Alexa, how can I build consumer trust in virtual assistants?

Rufus Grig, CTO at Maintel

Virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Home seem to have dominated the tech headlines over the last few years, with new functionalities and skillsets announced on a frequent basis. Amazon, for instance, announced in August that it had made Alexa easier to understand by allowing users to ask the voice assistant to slow its speech down. 

But does the business world see virtual assistants as an avenue to enhance the customer experience? More importantly, are customers even willing to use this technology to undertake personal activities such as banking? 

When virtual assistants were first introduced to the world, the technology was dismissed in some quarters as a fad or not suitable for use on an enterprise scale. It was suggested people would be happy to ask their virtual assistant to play a song, set an alarm, or check the weather but would not be willing to complete more complex or sensitive tasks.

As the popularity of these devices has grown, though, businesses have begun to explore their potential. NatWest is trialling voice banking via Google Home, the NHS is collaborating with Amazon to provide health information through Alexa, while in the UAE the bank Emirates NBD is using Alexa to allow customers to check transaction history and bank balances.  

However, whether consumers are ready to undertake such tasks via these smart devices is a different question altogether. Research by Maintel recently unveiled that many businesses see the possibilities offered by virtual assistants, but they still have many obstacles to overcome as far as consumer opinions are concerned; the biggest issue being trust. 


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Consumers are either uncomfortable with the amount of data that service providers collect on them, or don’t trust them to keep their data safe or use it properly. Data anxieties are also reflected in what customers are willing – or unwilling – to use virtual assistants for. Almost half (48 per cent) would be uncomfortable using these channels to buy a product from a retailer, and 63 per cent would be afraid to use a virtual assistant to buy from an insurer or to submit an insurance claim. Another two-thirds (66 per cent) would hesitate to use one to transfer money between bank accounts. 

These stats will be a major concern for any brand looking to unveil services using these virtual assistants, particularly those operating in sectors that handle more sensitive data, such as retail, finance, or healthcare.  

Despite this consumer concern, it’s reassuring to know that businesses appear to recognise the issues they face. More than a third (36 per cent) think that the biggest barrier to consumer adoption is security fears, a quarter think consumer trust is the largest hurdle, and 22 per cent believe that privacy concerns are the most important factor. 

If these issues are not met head-on, however, it is unlikely there will be widespread consumer adoption any time soon. Despite this technology being in its infancy, companies will need to improve security, introduce additional verification methods, and make it clear to customers exactly how their data will be collected, stored, and used. 

Essentially, they need to build trust in the capability and security of virtual assistants. So, what are some of the practical steps companies can take to build this trust?  

Currently, this technology is potentially open to hackers due to vulnerabilities such as biometric spoofing, where attackers use physical identifiers, including voice or fingerprints, to impersonate their victims. As the technology matures, it’s likely these potential breaches can be prevented. However, it will take time for developers to iron out of these issues. In the short-to-medium-term, companies must take action to assure customers that security is very much a priority. 

Businesses may consider implementing an extra layer of verification to the process. For example, if a customer begins an interaction using a virtual assistant embedded in a mobile app, they could be sent a text message with a unique code to confirm their identity. Of course, one of the major benefits of virtual channels is their speed of resolution – customers interact with the services in real-time, without needing to wait in a queue to speak with another human – so businesses need to carefully balance the number of authentication methods they deploy to maintain the greater speed and convenience of the customer experience. 

Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, many consumers are also highly dubious of companies collecting data. To assuage these fears, businesses need to make it abundantly clear to consumers what data they will be collecting via virtual assistants, how this data will be kept secure, and, perhaps most importantly, what this data will be used for. This can certainly be relayed to the consumer via a message through a virtual assistant, but it should also be displayed via FAQs on the company website and details sent directly to the consumer by email or text. 

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