Their names include Sara, Alison, Olivia and Mo, and they are the smiling self-service persona of some of the world’s biggest brands. Dubbed “virtual agents”, they sit on websites 24×7, inviting the customer to “ask a question”.

Best-practice virtual agent technology actually interprets the intent of a customer’s question, using natural language processing, so it’s very different to entering a keyword or two in a search bar. A classic example is a passenger who types in “left i-Phone onboard” – a virtual agent will instantly interpret this as a lost property query and direct the customer appropriately, whereas the words “left”, “iPhone” and “onboard” would not elicit the right outcome using a traditional keyword search.

In other words, virtual agents allow the customer to express their query in their own words and get an answer, without being constrained by whether those words appear on the company’s website. This enables the user to find answers faster, correlating to lower customer effort and higher customer satisfaction.

Virtual agents can also be deployed on mobile devices and Facebook pages, as well as on messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger and WeChat, presenting a unified omni-channel self-service brand.

Features to look for

Virtual agent software can be integrated with individual account information to provide personalised self-service, but not all vendors offer technology with this capability, so this is one of the first screening points when looking at solutions on the market.  Other features indicative of a best-in-class virtual agent platform are:

  • Flexible options to integrate with the systems and software important to your business, such as live chat, voice technology, databases, CRM systems, forums and communities, site search, call back, single sign-on, ticketing systems, and contact centre management software
  • Able to deploy virtual agent across contact channels (web, mobile, social, contact centre, SMS, instant messaging platforms, IVR) and give channel-specific answers (such as shorter answer on mobile device) from a single knowledgebase
  • Backed by a powerful knowledge management system
  • Real-time, actionable reporting that combines voice of the customer feedback with conversational and predictive analytics
  • Options for hosting on-premise or in the cloud
  • A solution that uses a hybrid of human curation of content and self-learning to adapt and ‘learn’ in a predictable way so you can be absolutely sure the virtual agent is providing correct, reliable responses

Advantages to using Virtual Agent software

Virtual agent technology is an exciting development for companies looking to get a unique look into customer behaviour and interactions.  Unlike focus groups or surveys, which often involve paying or incentivising customers to provide feedback, virtual agent technology offers an unbiased, unadulterated voice of the customer. Where focus groups might incorporate the opinions of tens or hundreds of customers, virtual agent automated reporting reflects the opinions of tens or hundreds of thousands.  Moreover, insights are available in real-time, so there is no need to wait for an analyst to manually extract, compile, interpret and distribute unstructured customer feedback – virtual agent technology instantly categorises themes and trends to accelerate decision-making. These themes can be clicked on for drill-down insights, for example, why are so many customers mentioning a particular competitor? Or why are phrases which indicate installation difficulty with a new product appearing at such scale? These are opportunities which leaders can immediately action to improve product and service offerings.

The ROI on Virtual Agents

As with any successful self-service channel, there is a huge benefit in reduction of calls, emails and chat sessions initiated to the contact centre. By implementing virtual agent software guaranteed to be 95% accurate, clients are seeing contact deflection rates of up to 80%, with the average being 20-30%. When used in the contact centre to support live agents, these solutions are also proven to decrease average handling times by up to 40% as well as drastically reduce training times for new agents.

The Return on Investment (ROI) for virtual agent implementations is typically less than 12 months. In addition to improving customer satisfaction, virtual agents can also be used to generate revenue. One major telco company reports saving US$18M per year and generating US$2M in sales with their virtual agent. 

Today’s customers are increasingly going mobile and digital and demanding effortless interactions with companies. With the right virtual agent or chatbot technology, organisations can offer personalised self-service options that improve customer satisfaction, increase sales and build brand loyalty while also reducing support costs – a win-win for companies and their customers.

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