Virtualisation of customer services interaction was quoted by Time (March 2008) as being one of the ‘10 ideas which are changing the world‘. Pascal Levy-Garboua, Director, Business Development of Virtuoz.com, a leading-edge provider of IVA (intelligent virtual agents) technology, is giving us more insight into the future of customer relationship management in this post written on behalf of Visionary Marketing.
Intelligent virtual agents are changing the face of online customer service and are fast becoming the main channel of customer support communication for generation Y. However, the domain of artificial intelligence and its presence on the Internet today is still relatively unfamiliar to many. “Intelligent virtual agent” has yet to become a widespread buzz word in the field of CRM, but it is full of potential.
So what exactly are virtual agents about, and what can they be used for?
IVAs are artificial intelligence programs which translate to autonomous, graphically embodied agents which appear in an online environment. Graphic design for each individual virtual agent may vary from video animation to a photo or an avatar, in an interactive 2D or 3D environment, in order to fit with a company’s brand image.
Intelligent virtual agents can be designed and built with the capacity to fulfill a multitude of functions on the Internet. They offer a large variety of online functional abilities which allows their missions to be accurately defined according to their role in the customer cycle. Be it for marketing purposes, help and advice with website navigation, sales functions, customer support or sales follow up, intelligent virtual agents are increasingly being sourced by companies to bring more personalized interaction to their CRM.
IVAs in the CRM cycle
IVA strategies for improving online CRM
- Immediate and ubiquitous real time access to answers. IVAs offer customers immediate and ubiquitous real time access to answers using a variety of functionalities. Customers are thus saved from frustrating time on hold with a customer service center or, as is the case with traditional search engines and FAQ explorers, from trawling through mountains of web content in order to find their answer.
- A personalized, tailored service. IVAs can mirror the in store experience from a customer standpoint. The ability to connect to company back office databases allows agents to retrieve personal information to provide the most tailored answer.
- Encouraging online self help and increasing web content ease of access. Online virtual agents encourage online self service and increase web content accessibility to even the Internet beginner. Helping e-customers efficiently zero in on the information they are looking for is consequential to CRM, helping to alleviate customer frustration when they cannot find a certain page, or certain information. Through facilitating online services discovery, virtual agents are becoming an invaluable tool in cross and up-selling as well as in the maintenance and reinforcing of a company’s brand strength and recognition.
- Proactive approach to customer issues. By simulating a text chat session with a live agent, encouraging customers to visit certain pages, and offering co-browsing, the Virtual Interactive agent is an efficient and low cost method of internet guidance, helping people perform tasks such as locating information, placing orders, or making reservations. Virtual agents are proactive in their approach to customers’ issues, identifying the customer problem and providing a personal, pertinent answer. Occupying sales and marketing roles, agents can be an effective viral marketing tool, acting to increase a customer contact base using proactive questions and features which push the customer to action. Market studies have shown an actual increase in customer satisfaction after IVA implementation, owing to the virtual agents’ ease of use and the pleasant customer experience they provide.
- Personalized human-like interaction. The humanized nature of virtual agents makes them easier for customers to approach. IVAs have a personality defined to compliment their professional mission, which allows them to convey a more bespoke service and add a human touch to online customer care. It has been observed that this humanized approach is reciprocated from the human end, where a reported 70% of visitors greet and say farewell to virtual agents. Indeed in a world where e-commerce is becoming a driving force, increasing competition will require e-businesses to humanize online interactions, mirroring the in-store experience with more tailored, engaging conversations.
- Supplementing outsourcing with virtual sourcing. IVAs allow companies with large customer service flows to supplement service center outsourcing with Virtual Sourcing. An agents’ ability to handle unlimited requests at any one time helps to take a dramatic load off traditional call centers, reducing the need to invest more time and money as businesses’ CRM needs grow.
- The most advanced technologies offer a predictive dimension that allows real time adaptation to customer behaviour. Contrary to previous generation “keyword-based” chatter bots, recently developed IVAs, such as those produced by VirtuOz, can evaluate a customer’s previous behaviour and trends to predict the course of an interaction. This allows the agent to adapt its strategy in real time to meet the clients’ needs and fulfilling a variety of missions simultaneously.
- Existing call center productivity optimized. IVAs all have well calculated exit strategies to ensure the customer is never left with their issue unsolved and has not wasted their time. Agents can be interfaced with other CRM tools such as webforms, callback systems and live chat, to render the customer service process more efficient. Agents automatically categorize customer issues, enabling them not only to transfer to the most relevant customer channel, but also to only transmit information pertinent to the customer’s problem. This allows for quicker resolution, therefore increasing existing customer service centres productivity levels. Comprehensive reporting tools, where all conversations are registered for monitoring, allow stringent quality control and ensure that agents are performing to the required standard, a quality which of course is near impossible with human customer care.
- Integration with other web based services. IVAs, such as the recent French development Skaaz, (www.skaaz.com) can be integrated with Instant Messaging services, blogs and social networking sites; such artificial intelligence technology may also soon appear in virtual worlds, such as Second Life, where AI software will be able to profit from interactions with humans and increase its knowledge base according to its experiences.
Several major players in the business world have already jumped onto the band-waggon of excitement surrounding IVAs and their ability to revolutionize online CRM. The French arm of eBay, www.ebay.fr, integrated Louise, an IVA made by European leaders VirtuOz, onto their site in 2007 in a bid to reduce the high volume of emails and calls received by their call centers. After only 2 months the volume of emails received by eBay.fr’s customer service department diminished significantly, while email qualification was increased, allowing the existing CS systems to experience a sharp increase in productivity. Communications giant Neuf-AOL, also in France, economizes 1 phone call per customer per year with their IVA, named Chloé.
IVAs and the future
Contrary to public belief, the roots of the technology were planted several years ago. Simple keyword based agents such as Colloquis’ Encarta on MSN Messenger and Ikea’s agent by Artificial Solutions provided a broad technological base from which more flexible and powerful agents have stemmed. Having already developed the predictive dimension now associated with agents, European leaders in artificial intelligence, VirtuOz, are currently in the process of developing voice recognition for their IVAs, which will add yet another dimension to online customer support. The popularity of agents is ever growing amongst brand companies who are looking to revolutionize their online approach to CRM and profit from rapid ROI. Customers can already access agents across a wide range of channels, and when IVAs become even more accessible over mobile media channels (PDAs, cell phones), agents will surely be commonplace not only for business CRM strategies across the web, but for personal use also. IVAs will give users even greater and easier access to information than currently is the case.