The Siri Effect

Two decades of Web usage have converged rapidly with the developing and broadening reliance on mobile devices—from the brick phone of the Yuppie to the investment banker's "Crackberry" to everybody and anybody socializing and working via a smartphone or tablet today.

As with many technologies, consumer adoption comes first and businesses clamor to keep up. The adoption of the "digital concierge" on smartphones is a classic example. Digital personal assistant technologies such as Siri, and others like it, have been embraced so fervently by consumers that your current online self-service offering has likely become archaic overnight. Twenty-seven percent of iPhone 4S users use Siri for email every day, and 51 percent of users consider it "extremely important" for their next phone to offer a similar service.

The Digital Concierge

"Because of Siri," says Kate Leggett, principal analyst at Forrester Research, "companies focused on increasing customer satisfaction scores to move the needle on customer loyalty often ask, 'Why can't we offer Siri-like experiences on our Web or mobile sites to help customers ask questions in their own words?'"

Some have deployed their own digital concierge (or virtual agent) technology on their Web sites to engage in automated conversations with customers.

But it's not as simple as throwing an attractive avatar up on your Web and mobile channels. There are a number of key factors any business needs to consider to emulate Siri across its own digital properties. Following are four critical first steps for companies looking to deploy virtual agent technology that will deliver a helpful, automated assistance experience:

1. Get your act together—fast. Now that customers are getting used to the personal digital concierge approach to living, they will come to expect it everywhere. Customers—in any industry—will not be pleased if they have to step back into the Dark Ages when visiting a company's Web site for answers. The days of forcing your customers to hunt through FAQ pages or site search results to find answers and information are over.

Your first priority is simple—aim to deploy virtual agent technology on your main customer-facing Web site as quickly as possible. This is the stepping-stone to a mobile voice implementation—you need a foundation in place before you start auditioning robotic/automated voices!

2. Offer a consistent experience across all channels. Consumers today are online 24/7 and are accessing Web sites and social channels on smartphones and tablets more than ever before. Today's consumers do not want to pick up the phone to talk to a customer service agent. What they do want is the ability to get quick, accurate answers on their own from anywhere, whenever they choose to go online.

Today's consumers are intolerant of companies that deliver a disappointing mobile experience. Being let down in this way flies in the face of their expectation of consistent, highly accurate, easy-to-navigate experiences in every channel. Any organization that can't deliver this stands out as a dinosaur in the mind of today's tech-savvy, ultra-mobile consumer.

A smartphone is smart, and it's more than just a phone. It has seven different communication methods, and the phone is only one—mobile applications, text, email, Facebook, and Twitter are all examples of communications channels used each and every day by the modern consumer. It is imperative that businesses ensure that their digital concierge is capable of delivering a seamless experience across all channels, including mobile Web, mobile app, and popular social media applications used on the phone.

3. Understand the digital concierge features that can enhance the customer experience. The ability to deliver accurate answers to consumer questions is the flagship characteristic of a world-class virtual agent deployment. But on the way to getting answers, there can be many breakdowns, resulting in abandonment and escalation.

It is critical that the virtual agent knows the intent and context behind the question and delivers the right answer for virtually all customers, despite the fact that each customer is likely to phrase the question in one of hundreds of different ways. With a virtual agent, it is even possible to intelligently suggest the best answer as customers enter their question, further reducing the burden on customers as they seek their answers.

4. Capture actionable customer insight for customer service and marketing. The key here is to look for technology that not only captures the entered questions, but also packages them in a way that's highly visual and easily viewable by customer service and marketing leaders. Dashboards that illustrate theme clouds and top trends are a great way to take raw customer behavioral data and make it easy to understand and act upon.

In addition to making it easier and more enjoyable for people to get answers whenever and wherever they choose, emulating virtual assistants like Siri can help companies reduce costs, enhance customer experience, improve cross-selling and upselling, and even allow for real-time voice-of-the customer analytics to increase customer insight.

David Lloyd is the CEO of IntelliResponse, a provider of virtual agent technology.

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