• October 1, 2016
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Digital Assistants Gain Enterprise Acceptance

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Due to advances in natural language processing and artificial intelligence, the growth potential for intelligent virtual digital assistants, virtual agents, and chatbots stands to increase more than four-fold in the next five years, according to market research firm Tractica. The company predicted recently that the number of people globally who actively use the technology will grow from 390 million today to 1.8 billion by 2021. The number of business users will grow from 155 million today to 843 million by 2021.

At the same time, total revenue from such applications will grow from $1.6 billion today to $15.8 billion in 2021, Tractica predicts.

Among businesses, the financial services, healthcare, and retail sectors have seen the greatest use so far. Companies have already turned to virtual assistants for biometric security, to remind patients to take their medications, to guide consumers through the buying process with product recommendations or answers to common questions, and to answer queries or complaints after the sale.

“Undoubtedly, there will be a number of new use cases for enterprise VDAs,” says Clint Wheelock, managing director at Tractica. “In North America, quick-serve restaurants are beginning to experiment with deploying VDAs to handle drive-through ordering lanes.”

Businesses such as these, he adds, are expecting to see “cost reductions gained by automating customer interactions typically handled by humans.”

The other drivers for businesses to adopt the technology include the need to provide faster, better answers to “increasingly impatient consumers,” and a greater need for context and personalization across those interactions, according to Wheelock.

Fellow research firm Transparency Market Research has already seen an increased focus on the development of virtual assistants in a wide range of applications for self-service, intelligent reporting, and improved customer experience.

The shift of organizations from analog to digital technologies has also resulted in massive amounts of data, thereby increasing the demand for virtual assistants to help employees and consumers make sense of it all, Transparency reported recently.

On the downside, the complexity and cost of creating VDAs is high. “Development cycles can be long and expensive,” Wheelock says.

Other barriers to greater business adoption include a lack of skilled resources to use and manage the technology, low consumer awareness, and a lack of back-end systems integration. “Many companies understand the value of integrating VDAs into multiple key back-end systems, but it is a challenge, and many end up with limited access to data needed for complex tasks,” Wheelock adds.

So far, large enterprises have been the largest users of virtual assistants, but Transparency expects small and midsize firms to expand the most through 2024. Transparency also expects chatbots to emerge as the most promising portion of the market.

Rachel Barton, managing director at Accenture for customer strategy in Europe and Latin America, agrees. “Chatbots have the potential to completely change the dynamic of how consumers interact with brands,” she says. “Where consumers may have once hunted for a new makeup product or clothing item in-store, online, via a mobile app, through a social media platform, or over the phone, chatbots provide more of an immediate and personalized response. Likewise, where consumers may have once turned to Twitter to vent their frustrations about a particular experience, a chatbot can come back with an immediate remedy.”

She expects chatbots in the future to play an even greater role in customer service and engagement, “helping companies to deliver more highly tailored and personalized shopping experiences, cross-selling and upselling items, and understanding customer needs before they’ve even inputted a search.”

But she and others also warn against overuse of the technology. “Chatbots have limitations, and companies need to ensure they don’t compromise the customer’s overall experience and turn it into a negative one,” she says.

There are times, Barton explains, when customers need or want to speak to a live person, and not providing one could be detrimental. “Customers can still very much tell the difference between whether they are speaking to a robot or a human being,” she says. “Nearly always, they still prefer the latter.”

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