By Martin Luerssen, Chief Technology Officer at Clevertar

Did you know the average consumer interacts with customer service 65 times a year? Resolving such requests in a satisfactory manner is essential to the continuing success of any business, but it’s a huge problem when one is already facing cost pressures to further automate processes and reduce manual handling. It’s little wonder then that there’s a growing trend towards more accessible and capable self-service technology. By 2020, more than 85% of all customer interactions are expected to be handled without the need for a human.

But will those interactions be positive? Something is inevitably lost in translation when the customer is served by an algorithm, not a human. Algorithms typically afford no empathy, no sense in which the customer’s request can feel respected and worthwhile. So how can a business transform their customer service experience towards greater automation, with all the benefits of high scalability and low overhead, without making the customer feel small and unimportant?

The answer? Intelligent virtual agents, or IVHs.

An IVH is a chatbot taken to its ultimate conclusion, which is to reproduce natural human-to-human communication in its entirety. This means going beyond text and embracing speech, gesture, posture, facial expression, intonation and other verbal and non-verbal behaviours. Why should this matter? Science tells us that we interact with technology very differently when it has a face and acts like a human. This is true even when it’s rather obvious that we’re not dealing with the real thing, because our brains are hard-wired to seek out and respond to social cues. By replicating these, even in an imperfect way, an IVH can restore much of the social intimacy that is lost when we otherwise replace humans with algorithms.

In a customer service scenario, this means that the consumer will end up being more polite, less frustrated, and more forgiving, which is enormously valuable in resolving the underlying conflict to everyone’s satisfaction. IVHs bring back the human touch to the interaction, yet they also retain the scalability, availability, reliability, and consistency of a self-service solution. It’s the best of all worlds, something that can’t be replicated by humans or by conventional software, and which has the potential to take the customer experience to new levels previously thought impossible.

IVHs can fundamentally transform the way businesses engage their customers in other ways, too. We all know the customer or product onboarding process should be as frictionless as possible. But the reality is, there’s a lot of friction in the way most businesses on-board new customers. Many customers would love it if a real person was there to help them, but this is not always commercially practicable. Instead, companies can outsource their onboarding process to an IVH and rapidly cut down their customer acquisition costs — without sacrificing customer satisfaction and product use along the way.

Convincing first-time customers to try your product or service is a coup in itself, but how do you get your new customer to continue using your product and become a brand loyalist? Again, an IVH can save the day here. You can let the virtual agent provide instructions and advice to assist your customers or actively motivate them to engage with your product. What’s more, your virtual agent can be used to regularly engage your consumers post-purchase to check in with them to see how they are going and to make sure they’re gaining the maximum satisfaction from your product.

Data collection is another strength of IVHs. Asking questions directly of your customers can give you insights that are not available through passive monitoring, whilst avoiding the ethical and regulatory issues of the latter. And unlike a tedious survey form, interacting with an IVH can be made to be fun and engaging. Survey participants have been shown to respond to larger number of questions delivered through an IVH than through traditional channels. As a bonus, they are also less likely to be dishonest when doing so.

IVHs are underpinned by decades of research in the human-computer interface field. Real-world success has been dominated by the health sector, where IVHs have been shown to achieve a measurable positive impact on people’s health and wellbeing. Indeed, patients report that they feel much more comfortable interacting with IVAs than they do with their doctors. So why hasn’t customer support been taken over by virtual agents yet? Why are we still stuck with phone queues and clunky chatbots?

IVHs incorporate a range of technologies that are hugely exciting, but they must also be reliable, available, and affordable in order to transform businesses in the mainstream, and this has only happened fairly recently. Real-time visualisation of human-like characters can now demonstrate stunning fidelity on new-generation computers and smartphones and through WebGL within web browsers. Speech synthesis and recognition have made huge strides towards human-equivalent performance, and natural language understanding and related artificial intelligence have become available at scale. Meanwhile, augmented reality is shaping to become the next big thing, with IVAs constituting the perfect interface technology for this medium.

Not all of these need to be in place for IVHs to be effective. Depending on the application, a cartoon-like character with simple dialogue trees might do just as well as a more sophisticated IVH, and development costs and time can thus be minimized without sacrificing any efficacy. Existing chatbots can also easily be enhanced with more engaging visuals and social behaviours that improve customer engagement. But the thing is: most business owners I speak with don’t even know where to start when it comes to automating their customer service, let alone using a virtual agent for this purpose.

It helps to take the same approach that you would with any other task you would outsource. What does the ideal outcome look like? Any task that involves a conversation with a human being can be turned into an IVH. That includes a huge set of tasks that are commercially useful, ranging from sales to support, in addition to many other uses in education and entertainment. You probably have something that can be turned into an IVH right now. Think about the conversations you consistently have the customers or the processes or information you consistently go through. Document it once and then design a virtual agent that perfectly executes this conversation time and time again. It’s really that simple.

Virtual agents can be delivered through a variety of channels, including mobile apps, web widgets, and even virtual reality. But IVHs are not magic; you still need to create a solution that is right for your specific business needs and can be easily accessed by your customers. A good first step is to speak to an IVH provider or expert about what you want to automate or improve upon your existing solutions. Explore how you can transform the way you engage with your customers. Then deploy a limited trial to work out the potential — and the drawbacks — of this approach before going all in.

IVHs are an exciting frontier in customer service. virtual agents, with their perfect availability, consistency, and friendliness, will one day dominate the customer service experience. This isn’t merely a possibility, but absolutely assured by our innate human preferences. The journey towards this future has only just begun, and there is much for us to learn yet. But businesses diving into this today will gain the experience to navigate this new territory successfully and reap the greatest rewards.

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