Why Integrators Still Love Voice-Control for Smart Homes, Despite Flaws

Does the idea of deploying and supporting voice control with Amazon Echo or Google Home make you cringe? Set the right expectations with clients and you can avoid the headache altogether.


Whatever your feelings about Amazon Echo and Google Home, there's no denying that 2016 is the year of voice control. That was pretty much the thesis of a panel on disruptive technologies at the CE Pro Summit in Atlanta.

It's not that the technology itself is all that life altering, but “voice provides a platform for discussion with clients,” says AudioVisions' Terence Murray. 

You may feel that the voice control platforms on the market are too DIY or even that they pose a threat to the CE industry, but Murray, along with fellow panelists Dave Pedigo of CEDIA, Bryan Gorog of BCG Concepts, Patrick Hagerman of cyberMANOR and moderator David Rodarte of Changing Velocity, are definitely seeing the bright side. 

Especially as voice gets more congested — Pedigo said he would put money on the possibility that Apple will join Amazon and Google sooner than later, and then there's Josh.ai — consumers are going to be confused about what voice control platform to use, or if they even need one at all. 

Turns out, this confusion is a good thing. It's your opportunity to step in and be the home technology expert that solidifies your place in this changing industry. Plus, these little machines currently selling for $129 (Google Home) and $179 (Amazon Echo) will get you in the door. 

“We get to ride the coattails of some very big marketing budgets bringing awareness to home automation,” says Hagerman. “Echo is an enabling technology that gets us into the home. We’re selling the beginning of a platform. Look at the model of Tesla. It’s built upon over time, and it continues to get better and do more.”

Throughout the discussion, the panel discussed five possible barriers to voice control adoption, and how to talk to clients about each one.

1. “Why do I need this?”

Hagerman of cyberMANOR got the chance to work with Amazon to deploy the Echo in large celebrity homes on a beta-test basis. One of the homes belongs to Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis.

In the beginning Kunis was the naysayer, explains Hagerman. But before long, “the naysayer is more often than not the one who ends up driving the push to do more.”

Hagerman found that people who were originally disinterested or even against the idea of home control become enticed by the little things that become much easier to do with the help of voice. Eventually people will say, “I need this,” and even better, “What else can you do?”

Pedigo illustrated this with a story of his 75-year-old father.

“I took an Echo and put it in his room. He used to have to use a flashlight to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Now, he just says, 'Alexa turn the lights on 50 percent.' When I needed to take it back, he said 'Fine.' An hour later he called me back and said 'I can't live without it.'”

Have a conversation with your clients about voice. Leave them with an Amazon Echo or Google Home for a few weeks. If they like it, tell them, “There's more we can do.”

2. “It won't be secure.”

We all heard about the DDoS attack that took place a few weeks ago. Chances are, clients did too. Maybe it deterred a few, but this could be your opportunity to talk about your value proposition. 

“The secure network is going to be a selling opportunity going forward,” says Pedigo. 

Clients can buy these voice control platforms online, but integrators bring the network. You can make sure these devices don't go offline, and if they do, your client has someone they can call to get it working again.

“It's really all about password security,” says Gorog. “There's no amount of network security that you can put together if you have bad passwords.”

Gorog uses LastPass, a free network management system to create, manage and change all his clients’ passwords on a regular basis. 

This is an area of expertise that you can provide clients who might not know to change passwords from 'admin' and other ways of properly securing their devices. 

3. “There are too many different commands.”

“I know [the products] in my house,” says Hagerman. “But we have to tell Alexa to turn the Lutron lights on, then the General Electric stove, then the Rachio sprinkler system.”

If clients try to buy the system outright, integration will be tricky. A professional will know which systems work with a more simple command; instead of being required to name the third-party manufacturer, you can say “Alexa, turn the kitchen lights on.”

“Right now [for a lot of products] you still have to use these brand names,” says Hagerman. “That will change. It’s almost a deal killer.”

4. “It's always listening.”

This is a tricky one. Many consumers are worried about the always-on microphones. It's even worrying some security experts

For this barrier to entry, it might just depend on the voice control platform you suggest to your customers.

“Alexa doesn’t pass any data until it hears the wake word,” says Pedigo. “But Google Home is always passing data.”

Later in the discussion, Pedigo followed up. “It's going to come down to which of the big three technology companies you and your clients trust: Apple, Amazon or Google.”

Use this as a jumping off point to talk about the different platforms. Maybe your clients have only heard rumors and don't really know the different between what Amazon or Google or Josh.ai — don't forget about that one — are programmed to do in terms of privacy.

5. “So I just buy it and plug it in, right?”

If you suggest voice control and this is the first sentence out of a client's mouth, you have more work to do.

“We're in a sensitive period right now where it's incredibly important that we set expectations correctly,” says Hagerman. “If you don't set expectations correctly, you stand to disappoint the client rather than wow them.”

Amazon is running TV commercials, adds Hagerman. “If clients start thinking, all I have to do is plug it in and then my house will run just like in the TV commercial, they'll be disappointed.”

With new technology, expectations are everything. 

“Look at the iPhone. When we first sold touchpanels, people would try to swipe to open,” says Murray of the swipe option at the bottom of an iPhone or iPad that opens the lock screen. “How often do you swear at Siri? I know I do. The same thing is going to happen with Alexa when it does not enable the command.”

It's your job to make voice work for your clients, and integrators need to be transparent about how much really goes into that. There's a lot in play behind the voice commant, says Hagerman. This is an additive thing. It's just one of the layers. You have your network layer, subsystem layers, control layer and voice layer.

“All those other systems have to work,” he says. “If the voice doesn’t work, the lights should still turn on.”

That isn't something to leave out of discussions with your clients. Talk to them about the infrastructure, control, integration and support that voice needs and how you'll be there every step of the way to make sure it works perfectly.

“We go to our existing clients with Alexa and tell them that it is a $200 device, but it is going to cost them $600 for us to come in and tailor it to their home,” adds Gorog.

And in the meantime, learn as much as you can.

“You have to go get one of these things,” says Hagerman. “You have to know it inside and out. Amazon, Google, Josh.ai. Start playing with it. Learn what its strengths are, learn what its weaknesses are.”

Don't forget, you're selling the beginning of a platform.

Next year it will be doing far more,” says Pedigo. “And we're the right people to roll it out.”

Start Here: Google Home, Assistant, Nest, Cast Present One Unified Smart Home Ecosystem