EXPERT ADVICE

Time for a Virtual Agent Reality Check?

For decades, companies have leveraged technology with the twin goals of reducing the cost of customer support while improving its quality and dependability. This is reflected in the significant investments many organizations have made in providing information, products and services through self-service channels.

These twin goals are achievable, but there are numerous examples of one or both being sacrificed along the way. From a business perspective, countless organizations have seen their customer support costs spiral of control — despite their best efforts to contain them. From the customer’s viewpoint, product and support information are made available online, but the customer is often left alone to navigate through vast, complex Web sites for answers.

In today’s global economy, the situation is further complicated. Many organizations conduct business in multiple languages — and must work to provide the same high level of support regardless of the language a customer speaks.

Customers who can’t find the information they need online will likely either call a customer service representative, which costs an organization additional time and money to maintain, or will locate the product, service or information they need elsewhere — perhaps from a competitor.

In 2009, the weak economy and increased customer demand mean that organizations are more focused than ever on cost containment, high-quality service and capturing greater market share. Enter the virtual customer service representative — technology that’s redefining communication between customers and companies across multiple service channels.

The strategic and economic benefits of interactive self-service done right provide exceptional value for both an organization’s bottom line and the overall satisfaction of its customers. A virtual agent offers a true give-and-take interaction, often enabling superior service since it consistently provides correct answers in a company’s brand voice and tone, and can communicate in the customer’s own language.

Who’s Using Virtual Agents

Today’s consumer demands self-service connectivity that keeps in step with the fast-paced, “anytime, anyplace” paradigm currently shaping the technological landscape. The dynamic nature of customer demand requires accurate answers and consistent resolutions in every interaction.

Organizations like Alaska Airlines, Continental Airlines, IKEA, the U.S. Army, and Verizon Wireless have all turned to real-time virtual agent support for interactive self-service to meet both user and business demands, and to provide better customer service.

“Anna,” IKEA’s virtual agent, has been helping visitors to the IKEA Web site since 2004. Anna speaks 10 languages, answers customer questions, and guides users through IKEA’s Web site by serving relevant content. Anna has also been incorporated into computer kiosks at some IKEA stores, so shoppers can opt to seek advice from Anna instead of a retail associate on site.

Alaska Airlines implemented its virtual travel assistant, “Jenn,” on its Web site in early 2008. Since that time, Jenn has answered over 4 million questions — nearly 6,000 per day. Jenn’s efficiency in deflecting calls from the call centers allowed Alaska Airlines to remove its online “live chat” function from its Web site only eight months after Jenn’s deployment.

Any User, Any Question, Any Language, Any Channel

Instead of answering your customers with FAQs that may not fit their questions or frustrating them with a search function that yields hundreds of possible results, a virtual agent offers a personalized experience. An effective virtual agent has the ability to answer questions regardless of the channel used — Web, voice, mobile devices and more — depending on what the customer prefers.

Through advances in automated translation technology using statistical algorithms, virtual agents are now able to accurately understand and interpret a customer’s questions and return meaningful, accurate results in the customer’s own language.

A virtual agent should be able to effectively communicate with all of your customers, whether they speak English, Spanish, Chinese or Arabic. Beyond the practical value of improving communications by smashing the language barrier, translation introduces an additional level of personalization that encourages customer loyalty and boosts your brand around the world.

Operational Cost Savings

A successful virtual agent implementation on your Web site for customer self-service should reduce the number of high-volume, low-value calls received by answering all tier 1 and tier 2 questions. The ability to fully resolve a majority of the inquiries that usually bog down a call center and lead to outsourcing creates an exponential cost savings.

The same holds true for an implementation within a call center. Virtual agents can bridge the gap between customer support representatives and the answers they need, reducing hold time, search time, and call escalations while increasing service resolutions.

Businesses and organizations are constantly looking for ways to better engage and communicate with their customers and target audiences. A virtual agent makes it possible for everyone to interact with your organization’s best sales or support representative — someone with all the right answers, and whose words and tone really reflect your organization’s identity.

The ideal way most organizations would like to communicate with customers would be through its “best” sales or support staff. Virtual agent technology makes it easier to emulate those team members because you are in control of provided responses.

The technology never strays from your messaging or brand, always has the most current and accurate information, speaks your customer’s language, and is at work 24/7. Virtual agents offer organizations a more efficient, higher-quality way of engaging with customers around the world, in any language. They keep customers informed, satisfied, and coming back for more.


Charles Wooters, Ph.D. is chief technical officer of Next IT, a provider of human emulation software that accurately understands and interprets natural language questions and delivers exact results across multiple service channels such as the Web, contact center, intranet and mobile devices. Daniel Marcu, Ph.D., is chief technology officer and chief operating officer of Language Weaver, a provider of automated language translation solutions designed to deliver volume, speed and accuracy to ensure effective communications.


1 Comment

  • Charles and Daniel provide a great overview/intro to a business discussion on the use of virtual web agents. And the conversation needs to be had as the financial benefits can be large. I touch upon those benefits a bit in my blog, http://20×6.sl.pt.

    What’s key as well, with virtual agents, is the ability to keep customers engage with the web environment while they seek help – especially when a company can additionally passed a support instance over to a live web agent.

    Thanks for the article.

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