Space age customer service: The rise of the virtual agent

20th May 2014

Imagine a customer service employee who never needs a break – let alone a day off – and can efficiently and intelligently respond to any manner of customer enquiry whether it's spoken, typed or texted. As a result, this super-agent can help drive down company costs and boost the customer experience. Sound like a front-runner for Employee of the Year, don’t they?

This machine of a customer service agent is, in fact, an actual machine – think Siri for the enterprise. Virtual agents are becoming ever-more popular (not only with companies but with customers, too), not to mention more intelligent and sophisticated. With Microsoft recently having unveiled its new virtual assistant, Cortana, and IBM’s super-computer Watson making continuous advancements, artificial intelligence has stormed the confines of science fiction and is making itself very much at home in the realms of reality.

The development of deep learning technology has played a huge part in this virtual surge. Deep learning is the capability of a machine to analyse data and recognise and respond accordingly to patterns within it. Sounds simple enough, but when this basic ability is scaled up it becomes clearer as to how it is beginning to close the gap between human and machine.

David Lloyd, CEO of virtual agent software provider, Intelliresponse, shed some more light on the subject for us, and explained how artificial intelligence and deep learning programmes are being used in 2014.

The role of the virtual agent

Lloyd suggests that the call for virtual agents comes primarily from the rising demands of the convenience-loving customer, along with the failure of many companies to keep up with them. “There is a big issue in customer satisfaction and customer service today,” he asserts. “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, out of hundreds of different responses, the right answer. So we’re putting all the effort on the customer, we’re not lowering the customer effort bar.”

Lloyd suggests that businesses gather information on the most important and popular questions their customers ask, and try to answer them using the current solutions they have in pace, in order to gauge the level of effort that is required from to resolve a common issue. “If they did that, then they’d realise how terrible the current experience is,” he says.

“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.”

Indeed, when it comes to customer effort, virtual agents can not only lower it but pretty much eliminate it altogether. Take Netflix’s recommendation system: it can determine individual tastes by learning what customers already watch, and recommend new content that it thinks they’ll also enjoy. So, as easy as it is browsing Netflix for content, the system in place means that even this is often unnecessary.

This concept goes far beyond leisurely contact streaming, however. “Intelliresponse is actually doing the same thing with our VOICES capability,” says Lloyd. “Imagine a scenario where you are interacting with an organisation through your mobile device and you’re asking a question about the setup of, say, your new satellite recording device. That question gets answered for you but, as you only just started using the device, you then have another question. But what if we knew, based on the first question and the intent of that question, the next two or three questions you were going to ask before you even asked them? How great would the experience be to be told ‘here is how you set up this aspect of your recording device, and by the way, you might want to think about this question and this question, because we’re pretty sure these are the things you’re going to run into and be thinking of next. You won’t have to come back and ask us again, because we’re going to help you up front to understand what you’re likely to run into’. From a customer engagement point of view, and customer satisfaction, that has incredible value for the organisation.”

So, if virtual agents are already exercising predictive skills, what else can we expect to see from them going forward? Well, if this technology wants to continue to meet the ever-growing requirements of the 21st-Century consumer, personalisation is the only way forward. “The intelligence level of virtual agents is going to be critical,” asserts Lloyd. “We [at Intelliresponse] see the growth from the nature of answering [generic] questions to answering questions that are much more personal.”

If you’re beginning to picture your future self in deep conversation with a virtual agony aunt, let us stop you there. “When I say personal, I’m not talking about necessarily helping me with aspects of my social life – although maybe that’s coming in the future,” says Lloyd. “Instead, I’m talking about a virtual agent which can help solve customer problems, knowing, for example, what accounts customers have with their bank.

“We can see this technology moving very rapidly over the next three to five years. And I think there will be a strong acceptance of having these virtual assistants that sit on my shoulder and help me accomplish the day-to-day things I need to get done is going to be something that becomes just a natural part of the way I live.”

The human touch

So, we could all have virtual BFFs before we know it. With limitless tempers, inexhaustible patience and a logical mind, they'd be great for conversation and advice. But is there nothing to be said for good old-fashioned human interaction? Over time, will customers’ frustrated demands to speak to an actual person while on the phone to an automated service die down until they’re eventually comfortable with computerised responses? 

“I think we all enjoy human interaction; we’re social animals and it’s a very important part of our existence,” says Lloyd. “I do believe, however, that there’s a right time and place for those personal interactions. We know statistically that customers prefer, especially in this day and age, 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.

“I think people will embrace virtual assistants just as they’re beginning to embrace more and more the use of voice-based interactions with their mobile devices and things of that nature. So I think we’re going to see [the use of virtual agents] growing. We know from the tens of millions of questions we answer at Intelliresponse that customers really enjoy those kinds of interactions, because perhaps it’s two in the morning, their baby’s finally asleep, and they’re trying to get something done. They can actually help themselves.

“But if you do have a circumstance that requires extra expertise, then you can engage. If your virtual assistant is intelligent enough, it can recognise that it’s not assisting the customer, or recognise that, based on the nature and intent of your question, it’s the right time to escalate you to a live agent. So if you’re asking questions and, based on the intent of the question, we know it’s something that’s better handled by an agent, then we can use that as an opportunity to intelligently escalate you.

“Let’s assume a customer’s bank account got hacked. The virtual assistant can help them understand what to do next, but I think that they, as a consumer, would feel that the next step would be to actually talk to an agent and work through what you can do to solve that problem because it’s a very complex problem with a lot of negative ramifications if it’s not handled correctly.”

The contact centre of the future

So, the robots aren’t completely taking over the contact centre – or the world, hopefully – as there’s always going to be a place for human interaction according to our expert. But, with human interface needed mostly just for special circumstances, the traditional contact centre will no doubt be transformed, developing a “higher purpose”. By this, Lloyd means that virtual agents will be able to elevate the contact centre to new levels of efficiency, by taking care of the lower-level issues and letting the non-computerised workforce focus on providing a more positive brand experience.

“It’s not about answering the rogue questions or the things that are part of general self-service,” he says. “It’s about being there as positive extension of the brand to really help in those times where talking to a [human] agent for complex problems is really critical to the customer’s success. And that’s where we want to see contact centres moving toward.

“That’s where contact centres want to be in the long run – solving those kinds of problems. That’s what cements brand loyalty. Those experiences are so galvanising that that’s where the biggest opportunity is. So it’s the realisation that there are many different channels the contact centre is not going away but the relationship that the contact centre has with the customer, and the nature of the problems that that contact centre will be called upon to solve is going to change over time. It should.”

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