We first wrote about virtual agents and their capabilities to deliver what we called virtual assisted-service in 2007 when we published a product evaluation of Human Digital Assistant from H-care, a Treviso, Italy-based startup (now out of business). We felt that virtual agents delivered a useful level of customer service when customers got stuck using self-service facilities and a business wanted to help them by using facilities that were less costly than chat or the contact center. Made sense then. Makes sense now.
We were ahead of the virtual assisted-service curve, a bit ahead of our time. Only a few virtual agents were deployed five years ago. Jenn of Alaska Airlines comes to mind. But many more have been deployed over the past few quarters. Judging by the claims of the current virtual agent suppliers, we think that you could find about 200 customer support/service web sites with virtual agents offering to answer your questions, many of them “working for” the largest businesses—businesses like AT&T, P&G, Symantec, United Airlines, the U.S. Army, and Verizon.
What’s different now? Five years ago, virtual assisted-service offerings focused on virtual agents. Virtual agents used text-to-speech technology to talk to customers, first introducing themselves, then giving customers instructions for entering questions, then voicing the answers. Virtual agents were also animated. They gestured when they spoke. Very cool technology, but customers can read way faster than virtual agents (or even live agents) can speak. The speaking slowed the service. Also, many customers prefer self-service. They’d rather visit a web site than call a contact center. These folks (I’m one of them.) really don’t want to speak with any kind of agent. The are also other significant differences:
- Networks, network connections, and the devices that customers use are much faster now than in 2007. Virtual agents have become faster, too.
- Most virtual assisted-service systems run in the cloud. Businesses can deploy them more quickly at lower initial cost.
- Chat is ubiquitous today. Virtual assisted-service looks a lot like chat.