A few decades ago a voice-controlled personal assistant that lived inside speakers, Ford cars, Belkin home monitoring systems and Whirlpool washing machines would have been reserved for sci-fi movies.Today, this far-out innovation is a reality – ready to change the way you live and work.Say hello to audio technologies such as the Amazon Echo and Alexa – the tools creating a new world of brand experience through voice-powered apps.Simply put – the Echo is a speaker. But, with the integration of Alexa it becomes much more than something that just plays music. Alexa turns the humble speaker into a smart-home hub and Internet assistant, taking the tech world by storm with its capabilities. By saying the word “Alexa” and following it up with a command, Alexa (if it has the skill) will make it happen. You can browse the web, shop online, check the weather or order an Uber. All by using the power of voice.Is Amazon’s Alexa a fun gimmick or a real future for Australian businesses?“Alexa – can you purchase the Amazon Echo in Australia?”Technically the answer is no, the products haven’t been officially launched here just yet – but with Amazon retail opening a store in Melbourne next year, safe to say it won’t be long.While we’re still waiting for Alexa, we’re not completely without audio tech here in Australia. Apple’s Siri and the newly launched Google Home are giving us a slice of life with artificial intelligence and helping shift behaviour towards voice-powered AI. The question is, what can Alexa do that these systems can’t?Some say it’s just a matter of time before they’re all equal, but the Amazon Echo has had a real head start. With over 15,000 “skills” already available and tools for easy application creation, Alexa is dominating the market. Add to this the fact that Alexa is backed by Amazon’s huge global e-commerce platform and distribution network, and you can start to visualise the real potential for business via Alexa.Alexas got Skills, how do they work?Skills are essentially apps, allowing you to add features to your speaker, tailored to your needs. The Amazon Echo has two types of skills: pre-built skills and third-party skills.Pre-built skills allow Alexa to chuck on your favourite music, put a debate to bed with answers to general knowledge questions, and even make you a cup of tea (well boil the kettle anyway).But it’s the third-party skills available through the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) that are shaking up business and marketing. The ASK gives designers, developers and brands the capability to build skills and reach millions of customers. According to Amazon, the collection of self-service API’s, tools, documentation, and code samples make it quick and simple to add your skills to Alexa.Alexa as a platform for businessIs now the time for your business to develop a skill for Echo? It’s important to look at how many consumers you could actually reach with the platform.Is now the time for your business to develop a skill for Echo? It’s important to look at how many consumers you could actually reach with the platform.It proved tricky to find exact sales figures for the Echo, but what we could find is that the Echo Dot is the second-best-selling electronic device on Amazon. On Amazon’s ‘Prime Day’ sales event, the Echo Dot was slashed to $35 USD and was the single highest-selling item on the site.Out of the 70,000+ reviews on the original Echo, 68% of those are five stars, with only 5% of the reviews yielding one star. Reading customer’s words on the device, it would seem that overall – people love it. The major complaint is that the Echo isn’t portable, but that problem has been solved with the Dot and Tap models.So consumers love it, but how about businesses – let’s look at who’s already built skills for it.Uber has jumped on Alexa, making it even easier for customers to request a ride on command.Dominos and Pizza Hut understand that convenience is key for their customers. They’ve both built skills that allow you to get a pizza delivered without even having to pick up your phone.Spotify turns Alexa into your personal DJ. Simply ask Alexa to play a certain song, artist, playlist or genre to start streaming from your Spotify account, straight out your speaker.1-800 Flowers lets you order and send flowers on command. Once you’ve set up your payment info, contact list and address details, and preferred arrangement style, you can just say, “Alexa tell 1-800 Flowers to send flowers to Christine.”Netflix have made it possible to check the latest releases without turning on your TV and having to scroll through the interface.Hyundai, BMW, Ford, and Mercedes have skills that can be used with select newer models. Use Alexa to start the engine, unlock the door and set the temperature before you even step into the garage.BBC and other news platforms offer “flash briefings” that allow users to ask Alexa to read the latest news headlines.Starbucks gives their customers the option to reorder their usual so that their favourite hot coffee is ready and waiting for them at their standard store location – no queuing required.It’s clear these brands see value in offering voice-powered convenience to their customers. And I think that’s the key – if your skill’s going to work, it needs to be incredibly simple and above all else, convenient.Should you start developing your own skills for Alexa?With these new technologies revolutionizing customer service experience, naturally businesses will want to take advantage of it when it hits our shores. The average company can’t fund their own AI assistant, so Alexa seems like the perfect way to enter the future at an old-fashioned cost.The big issue though isn’t necessarily creating the skill, it’s getting your consumers to stick to it – with the average retention rate for an Alexa skill after a week at around 3%.Despite this, the hype around voice cannot be ignored. The technology is here, and the US has shown us that consumers are ready to incorporate voice-powered services into their daily lives. As more voice-powered devices emerge in Australia, I expect we’ll all start to shift our behaviour.The brands that figure out how to utilise the technology effectively first, will win. So whilst it might not be the right time to start developing your own skills for Alexa, all businesses should start to consider how AI and voice-powered devices could add convenience and improve their customers’ experience in the future – as “the future” is much closer than we think.Alexa, Google Home and Siri are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to voice-powered assistants. Competition is due to heat up in December when Apple launches their much-anticipated HomePod.Do you currently use Google Home or Siri? Do you see the value in voice-powered AI? Let us know in the comments below!