CRM: Robo Reps
Online consumers are demanding more sophisticated self- service support options. To that end, companies such as eBay and H&R Block are looking to improve service accessibility and provide the best possible customer experience value by turning to intelligent virtual agent solutions.
Intelligent virtual agents are programs designed to respond quickly and consistently to online customer service needs and interactively guide customers through a personalized conversation. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP) allow virtual agents to interact with customers in a natural conversational style, interpret requests, and then respond appropriately. This customer experience is provided, typically, at one-tenth the cost of traditional human-serviced channels, which makes virtual agent technology a viable option for customer support and service.
Virtual agents are relatively new in online customer support. However, a July 2010 report from Gartner, "Key Considerations for Virtual Assistant Selection," stated that virtual agents provide a competitive advantage to companies that deploy them, and predicted they would be the standard technology for customer interactions in three to five years. A 2009 Forrester Research report also concluded that it was time to give virtual agents another look, citing that 57 percent of online customers are likely to abandon a sale if their questions are not answered immediately.
Beyond resolving simple customer issues, today's virtual agent technology can not only offload typical high-volume requests—such as changing a customer's billing address—but it can also address more complex or high-risk service and support issues, such as cancellation of services. Today, virtual agents typically have an 80 percent or higher resolution success rate. But to ensure 100 percent resolution, the virtual agent also can escalate an issue to the call center, passing along the conversational context with the virtual agent if the user's request is outside the virtual agent's span of knowledge. The result is a more efficient call center that is able to deflect issues that don't require human intervention by an average of 22 percent, improve live customer service representative resolution time by 16 percent, and accelerate call center recovery time up to four times faster when major issues arise.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Intelligent virtual agents are not able to replace human interaction, live chat or email, but they enhance existing channels of customer service. Companies that understand the concept of "one size does not fit all" and offer their customers a variety of service and support choices are most successful at addressing their customers' online service requirements, while balancing their own needs to keep operational costs in control.
Let's take a look at a variety of customer types and service/support scenarios and the way virtual agent technology can make other service channels, such as the call center, more efficient.
• Contemporary Web-savvy customers: These customers prefer to use sophisticated online self-service, no matter how complex their issues. They will do everything possible to do it themselves. In this scenario, offering a pure virtual agent service channel is optimal for both the customer and the company. Today's advanced NLP capabilities allow intelligent virtual agents to handle even the most complex technical troubleshooting problems.
• High-volume/standard requests: The virtual agent acts as the first point of contact to help users resolve issues in a timely manner, without engaging a human. If customers are looking to address a common support need, such as how to change a billing address, access a bill, understand how to use a product, change online account settings or find the status of an order, a virtual agent can guide them through the process on the spot. A virtual agent can also be integrated with back-end systems to allow it to take actions on behalf of the user for a more personalized experience—e.g., show order status, upgrade to a new service plan or change account settings.
• Avoiding the frustrated user: Companies can add a social protocol to virtual agents that detects when a customer expresses frustration, when the elapsed time to resolve an issue is too long, or the number of times the user has requested to speak with a live person. In order to maintain high customer satisfaction in these scenarios, the virtual agent will pass the virtual conversation to a customer service representative (CSR), so the issue can be resolved. Rules that reflect your business and support policies can route escalations to live chat or live agent queues, or schedule a call back based on the context of the conversation. Tickets in Web-based support systems can also be automatically created by the virtual agent for additional follow-up.
• High-risk customers: Through a series of conversational interactions, the virtual agent can determine "high-risk" issues, such as requests to cancel service. Depending on the company's internal best practices, the customers can be "intelligently escalated"—along with full context of the virtual agent conversations—to a CSR who can engage directly with the customer. In this scenario, customers use a hybrid of virtual agent technology and the call center.
• Continuous improvement: When new products are introduced, virtual agents can engage with users and capture common points of confusion, suggestions for improvement, or even potential product flaws and present these to management via trending topic reports that monitor all customer conversations. Once the issue is identified and resolved, virtual agents can be "trained" to resolve these issues for future customers.
Progressive companies leveraging a variety of service and support channels—including virtual agent technology—are not only providing customers with a superior service experience, but also keeping operational costs in control. Virtual agents are predicted to become the industry standard within three to five years, and the companies already offering customers the most innovative technology to address their service needs will not only have the most advanced service centers, but also years of cost savings under their belts to invest in the newer solutions.