Is the phone call a thing of the past?

This vision of the future isn’t as distant as we may think. The need for remote communication is greater than ever and the technology we use is evolving at a rapid pace. Skype, WhatsApp Voice and even business-grade systems that incorporate messaging and conference functions are just the start.

The days of Person A calling Person B on a traditional phone, via a standard phone number – and just hoping Person B will answer – are limited. New call formats are becoming possible, including apps that announce both the caller’s name and why they are calling. Some have a whisper mode, where a three-way call is set up, but one person is excluded from a leg of the conversation. A sales director listening in might tell a rookie agent to close the deal – now! – without the customer hearing. A future whisperer might even be an AI, prompting humans to ask particular questions next, based on machine-learning models of behaviour and successful calls.

This means more flexibility in the way voice applications are designed. Different elements of a traditional call can be deconstructed – timing, identity, signalling, and purpose – then built up again in novel ways. We will see more use of voice-processing as well – perhaps for recording, analytics or even real-time translation between languages or dialects.

Automated assistance

Another trend is for application-embedded voice. This eliminates the need for the user to dial a number separately, or flip between the app and the keypad on a mobile phone. We see the start of this already with sales applications such as ZenDesk, which provides cloud-based customer-support and contact centres, and Salesforce, one of the largest cloud-based sale automation platforms. Both use tight integration with various voice-calling systems, as well as messaging and other interaction channels. Increasingly we will also see it more generally. Voice calls or conferences (or speech recognition) will be seamlessly designed into a flowing user experience.

An inventory-management app might automatically set up calls between warehouse and delivery driver. A travel-industry tool could see what the customer was doing before requesting assistance: “I see you were trying to change seats on your flight to Boston – can I assist you?”

This will also mirror changing working patterns. Much of the new gig economy is heavily software-driven – and needs integrated communications. Part-time customer-support agents may work from home (remaining ‘fully mobile’ thanks to their smartphone). They will increasingly need ways to blend status dashboards with voice or video functions.

e will also experience more voice communications that are not tied to a phone – as we know it. While we’re already used to walkie-talkies or intercom systems, the future is going to be more diverse as companies adopt Internet of Things solutions with communications capabilities.

This might include a ‘speak to an engineer’ button on a malfunctioning coffee machine. Augmented-reality (AR) headsets in industrial facilities might have a distant expert watching a video feed, putting a virtual pointer into a technician’s vision, with the spoken instruction to “tighten this bolt”. And we may find business versions of virtual assistants, such as Amazon Alexa or Google Now, built into anything from the heating controls to the meeting-room whiteboard.

A common theme here is the use of cloud-based communications. Many of the most useful voice-related functions will be provided by third parties. Various so-called cPaaS (communications platform-as-a-service) providers already cater to developers wanting to voice-enable their applications.

These developments will refresh and revitalise the use of voice communication – taking it from clunky one-dimensional phone calls to a much broader set of applications, experiences and business models. Companies will need to communicate with their employees and customers on their terms and with their preferred tools. At one level, it may mean an end to unsolicited voice spam. Conversely, it may also make sales and support functions more effective, as well as internal company processes. 

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