Whether they use it to do shopping and book taxis or just ask it random funny questions, it seems everyone has Amazon’s Alexa these days. Which is not far off the mark. In the US alone, nearly 50 million people have access to a smart speaker with Alexa devices, making up nearly 50% of sales.
It’s no wonder then that Amazon would want to spread its success into the world of business where smart speakers, or digital assistants, are already catching on quickly. A quarter of large businesses and 16% of small businesses already use such devices. Figures that are set to rise to 40% and 30% respectively in 2019, according to Spiceworks.
Hence the release last year of Amazon’s Alexa for Business, the digital assistant that can help you navigate your way through an average day at the office with less stress and more productivity, or that’s the idea.
What does it do and how does it work?
There are two ways you and your employees will probably interact with Alexa at work – one as a shared device that multiple people can interact with in shared spaces, the other as a personal assistant sitting on someone’s desk.
The first application is ideal for managing meetings and controlling shared spaces. You could kick off a video conference with just an audio command, for example, instantly turning on and connecting all the software involved, as well as physical devices like lights and hardware, thus saving valuable minutes of faffing. It can also be used to control physical parameters of shared spaces such as lighting and heating and can be used to navigate office spaces, locate meeting rooms and even report faulty equipment.
For small businesses the second function is likely the most common, acting as a virtual personal assistant to help you and your employees complete tasks with increased efficiency and productivity. You can use it to manage to-do lists, check calendars, set reminders and schedule meetings.
Much of Alexa for Businesses’ enduring appeal will come from its ‘skills’ – the voice equivalent of apps. Alexa already has over 50,000 skills worldwide according to Amazon and many of these are targeted for business. Such skills include the Astrobot which reads out emails from Gmail or Office365 and lets users manage their inboxes and folders and the Voice Metrics skill which reads out business data and KPIs.
You can further tailor Alexa for Business by creating your own ‘custom’ skills such as creating a database of terms specific to your business, or even creating daily or weekly briefs that are sent to your employees.
One neat aspect is that employees can link their personal Alexa devices at home for a small fee ($3/month – approx. £2.50) and integrate all the skills from their work and home devices. This means you and your colleagues can do important things like rescheduling meetings before leaving home in the morning.
How Much Does it Cost?
What makes Alexa for Business so accessible for small businesses is the pricing structure. Done on a pay-as-you-go basis, you pay $7 (approx. £5.50) a month for each shared device and $3 (approx. £2.50) a month for each enrolled user. This means if you had three staff using it as a personal assistant plus one shared device for a meeting room, you would pay just $16 (approx. £13) a month for the service.
This doesn’t, however, include the cost of the devices themselves which have to be bought separately. So in the above example, you’d be looking at another £100-£200 for the devices themselves, depending on which kind you bought. Amazon has a list of Alexa-enabled devices on its site, the most well-known being the Amazon Echo.
Are There Any Negatives?
Security and privacy are ongoing issues with smart speakers in the home and this could be magnified in business. Take the recent embarrassing case where Alexa recorded a couple’s private conversation and sent it randomly to one of their contacts. Imagine if that was a highly sensitive business conversation that was sent to a rival firm. Not good.
Also, you need to understand that all the data Alexa records will be sent to Amazon’s cloud where it will be converted into text and stored. If you’re not happy having potentially sensitive business information kept in this way, or you work in an industry where privacy is tightly regulated, it might not be the system for you.
So, is it Worth Getting?
Like most things, it depends on your needs. If you have a lot of meetings and tele or video conferences where valuable time is wasted fiddling with technology or organising and finding the right meeting room, then it could be a valuable efficiency tool. Likewise, if you feel that you and your staff would benefit from a personal assistant to improve productivity, perhaps because managing emails or calendars has become a serious time drain, then again it could be worth a try.
My personal feeling is, that while it is undoubtedly a nifty gadget, it doesn’t do quite enough at present to justify the extra expense. Which is not to say it won’t in the future. This is just the beginning for digital assistants. The trends speak for themselves – smart speaker technology is the future and will only grow better and more useful. New skills are being added all the time and next year perhaps, they will be indispensable to your business.
So at the moment, it’s a case of watch this space rather than rushing out to buy a device that might just sit on your desk doing nothing except answering silly questions about what it had for breakfast.