From Microsoft’s paper clips and dogs in the 90s, to today’s advanced artificial intelligence with natural language processing and ties into knowledge management systems - virtual assistants have certainly come a long way in a relatively short time.
Indeed, the presence of these virtual agents on company websites, helping customers to resolve their queries, is becoming increasingly commonplace. Microsoft itself recently unveiled its own new virtual assistant, Cortana, in what is a significant leap forward from Clippit, while the likes of BT, Telstra and Best Buy are all utilising these self-service agents.
And Gartner has predicted that by 2015, as much as 50% of online customer self-service search activities will be done via these virtual agents, with the number of organisations adding this capability is growing by 20% per year, especially in travel, consumer goods, telecommunications and banking.
The foundation for this growth has been the maturing of the technology required to analyse data and recognise and respond accordingly to patterns within it. This has meant that, unlike traditional search, virtual agent applications can encourage users to engage with them using natural language rather than keywords, allowing visitors to provide all kinds of information in any order. It can then parse and analyse this information before delivering an answer (or asking the user for more detail about what they actually meant, if it isn’t sure).
In more sophisticated systems, the virtual agent will not only deliver an answer or number of possible answers, but will pre-empt additional queries by also providing a list of questions and answers that are related to the original question.
“Virtual agents themselves can’t be considered a channel, but they can be integrated within existing methods of communication – the most obvious ones being a website FAQ page or chat,” notes Aphrodite Brinsmead, senior analyst for customer engagement at Ovum. "On a website, search boxes are traditionally used to find information and virtual agents can be used to intelligently predict what the customer wants and push the most useful knowledge articles to the top of the search. The virtual agent will then provide guided questions that will help the customer find what they want more quickly.
“And with web chat, the idea is to try to replicate the way a human would respond to simple questions. It can’t be used for everything, but in instances where a support request can easily be handled with automation rather than needing personal advice – such as resetting a forgotten password - it can work well.”
Gartner research suggests that organisations are reporting a range of benefits from virtual assistant deployment, from profound cost savings via a reduction in service costs, to increased customer loyalty.
But customers are also beneficiaries, due to an improved service experience. And there is also the pure entertainment of having a robotic presence on a website, which can prove surprisingly popular. As Michael Maoz, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Research, explains: “People can really empathise with it. I have a client in France, and when their virtual assistant – Ann Marie – went down for servicing, within a day they had 6,000 posts to the company asking when she would be back!”
But customers also benefit because it can potentially streamline the service process. In the event that the virtual agent is not confident that it has delivered the correct answer, the system can be set up to escalate the user’s query to a live agent, who can access the session history. This not only improves the chances of a successful resolution but also ensures the customer doesn’t need to repeat himself.
This both eliminates the number one customer frustration in multichannel service (needing to restate an issue as they navigate from one channel to the next), and also has a positive influence on the uptake of live chat. For example, SE Communications has reported a 10% increase in customer satisfaction for a live chat if the conversation is front-ended by a virtual agent, as well as an overall 15% reduction in live chat agent handling time. And there are other benefits.
“Using virtual agents can do a number of things,” says Maoz. “First of all, it might answer the question outright. Second it passes the context to a human if it can’t resolve it, and that shortens the time of answer. But the third thing it does, that may be just as valuable, is it begins to surface the questions that your clients have about you that you haven’t solved with your search engine or knowledge base. And so it helps you then create that new set of knowledge for the customers. So it is very good for the hygiene of your knowledge management system or to understand your customers’ wants or needs.”
These last points are a good reminder of why it’s important that the virtual assistant does not operate in a silo. If there is no escalation to an agent via chat or phone, it can create frustration. And if the user information isn’t used to update the wider knowledge set, it is harder to keep the knowledge fresh and relevant, leading to a drop in success and more customer frustration.
David Lloyd, CEO of Intelliresponse, explains: “Customers expect to be able to self-serve. However, because of the way that most organisations in the UK, in Europe and in North America are tackling the problem, they’re not actually making it easy for the customer to do business with them; they’re not dropping the customer effort in the self-service engagement capability. Today, every single web environment uses search, asking the customers to self-select the right answer out of hundreds of different responses. So we’re putting all the effort on the customer, we’re not lowering the customer effort bar.”
Lloyd emphasises the importance of gathering information on the most important and popular questions their customers ask on an ongoing basis, to ensure they can answer them, gauging the level of effort that is required to resolve a common issue.
“We believe that the virtual agent needs to lower the customer effort; it needs to be a guide for the customer to get them through the transactions or leaning they’re trying to accomplish, whenever, wherever and however they want to do it.”
The design and integration of the virtual agent is also highly important.
“You shouldn’t force customers to use automated services and prevent them from speaking to an agent,” emphasises Brinsmead. “Virtual agent tools should make the experience better for the customer rather than creating another layer of complexity. The goal is to provide a front-end that makes it easier to handle certain requests but if a customer needs further information, there should be an option to reach a live agent and carry on the conversation. So you have to think carefully about design and customer usability.”
Indeed, businesses are being encouraged to take a holistic view and to see virtual agents as another important component in the wider service ecosystem, where businesses offer a variety of different touchpoints, appropriate for any number of different service scenarios.
Lloyd explains: “I think we all enjoy human interaction; we’re social animals and it’s a very important part of our existence. I do believe, however, that there’s a right time and place for those personal interactions. We know statistically that customers prefer to self-serve. We’ve all become very comfortable with self-service and we believe that virtual agents’ ability to help customers solve their problems while they are self-serving is very powerful.
“More and more accountability for the management of services such as banking and mobile are now sitting with the customer. When you can have an intelligent agent actually helping you manage that service more and more, it just creates less friction and it makes it easier to do business with a company. And even if it’s something that’s better handled by a live agent, it can intelligently escalate the customer. So the virtual agent can become a gateway to the organisation.”
He concludes: “People will embrace virtual assistants just as they’re beginning to embrace the use of voice-based interactions with their mobile devices and things of that nature. We’re going to see the use of virtual agents growing.”
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.