on events? How do you get an Uber to come pick you up? What if you want to schedule an appointment to go do something? For somebody with a visual impairment, that might be difficult to do, but it’s natural for all of us to use our voice as an interface to control and do stuff. It’s a technology that’s going to be helping a lot of people out there.
Hoff: And as far as banking goes, do you see a lot of banks or probably all banks, at some point, are going to be linked up to these things so that you can easily make transactions, pay your bills, check your balance, basically deal with your bank the way you do online but over one of these devices. Do you see that developing and how do you see that developing?
Stolzberg: Yes. We’re working with a couple of banks that are wanting to try out concepts, put their toes in the water. It is moving the same way that banks adopted mobile technology. Yes, they will have to be there because this is where the consumer shift is going. This is where their customers are. This is what they’re going to be asking for.
They’re already asking for it. It’s just easier. So I foresee in the next two years a lot of the banks – I don’t want to say all of them, since they’re going to have to adopt to this technology the same way that they did with online banking through a PC or tablet. The same way they had to roll out a mobile application. And they need to get started on this now, because the speed at which this technology, this voice tech is being adopted is unheard of. I mean Amazon sold 3.3 million of these devices on one day. This is going to be the hottest holiday present this year. So if your bank, if your brand, is not online on these platforms when everybody plugs in on December 26, you’re going to be playing catch-up in 2018.
Hoff: Well, I’m curious how long these devices are actually going to be relevant. Because I feel like with your phone, when you see this iPhone X and what it’s capable of, at some point, won’t it all just be integrated into one device where you can make the orders and do everything and not need to have a separate device in your house and in your car and all of that? What do you see?
Stolzberg: I got out of corporate America and started this company in January because my children were playing with Alexa for half an hour a day. There’s a new generation that is growing up with voice-first technology. Yes, it will be integrated with mobile so that you can have the same experience on your mobile device as you would with a voice device like an Echo or a Google Home, but this voice tech will dwarf mobile. And I say that because everyone has one mobile phone. But as this voice technology grows, people are going to have multiple devices in their house. We’re already seeing it in the kitchen, in the living room, in the bedroom, in the bathroom because I like to listen to music while I take a shower. You will have multiple devices in your house, and it’s going to shrink the mobile market share because it’s just easier to ask for something without having to use your hands.
The iPhone X looks sexy, but you know what? Apple is going to miss the boat because they’re doing more swipe, less voice. That’s the problem. There is no button on the new iPhone. It’s all done with the use your thumb. Why do that when you can do everything with your voice? “Alexa, open this up. Alexa, do that.” Or “Siri, do this.” I think Apple is really missing the mark with their Siri innovation. They’re going to have to play big time catch-up. But when Amazon has these little devices for $20 apiece and we see major brands and technology companies giving them away, that is what will cause a full tilt.
So just think of it, how many of you guys have Time Warner, Comcast, AT&T, Century Link, Charter, or any of the telco cable companies out there? They’re all going to give these devices away because that way, they have a piece of technology in that customer’s household that is relevant, that gets used, that fits into the internet, that allows them to interact with their products and services in a more convenient way, a better experience on demand. Everybody is going to have these in their houses. Voice is going to be built into cars.
So you’ve got to shift your offerings and your habit to use this stuff and consumers will. Because like I showed you, it’s just easier to ask than to unlock my phone, type some stuff in, and use my thumbs, right?
Stolzberg: I don’t even have to look at the screen to do a banking transaction.
Hoff: Yes. Absolutely. Well, obviously, there’s a lot still going on with this. We have yet to see how banks and how credit cards and how financial institutions are going to develop this relationships with this technology so that we can do things easier than ever and hopefully a lot of good will come out of it where you can remember to do your banking on time and maybe even get financial advice in the future. But what gets you charged up about voice technology and the potential it has to impact our lives?
Stolzberg: I have got to tell you, this is the biggest shift in technology and human habit in our lifetime. People don’t understand how big it is going to be yet. For example, 50 percent of all internet searches will be via voice or screenless devices by 2020. I think everybody in the voice industry is putting a stake in the ground on the 2020 date because this thing is moving so fast and hard, like a tsunami, that nobody can look past that horizon. I can tell you what is past that horizon is the voice and virtual reality integration. But for now, it’s the Wild West. Banks are integrating their APIs with these custom applications that VoiceXP creates to make it a better experience for their consumers and customers.
Hoff: Fantastic. Bob, thank you so much. This was a great conversation, very interesting. I loved the demo so we can see how it actually works. I don’t own one of these devices, so it was great to hear how you can interact with it. And I think it’s exciting technology that a lot of us will probably either directly will be involved with or will be watching and getting ready to get involved with. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Stolzberg: Our pleasure, Jenny. Thank you and your listeners so much. And if they have any questions, we would love to share our knowledge and have a conversation with them. Check us out at VoiceXP.com. Thank you, again.
Hoff: Thank you.