GEICO, the diversified insurance company owned by Berkshire Hathaway, has teamed with Nuance Communications to offer its own mobile, personal virtual assistant (PVA) branded as Lily. The company hasn’t made the sort of marketing splash that it made when it introduced its mobile app with a media blitz starring Maxwell the Pig yelling “wee wee wee” in the backseat of a family station wagon, but that is because management feels like it doesn’t have to; if they do it well, mobile customers will naturally use it.
In a press release issued when the app was updated in the Apple App Store, GEICO cited the fact that, even prior to the formal introduction of a conversational element to the service, 40% (“two out of five”) of the people with the app “use voice technology on their mobile devices today.”
GEICO’s experience is not an aberration. A survey conducted by OnlineDegress.com about a year ago showed that nearly 9 out of ten iPhone 4s owners used Siri at least once a month. More than one out of four used it daily to check email. Only 35% said that they would never use Siri. In short, they were on a mission of discovery and, for something like 40% of users had found the Siri-enabled functions that they were ready to use regularly. More importantly, more than half of the respondents said that having a Siri-like feature would be “critical” in terms of choosing their next smartphone.
Speech Skeptics are bound to express doubts about wanting to talk to a machine while seeking roadside assistance. Their hesitation is based on bad past experience with earlier speech recognition systems, perhaps in noisy environments. Critics also tend to treat “virtual assistants” as the ugly stepchildren of speech enabled “personae” – meaning machines programmed to have a certain “attitude” that many users found grating or annoying.
Indeed, the claim from Pete Meoli, GEICO’s director of mobile and digital design, that Lily would have “a lively personality to allow our mobile customers to connect with her at a deeper level” will give some prospective users a cause for pause. But that’s not the point. Lily – as the natural interface to the GEICO mobile app – will have the ability to support interactions at a “deeper level.” She’ll be location aware, she’ll have account history at her fingertips and, on top of all that, she’ll benefit form fairly accurate speech recognition and a corpus of candidates for “next best action” distilled from voluminous amounts of GEICO’s historical interactions.
As often as I’ve called my automobile insurance provider and spent the obligatory 5 minutes making selections from a series of voice menus, or sitting on hold waiting to talk to the one person who specializes in my particularly problem, I know that interacting with an cool, calm, collected automated assistant would be a welcome, positive change. It just takes some getting used to.
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