Virtual Agents: Customer Service Helpers, or Customer Service Disaster?

I’m browsing a website, looking at products but not yet ready to buy. Suddenly, a chat box pops up in the middle of my screen. “Can I help you learn more about our products?” I click close. The box pops up again. “I can help you find what you’re looking for.” I click close again. The box returns. “We have many wonderful products.”

“Leave me alone.” I type. I close the box and the tab in my browser. I will never return to that website. I open another tab, on to my next problem. I have a customer service complaint with another company. I click on the “Chat with an agent” link, expecting a real person who can solve my problems. Instead, I encounter a clunky artificial intelligence (AI) that seizes on random keywords. It’s basically an automated frequently asked questions page, and it has no bearing on my current problem. I give up and call. Even if I end up on hold for an age, the automated menu is less aggravating than the “live chat” with that virtual agent.

Since the mid-2000s, customer experience experts have hailed virtual agents as the future of user interface and customer service. Yet many firms still fail in their day-to-day implementation. Does  your firm have what it takes to embrace this new technology and use it in a helpful and positive way?

When Virtual Agents Don’t Work

Many companies have embraced virtual agents because they can provide round-the-clock help for a relatively low cost. In fact, some industry sources claim that a virtual agent can take the place of up to 50 human customer service agents. When a virtual agent works well, it can be an amazing tool to smooth customer service interactions and reduce wait times for online chat. However, since most virtual agents have a very limited set of abilities, too many companies use virtual agents in ways that complicate the customer service process and detract from the overall customer experience.

Poor uses include using virtual agents as:

  • Overly pushy sales reps. Many firms use virtual agents to encourage customers to make purchases from their websites. Unfortunately, these agents tend to be invasive, popping into your browser window when you’re just looking for information. Unlike human salespeople in brick and mortar stores, they can’t tell a customer who wants help from a customer who wants to browse in peace. As a result, they can add unnecessary stress to the online shopping experience and interfere with the existing user interface, especially since most sites have a clear, easy-to-follow procedure in place for customers who want to purchase a product.
  • Glorified (but inadequate) search engines. Many virtual customer service agents use keyword searches to respond to consumer questions. The agent gives a related answer from the company’s frequently asked question page. However, a simple Google search of the site will often turn up a better answer to the query in less time. That’s because while Google’s software takes the entire search phrase into account and uses past searches to infer meaning, most virtual agents simply return any page which has the keywords in any order.
  • The first point of contact for disgruntled customers. Virtual agents can’t pick up on subtle (or not-so-subtle) linguistic cues, and they lack empathy. They can’t tell when a customer service issue escalates from displeasure to rage. Their dispassionate replies and inability to diffuse emergent situations suggest to the customer that you don’t really care about their experiences with your company.
  • A clearinghouse for customer complaints and concerns. Sometimes, firms don’t give their virtual agents the means to resolve problems with product quality, shipping problems, or technical service issues. That means that the agent presents a roadblock to solving the problem in online chat, the very forum in which the customers expect a swift solution.

Recently, Xerox pioneered intelligent AI agents that can learn from past interactions and provide service on par with human agents. However, these technologies are currently out of the reach of most small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs). That means that if you want to implement virtual agents on a limited budget, you’ll need a carefully constructed strategy.

When  Virtual Agents Improve Customer Experience

If they’re used well, there are plenty of ways that virtual agents can benefit SMBs, as long as they’re implemented with specific functions in mind. If you’re contemplating adding a virtual agent to your website, you’ll need to consider your goals for the agent, your customer base, and your online presence.

Virtual agents can’t totally replace human agents, but they can speed up the customer service process. For instance, a virtual agent could collect a customer’s information, provide a basic level of triage, and pass the customer and the information onto a live agent. By completing routine tasks when a customer first makes contact, the virtual agent reduces hold times for online chat and lets your human agents enter the chat with a solution ready.  In a sense, these virtual agents act as an automated contact form, but they add a personal touch that lets your customer see that you’re interested in her problems and eager to help.

You also need to consider your audience. For instance, many virtual agents use keyword recognition to provide answers from a database.  If your customers tend to be technologically savvy, a virtual agent won’t be more helpful than a Google search bar on the site. However, if your customers need help to navigate your frequently asked questions and your catalogue, a virtual agent could give them support and help them build confidence in their ability to work with your company’s web portal.

Virtual agents can also be useful if people use your site to submit suggestions and complaints. Submitting a suggestion through a virtual agent rather than an anonymous form helps your customers see that you take their concerns seriously and want to deal with them in a timely manner. Virtual agents can even explain difficult documents and technical details in language that your customers can understand. For instance, AI researchers have developed a virtual agent that can explain medical documents, drug side effects, doctors’ orders and test results to patients. When a virtual agent is used well, it can help people take in new information without the human error that can result from communications with a service representative.

Considering a Future with Virtual Agents

A few weeks after my experiences with pushy and useless virtual agents, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a useful agent on another site. I’d mistakenly purchased an unwanted digital movie. I logged in, gave the agent my information, and it deleted the charge, and the movie, from my account. That quick and painless interaction with a virtual agent deputized to handle routine problems offered a glimpse of what business can look like when AI makes positive contributions to the customer experience.

The key, as with any new technology, is to have realistic expectations and clear goals in mind.  A hammer can either destroy a window or build a window box.  In the same way, a poorly implemented virtual agent can destroy customer relationships, while a properly implemented agent can build and maintain them. As long as you keep the customer’s perspective in mind, you can use virtual agents to improve your customer experience and your business productivity.

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