Ever talked to a robot? Conversed with an artificial being? Your quick answer might be "no" — but odds are you talk to them all the time.
The robots in question may not be on the level of C-3PO from Star Wars or HAL from 2001, but you've probably talked to an interactive voice response (IVR) system when calling an airline or used the "Clippy the Paperclip" help agent that used to be part of Microsoft Word. Our society is filled with artificial "beings" that are purpose-built to help us. Now, virtual agents are starting to fill the Web — and these intelligent, interactive beings are going to be the next big CRM channel through which companies can interact with customers.
You may also be asking yourself, "What exactly are 'virtual agents'?"
The answer's fairly simple: software programs that interact with and help customers on a company's Web site. Users can converse in natural language and the virtual agents can have a fully interactive dialogue. The virtual agents can perform various functions — ask for user input, extract information from back-end systems, pull up screens for users — but always as part of the effort of guiding customers to their goal in an automated fashion. Whether aiding a customer in the purchase of a product, helping them conduct business with a company, or answering questions about their account, virtual agents assist customers more efficiently, rapidly, consistently, and cost effectively than any human can.
[Editors' Note: For more on virtual agents, see CRM magazine's feature story in the October 2010 special issue on Proactive CRM.]
Colliding Trends Call Forth the Virtual Agents
Yet what powers virtual agents? The fuel that drives them isn't electricity or diesel or solar power — it's money. For purely financial reasons, a variety of colliding trends are making it necessary for organizations to implement virtual agents on their Web sites.
First, there has been a massive increase in customer use of organizations' Web sites. Any survey you read indicates larger percentages of customers are not only coming to companies' Web sites for information but are expecting to be able to conduct business there.
Second, Web sites are increasingly becoming more sophisticated, with a wider array of products and services. This has resulted in more flexibility for customers but also more complexity, and an attendant increase in the number of questions users have on Web sites.
Third, along with the growing use of Web sites, customers desire to be more self-reliant. In a December 2009 report by Forrester Research, it was stated that "only 28 percent of U.S. online consumers prefer to contact companies via telephone or email rather than using a company's Web site to get answers to their questions." This trend toward self-reliance means human support methods are not only prohibitively expensive but also not even preferable to the customers who might use them.
And the last trend is that companies are simultaneously trying to provide better service while keeping costs constant — or potentially even reducing costs.
These trends are all forcing companies to evaluate how they can assist customers in a scalable fashion. Hiring more customer service reps for email, live-chat, and phone support is simply not cost-effective. Letting customers flail on Web sites as they try to resolve their own issues is not sustainable from a customer satisfaction perspective. The only answer is to automate the way in which companies assist customers. This is where virtual agents are being driven to the forefront.
The Best of Both Worlds
Virtual agents offer a best-of-both-worlds solution. They are a cost-effective means for customers to assist themselves — similar to search or automated FAQ systems. Yet virtual agents also have the interrogative ability to interact with customers, understand what users need, and guide customers to specific answers or resolutions that are personalized for each customer's individual situation. And, in the event of a situation beyond the virtual agent's abilities, customers can be seamlessly escalated to a live agent. Throughout the entire process, an organization is gaining further information about what their customers' needs are and continually increasing the knowledge the virtual agent has to improve users' experiences.
Companies around the globe are using virtual agents to improve the user experience customers have on their Web sites. Organizations such as eBay, H&R Block, Michelin, L'Oreal, Vodafone, and PayPal are leveraging the new generation of virtual agents to meet the needs of customers while reducing costs. In addition to guiding users faster than humans can, virtual agents don't quit, ask for raises, or get upset at customers. They are the future of CRM, as companies take charge of how they service customers.
The agents may be virtual, but the business benefits are very real.
About the Author
Mark Gaydos (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the vice president of worldwide marketing at VirtuOz, a provider of virtual agent solutions. For more information about VirtuOz, please visit: www.virtuoz.com.
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