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 Karen Schwartz Avatars In The Call Center

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 By Karen D. Schwartz

Was James Cameron's hit movie Avatar on to something for the call center?

Problem: Your contact center agents are inconsistent, or even erratic, in how they communicate with customers, and they sometimes veer off topic or forget to upsell or cross-sell when appropriate.

Problem: Customer service costs are increasing at a rate that exceeds customer growth.

Problem: Customers are increasingly unwilling to wait to communicate with an agent.

Problem: Customers sign off without having their questions answered or problems resolved.

If these issues sound familiar, it’s because they are problems for every company with a contact center. Organizations are always searching for ways to improve customer service, reduce wait times, and save money. Some believe they have found an answer — in interactive virtual agents, commonly known as Avatars.

In a July 2010 research report from Gartner, titled 'Key Considerations for a Virtual Assistant Selection', the analyst firm stated that virtual agents deliver a competitive advantage to companies that deploy them, and predicted they would become the standard technology for customer interactions in three to five years. A 2009 report from Forrester Research concluded that it was time to give virtual agents another look, citing that 57% of online customers are likely to abandon a sale if their questions or issues are not answered or resolved immediately.

Online avatars are personalized self-service applications, available as standalone software or, increasingly, as part of a full-fledged contact center software solution, and are positioned as a compliment or an alternative to live call center agents. They can appear either as an animation or a photo of a real person, and their purpose is to replicate the routine or straight-forward activities that customer service agents do—better, faster and less expensively. Advances in natural language processing (NLP) and tight integration with customer relationship management software systems are empowering online avatars to interact with online customers in a natural conversation style and provide immediate answers to consumers questions.

Here is an example: A customer types in a question, such as “I really wanted the shirt in blue with green stripes, but it’s out of stock. Is it possible to order one?”

Avatars have access to the same databases and knowledge repositories as customer service representatives, but unlike (or more easily than) human contact center agents, they can extract data from the user, combine it with other information on stock, availability, geography, etc., and return an answer to the customer quickly. These virtual agents also can ask follow-up questions and have a visibly noticeable “personality” designed by the company. They do this with software that helps interpret natural language, along with business logic programmed by the company.

The benefits are easy to see: faster, consistent customer service with lower cost and less hassle. And they are catching on. According to virtual agent vendor VirtuOz, more than 10% of Fortune 1000 companies already have virtual call center agents.

So is the Avatar approach right for your company? Will they eventually completely replace human contact center agents?

The answer to the first question is eventually, yes. Avatars can be a great solution for routine inquiries or general search. Customers today are getting used to the idea, thanks to their growing ubiquity, but it’s probably safe to say that younger customers are more accepting of the idea than older customers. My recommendation: Don’t rush into it, but put it on the “to do” list to add sometime in the next two to three years.

Now to the second question: Will they eventually completely replace human contact center agents?

Definitely not. Does voice mail or email completely obliterate the need for voice communications? No.

There are cases where nothing but a human customer service representative will do. Either the customer isn’t comfortable with a virtual agent, or the problem or issue simply is out of the realm of what an Avatar can handle. Conventional wisdom says that virtual agents have an 80% accuracy rate, but that means 20% of those customer queries must be handled by other means. Avatars can be programmed to be intelligent, but there is no substitute for real human intelligence and ingenuity. End

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Comments (6) — Comments for this page are closed —

Guest Jeff Whitman
  The cost savings are clear but that's not enough. It seems to me that the lack of personalization and consistent responses from avatars make this technology unappealing.
  Denise Denise Holland
    While customer support avatars can be personalized to simulate many types of personas, or even people, they're clearly not people and this will turn some people off. However, consistent response (at least after the initial tuning period) should be a benefit from avatars. In fact, lack of call center consistent responses, whether avatars or live agents, is a top frustration factor for customers. A friend of mine makes a strong analogy between call center responses and Universal Studios Florida, Tower of Terror ride. This particular theme park ride is unique because the rider experience is almost endlessly variable as a computer controls different sequences of 'dark room' scenes and roller coaster drops over the course of the ride. There are literally hundreds of different ways for each riders sequence to play out. Basically, it's never the same ride twice. This is an interesting metaphor for customer service. Ideally, your customers should not have to endure their own version of Tower of Terror when they need help. However, many contact centers still deliver variable and often unpredictable experiences. And unlike the Tower of Terror, they generally aren't having fun as they negotiate their ride.

Guest Janice Millhouse
  We implemented an avatar customer support system for our retail channel 7 months ago and have found it to be successful. Each period more web visitors elect to use the avatar and the user satisfaction scores continue to evolve in the right direction.
  Denise Denise Holland
    Thanks for the real world reference point.

Guest Colleen Petri
  We've also been using virtual agents for just over a year. They are extremely effective at accommodating web-savvy customers and high volume repeated requests, at one-tenth the cost of a CSR. You're correct that they achieve about an 80% success rate, and to get closer to 100% success, they can be programmed to automatically escalate callers to live agents, passing along the callers prior messaging and context. Including avatars along with live chat, self service knowledge-bases, users helping users forums and live support is adding yet another customer support channel that gives customers more choices, accelerates resolutions, increases customer satisfaction and lowers operational costs.

Guest Zach Kirk
  First generation avatars (I usually call them virtual assistants) were stationary images that delivered a poor interaction and very mixed search results. Second generation virtual assistants became more animated and lifelike, and dramatically improved search results. We're now in the third generation of virtual assistants which mimic the company's culture, style and even lifelike appearance. The speech technology includes sentiment analysis which can trigger responses, routings or escalations based on customer input. The search results are more relevant and highly accurate. The next generation of virtual assistants are working to enable full dialogues and more social interactions over more channels. This future generation is still a work in process but clearly a sign that virtual assistants are here to stay.


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Call centers are always searching for ways to improve customer service, reduce wait times, and save money. Some believe they have found an answer — in interactive virtual agents, commonly known as Avatars.


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