Article : Virtual Agents - Friend or Foe?
Intelecom’s own experience with customers tells us that the demand for self-service has never been greater. Consumers want to do business on their terms, as it suits them. New communications methods such as Web Chat are rising in popularity with a dramatic 82% increase expected in the next two years. This presents contact centre managers with a real challenge as they seek to deliver exceptional levels of personalised customer service to an independently minded consumer community.
IVR – the foundation of self-service
Around for a long, long time, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology makes self-service possible. It is the routing system that helps manage fluctuating call volumes or enables customers to book a hospital appointment or pay their gas bill at any time without agent intervention. Crucially, it’s also the front door to the whole contact centre experience and, as such, has to be perfect. Get it wrong and risk losing both customers and your hard-earned reputation.
Fortunately, we’ve learnt a lot about how to get it right. Organisations should think ‘inside-out’ and really listen to their customers perhaps using their own customer satisfaction and email surveys or post IVR calls. For instance, if 80% of callers are requesting password resets, make that the first menu option.
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Enter the virtual contact centre
Many organisations are moving towards a virtual contact centre model with virtual agents. This is the next stage in improving self-service especially as consumers embrace social media and want to interact using their latest iPhones and mobile tablets.
But what are virtual agents? The first type are those who work away from the physical location of the contact centre either remotely at another location or, increasingly, from home. These virtual agents are, according to contact centre consulting firm Backus & Associates LLC, "much happier with their jobs (as they don’t have to contend with the daily commute or worry about ironing their shirt), resulting in higher CSATs and quality scores". The companies who employ them often report higher agent productivity, lower attrition rates and reduced operations costs because they can expand their staff without impacting facility space.
"My name is Lucy, how can I help?"
The second type of virtual agent – and the one that has probably had the biggest impact on the contact centre – are the automated, computer-generated agents, previously referred to as avatars that pop-up on the screen when customers use visual communications methods such as Web Chat. Also called a virtual rep or v-rep, virtual agents are becoming increasingly commonplace in some industries such as travel, healthcare, and utilities.
When it comes to enhancing customer satisfaction, the International Customer Management Institute reveals that "more than 64% of contact centre leaders feel advanced self-service options such as virtual agents improve the overall customer experience".
So what are the pros and cons of virtual agents?
Virtual agents balance automation and personalised service but are they right for your organisation?
- 24/7 access – Customers can ask questions at 2:00 a.m. and get an immediate answer without waiting for the contact centre to open at 9:00 a.m.
- Reduced wait times and call volumes - leveraging both artificial intelligence with a graphical representation, virtual agents can help customers quickly with their most common requests such as placing orders, locating information and making reservations.
- Greater customer engagement and loyalty – a well-designed virtual agent can feel like a real live agent. Given a face and even a name, they boost the customer experience and strengthen brand loyalty.
- Effective on boarding tool – new and training agents can hit the ground running because they have instant access to accurate information they can use to answer customers enquiries.
- Business benefits - when a virtual agent is effective in guiding a customer toward the information they need in a way that is fast, efficient and enjoyable, the company is rewarded with reduced support costs and greater revenues through more effective self-service and happier customers.
- Image – virtual agents can appear a little trite, especially in B2B industries where customers often expect a more formal, conventional approach to branding and customer interaction.
- Exclusive, not inclusive – Tech savvy Millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000 – will find virtual agents entertaining and interesting, whereas older customers might find them a distraction and, worse, a complete turn-off.
- You can’t afford to get it wrong - otherwise you risk losing customers and reputation without having an opportunity to put it right.
Ultimately, contact centre leaders should blend the benefits of self-service and virtual agents with the human touch to meet the needs of all customers and the overall business.
 - Intelecom "Survey Results 2015: The Real Emerging State of the Contact Centre."
 - Homeworking and Happy - The Advantages of Virtual Agents
 - Using Intelligent Virtual Agents to Improve the Customer Experience
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Published: Friday, March 25, 2016
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