Anyone who has gotten a new smartphone over the past few years may have experimented with one of the virtual assistants that allows you to simply ask for information out loud and get a response. Not having to type saves time and avoids wearing out your thumbs.

More recently, many households have started investing in “smart speakers” that allow consumers to do everything from turning on the lights or adjusting the thermostat to looking up recipes and buying products and services online. At work, there are similar technologies to look up records or even book boardrooms. What’s not to love about the convenience such tools offer?

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) may not be using these tools directly, but as voice becomes an interface for a variety of applications, it offers some object lessons in what makes for a great customer experience. Making it easier to get what they want is an obvious one, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Take a moment and think of yourself as an ethnographer, studying the habits and behaviours of people using voice commands in the way you might try to learn what works and what doesn’t in the more traditional channels that an SMB leans on to serve customers every day. Even if they’re new to voice-activated technologies, what can we take as a given so far?

They Don’t Want To Shout

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that,” is the response some virtual assistants give users, even when they’re holding their smartphones a few inches from their face. It can be a source of frustration when you have to ask or make a command more than once, or slow down and enunciate in a way that feels artificial.

The same applies to customer service operations in an SMB. When they have questions or problems, customers want to be able to connect right away -- and to the best source of expertise. Service Cloud accomplishes this through intelligent routing, along with the ability to connect via email, social media and other channels in addition to phone calls.

They Want The Right Answers . . .

Because smart speakers and virtual assistants are connected to the Internet, consumers naturally believe that they should be able to find what they’re looking for by scouring the web. When computers get the details wrong, they’re likely to give up and start going back to hunting and pecking on their phones or laptops on a search engine themselves.

Whether it’s a customer support agent or a sales rep, SMBs need to make sure their team is providing accurate, up to date information no matter what customers and prospects are looking for. That’s the beauty of tools like Service Cloud and CRM such as Sales Cloud, which allow everyone in the organization to continually contribute to the knowledge base. That way, team members can easily access order histories, past interactions and key purchasing processes, among other things.

. . . And They Want Them Quick

How long is anyone willing to wait for a virtual assistant, smart speaker or other voice-activated technology to respond? A minute? Less than 10 seconds? Even though this is a relatively new user interface, it’s surprising how fast we expect the tools to perform.

Now think of your customers. What happens when you tell them you’ll have to go back and look through a set of spreadsheets that have been buried in a desktop folder somewhere? Do you even want to admit you recorded sales or service information on a sticky note that got placed on someone’s monitor? CRM and similar applications are the best way for SMBs to respond to their customers at the pace they demand.

They Want To Steer The Conversation

Can you imagine if a virtual assistant on your smartphone or a smart speaker in your home started nagging you to look up things or buy things? “Hey, want a pizza? How about now?” Just think of how quickly many people would shut their devices off rather than be hounded.

SMBs need to be equally considerate in how they make offers and pursue other forms of communication with their customers. Marketing automation like Marketing Cloud can helps by tracking what kind of content customers and prospects like. They also nurture them with follow up materials that are based on real interest rather than a shot in the dark, and use a wide range of channels to communicate. When customers are ready to talk more directly with the sales team, a strong marketing team is then ready to facilitate an introduction by passing on the leads.

They Want To Be Recognized

Voice technologies may be gaining traction because they come closer to the more natural dialogue human beings have with one another. It may also be because the technology tends to remember and even anticipate what users will want.

SMBs may not be able to read minds, but using artificial intelligence tools such as Einstein, they’ll be able to look at patterns and trends among their customers to stay one step ahead of what they are likely to want or ask for in the future.

If you really think about it, voice is the oldest “technology” there is from a communications perspective. It’s how great relationships are formed, are nurtured and sustained over time. Voice-activated assistants and smart speakers may soon become almost as successful in managing those relationships, but it’s always a good idea for SMBs to remember how customers want to be treated.

It doesn’t matter if they’re standing in front of you, talking on the phone or through some other channel. With a combination of respect, expertise and quick action, SMBs have the ability to establish and evolve some of the best customer relationships imaginable.