What is a Virtual Assistant?

October 15, 2020

In today’s world of technology-driven customer experience, consumers almost universally expect the companies they do business with to offer service in a wide variety of fashions, and across a multitude of channels. But simply offering up requisite customer service for a product doesn’t go nearly far enough these days. With technology, businesses have the ability to stay available and involved with the customer in all phases of a product’s life cycle, and by not offering these next generation solutions, many companies are turning consumers away.

One way that organizations can effectively engage with their customers without the capital expense of people power is through the use of Virtual Assistants, and or chatbots. With so many buzz words and acronyms floating around out there, it can be confusing to understand the difference between the two. On a basic level, Virtual Assistants are typically used by consumers via their personal devices through AI-powered technology such as Amazon Alexa, or Apple’s Siri. Chatbots, on the other hand, are used more often as a tool for businesses to communicate with their customers. The important thing to remember is, both platforms use Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), and both can produce similar outcomes. For now, let’s just refer to both as Virtual Assistants for the purpose of generalizing their capabilities.

Some time ago, OmniLegion wrote about a theory we employ when going to market with our solutions that involves approaching the customer experience in a wholistic manner. In essence, we believe very strongly that an end-to-end approach that involves deflecting issues up front, optimizing operational processes and people, automating those processes, and analyzing the experience post interaction is vital to unlocking a true seamless customer experience. For the sake of time, let’s just focus on Phase One: Deflect.

Did you know that according to Forrester Research, sixty-three percent of consumers will stop doing business with a company after only one poor experience? Furthermore, almost two-thirds of those customers refuse to wait longer than two minutes for assistance. If you are a CIO, CXO, or Director of Operations, these stats should be sobering! Think about these frequently spoken comments for just a second; “If you don’t help me in the next two minutes, I won’t buy your products anymore, and furthermore, I’m going to tell everybody about my poor experience.” The reality is, this level of customer service using traditional contact center technology is nearly impossible unless you have unlimited funds and an army of employees. Fortunately, AI is ubiquitously available as a service now to step in and cover the first and last mile that your customers expect.

A frequently repeated criticism by managers and IT decision makers is the resistance many people have to interacting with AI and bot technology. The irony in this belief, of course, is that virtually everyone is already using AI on a daily basis. When you speak to your mobile device, or order a product online, or do business with your financial institutions, you are using AI. When you click on the “chat with us now” bubble on your favorite website, you are using a virtual assistant a lot of the time and may not even realize it. Further blurring the line between man and machine are Automatic Speech Recognition systems and Text-To-Speech services such as Amazon Polly, which are getting very adept at recognizing and synthesizing human speech.

Younger generations in particular tend to place a premium on customer service, and consequently are more likely to abandon your product after a negative customer service experience. As new technology solutions march forward across the world however, more and more consumers are choosing to use alternative methods to communicate with businesses. Forrester Research also points out that sixty-seven percent of consumers worldwide have used a chatbot for customer support within the last year. In a world that has made the collective choice to sacrifice privacy for convenience, most people don’t mind interacting with a chatbot now as opposed to waiting on hold to speak with a human. By implementing a virtual assistant, businesses can accelerate their time to action, lower customer support costs, and reduce employee load at the same time.

Research has shown that the Virtual Assistant market is already very large, and projected to explode over the next five years. As of 2019, the Virtual Assistant market was valued at $17.17 billion and is currently project to reach $102.29 billion by 2025. To put those numbers into perspective, the second number is twice as large as the cloud contact center market, so the numbers demonstrate the demand for self-service solutions in the customer experience industry.

So, who are the players in this crowded market? Companies like IBM with Watson, Dialogflow from Google, and Amazon Lex are the ones driving solutions, and often they serve as the foundation for smaller platforms who white-label the underpinning AI algorithms and deep learning networks that power these solutions. That’s the good news for emerging and developing companies that may not be able to afford more expensive solutions. One such solution that capitalizes on this model is HelpShift, out of Silicon Valley, which cut its teeth in the gaming industry. By connecting digital channels, phone support, self-service and bots — and by embedding these within a single messaging thread —  Helpshift’s Connected Customer Conversation platform enables your customers to reach out through any channel and take the most efficient path towards resolution through AI, bots, and automation.

Let’s take a look at how different sectors are augmenting customer experience with Virtual Assistants to solve customer problems and ultimately drive industry growth.

Healthcare

  • Help patients find the right services and nurses to connect to the right doctor
  • Facilitate conversational discovery of services and scheduling
  • Track specialists and set up referrals through a single conversation
  • Understand symptoms and send the data to doctors, who provide diagnoses and prescribe medicine in real-time
  • Proactively engaging patients with recent in-patient procedures and chronic conditions offering advice including medication reminders/lifestyle changes/mood tracking/wellness programs
  • Help patients navigate care such as understanding benefits and care plans
  • Offer templates that address care-specific use cases that include pre-configured intents and dialogue flows that can be built to suit unique customer needs

Financial Services

  • Perform financial and non-financial banking transactions by using conversational AI, which has extensive financial knowledge
  • Send money, pay bills, monitor transfers or set up and cancel payments
  • Check account balances and apply alerts so customers can move money when needed to avoid NSF transactions
  • Respond to simple requests such as “how to” questions, unlocking cards, resetting passwords, completing transfers or checking balances
  • Help customers find and navigate to the nearest branch location
  • Collect customer information to help customers apply for services such as loans or new accounts
  • Send messages and have conversations about suspicious account activity

Government

  • Use AI to put critical data and information into the hands of their citizens
  • Complete daily functions such as password resets and account information
  • Answer questions about programs
  • Provide a quick access to public data
  • Submit complaint request online
  • Submit forms from different agencies
  • Pay taxes and bills

Retail

  • Place orders or schedule recurring orders of products
  • Act as a personal shopping assistant
  • Provide basic quotes
  • Collect customer information and needs prior to speaking with sales
  • Customer support questions
  • Provide shipping updates

General

  • Automate online support and provide helpful aids to customer service representatives with the history of the conversation being saved
  • Provide in-app customer support for basic questions and needs such as FAQ’s
  • Personalize interactions to create a better user experience using AI/ML
  • Give updates on deliveries through the channel of choice
  • Deliver added ancillary value to your product/service (i.e. food company providing recipes)
  • Managing internal helpdesk support for level 1 and low level 2 issues and use AI/ML for system self-learning that analyze human language without any human assistance
  • Log issue tickets and escalate to an agent when necessary
  • Collect customer feedback at the point of engagement through surveys etc.
  • Confirm orders and track the shipping
  • Refund and exchange requests
  • Lead generation and nurturing
  • Appointment booking/rebooking

Virtual Assistants have proven their ability to handle anything from basic Q&A level interactions all the way to complex multi-step conversations. In some instances, businesses have seen a reduction in front line support incidents of up to ninety-percent. Obviously, we do not live in a world yet where all human customer service can be replaced by AI. However, businesses who have embraced these solutions have seen significant cost savings and improved customer experiences almost overnight.

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