Alexa, Amazon's artificial intelligence-powered, voice-activated digital assistant gives you control over your business via a series of appealing speakers, such as the Echo and its variations (the Dot, Echo Plus, Echo Spot, Echo Show and Echo Look). But you don't need to buy an Echo or even an Amazon product to use Alexa – that's because some 68 percent of smart speakers sold in the U.S. in 2017 are Alexa-compatible. Plus, this year Acer, Asus and HP have all revealed plans to build Alexa into their Windows 10 laptops, offering direct competition to Microsoft's own AI, Cortana.
Just say "Alexa" (or "Amazon," "Echo," or "Computer") and the Echo cylinder lights up, ready to assist you with anything from playing music and getting current weather and traffic conditions to reminding you about your 2:00 p.m. meeting. But the most versatile use of Alexa comes from its voice-driven, customizable skills, which are analogous to smartphone apps. Skills empower Alexa's cloud-based, voice-driven talents. [Read related story: AI Faceoff: Siri vs. Cortana vs. Google Assistant vs. Alexa]
Amazon encourages developers to use its Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), an assortment of APIs, tools, documentation, and code, to broaden and customize Alexa's voice and graphical capabilities. You can add Alexa skills to your smart speaker, view available skills and enable or disable them using your Alexa app or a web browser. Below are 10 handy skills that can help you run your business more productively.
You can't see them and you can't touch them, but some of your most important documents are stored in the cloud. And if there's a problem, you want to know about it, pronto. DrCloud checks on the health status of major cloud providers such as Heroku, Google Cloud and Digital Ocean. It lets you know which services are having problems. The skill promises that AWS and Microsoft Azure support is on the way.
Work Time Tracker
It's a contractor's nightmare – billing per hour by project as you multitask all day long. The Work Time Tracker skill tracks your time – start and stop – for all your projects in real time, so you see exactly where the time went and what to bill each client. Ask for the total time, and the app will deliver the sum of all tracked work units. You can also reset all tracked work units.
Meet Sofia (aka your Bank Helper). Sofia is a financial artificial intelligence expert who can give you the lowdown on a range of financial products – without your having to consult Google. She also answers general questions about the best places to shop for savings accounts and CDs, with research derived from such trusted sources as the FDIC, CFPB Research, Consumer Reports and other independent references.
Small business folk are not generally considered big-time globetrotters, but they're not always stuck behind their desks either. For your business-related auto travel, consider the Smart Trip skill that acts as a guide for planning road trips. You can check the distance, drive time and fuel costs between any two U.S. cities, and Smart Trip helps you determine whether to use public transportation. You can also ask Smart Trip where you are – if you're lost, you can find out the postal code and current city and state.
Astrobot helps you manage Gmail or Outlook email by telling you how many new priority emails have flowed into your inbox. It can read, reply and manage emails via voice commands. By asking Alexa to read only emails from the priority inbox, you'll avoid having email newsletters read to you. You can also ask Alexa to read you only your starred emails, or non-priority inbox items. You can say a short phrase from the list of quick replies to send quick updates – "running late," "sounds good" or "on my way" – and Astrobot will confirm the response and send an email. You can also command it to snooze, delete, archive, star, next and repeat emails.
Google Calendar is cool, but it can be a pain to enter all those appointments and reminders. The Quick Events skill can help. Using your voice, you can add events to your primary Google Calendar, check for conflicting events and get confirmation before adding them to your calendar. It supports all-day and multiday events. Just tell Alexa to "launch quick events" and provide the necessary information. If you don't offer enough specifics, Alexa will request them.
Small business folk are, by nature, can-do people. But no one can do everything, especially when it comes to specialized services and repairs. Intently.co has more than one million plumbers, handymen, cleaners, cosmetic surgeons, caterers, language teachers, photographers, limo companies, venues for hire and wedding services. Just state the service you need and your location, and the skill promptly connects you with qualified providers.
Sometimes you want to shop somewhere other than Amazon. And who doesn't like a good deal? The ShopSavvy app for Alexa lets you say things such as "Alexa, ask ShopSavvy if copy paper is on sale at Best Buy," or "Alexa, ask ShopSavvy if Dell laptops are on sale at Walmart." The ShopSavvy app contains reviews, price comparisons and deals. Note: ShopSavvy is owned by BusinessNewsDaily's parent company, Purch.
Gmail and Google users, this is for you. Notion provides a secure environment that lets you zero in on the most important messages, clean your inbox and find out more about a sender. As you go through your list, you can read, respond, archive, delete or snooze messages. The skill detects critical messages and pulls out questions in your emails you can then respond to. Notion can clear out your inbox by cycling through less-important emails. It can even outline links between senders, clarifying how you know someone. The entire system is secured with a PIN, plus you can lock your inbox so no one else can access your email but you.
If you're tracking your company's website performance with Google Analytics, the Web Analytics skill is ready to be your new best friend. It syncs with Google Analytics to give you up-to-the-minute web traffic and visitor stats. The skill also lets you focus queries to pinpoint metrics, such as average session duration, pages per visit, visitors, sessions and bounce rate. Queries can target current or past metrics.