IntelliResponse Knowledge Series: Virtual Agents and Self-Service


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Virtual assistants, or VAs, are not a new concept, originating in the mid 1960’s (without digital representation of course) and making a brief resurgence in the early 2000’s before quickly fading
out again. Over the past 2 years however, interest in virtual assistants (or digital characters) and their use
in the online self-service and sales ecosystem has returned.

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IntelliResponse Knowledge Series: Virtual Agents and Self-Service

  1. 1. Virtual Assistants& Self Service:Are Animated Digital Characters for Real?
  2. 2. Table of ContentsAbstract.....................................................................................................................2Known By Many Names...........................................................................................3 Why Use Virtual Assistants?...........................................................................3 Choosing The Right Kind of Digital Character...............................................3Classification............................................................................................................5Three Key Considerations When Exploring The Use of Digital Characters...........7 The Brand Persona........................................................................................7 True Value: The Digital Character as a Guide..............................................8 Rational Intelligence: The Engine That Drives Satisfaction........................9Why Old School Self-Service Falls Flat................................................................10Blueprint for Success: Planning A Virtual Assistant Initiative.............................11Conclusion.............................................................................................................13
  3. 3. Virtual Assistants & Self-Service: Are Animated Digital Characters for Real? 2AbstractVirtual assistants, or VAs, are not a new concept, Other important considerations that are relevant tooriginating in the mid 1960’s (without digital the discussion include:representation of course) and making a briefresurgence in the early 2000’s before quickly fading • coupling the ability to deliver one right answerout again. Over the past 2 years however, interest in based on the nature of a customer question withvirtual assistants (or digital characters) and their use proper use of facial coding and body language;in the online self-service and sales ecosystem hasreturned. • creating an experience where the digital character is a guide to the user experience, versus being a “talking head” that recites answers; • the importance of looking beyond the sheer novelty of using a digital character when determining if and how your organization might benefit from the technology; andToday, a recent analyst’s vendor landscape identifies • ensuring that the deployment of a specific brandover 65 companies worldwide that are working icon or identity (whatever form that may take) ison digital character development in some form or in line with your organization’s brand promise.another. An improperly executed VA strategy will only serveIf you are curious about the potential benefits of VA to increase customer frustration with self-servetechnology for your organization, there are a number initiatives and cause the customer to associate theirof issues that must be considered to ensure that poor experience with the digital character and itsany future implementation of a digital character organization. When implemented correctly however,for self-service is successful. This paper examines the use of VAs can help customers build an affinitysome of the key initial considerations that should be with an organization via a helpful digital characterused when determining whether the use of a digital that will assist them in achieving the best customercharacter makes sense for your organization. experience. This paper will help you understand and execute a self-service strategy that generates results.Chief among these considerations is the combinationof both rational and emotional intelligence as ameans of ensuring success with any virtual assistantstrategy.
  4. 4. Virtual Assistants & Self-Service: Are Animated Digital Characters for Real? 3Known By Many NamesAt this stage, perhaps a brief look at popular The opportunity for the organizations serving theseterminology for Virtual Assistant technology is in customers is to use next generation self-serviceorder. In North America the preferences include technology to improve upon these rather dreadfulDigital Characters, Virtual Assistants or personas. shortcomings, to drive the efficiency of customerDo a Google search for the term virtual assistant engagement by effectively resolving their serviceand you’re typically presented with results and ads issues online. The results of applying this new breeddirecting you to a real live person off-shore helping of self-service technology effectively often includes:you to accomplish administrative tasks. • Increasing engagement and conversion, toFor the purposes of our discussion we will use drive new revenue,the terms Digital Character and Virtual Assistantinterchangeably, as these terms are commonly • Greatly improving customer efficiency, leading toused in North America. Other terms such as Chabot real impacts in customer satisfaction and(used primarily in Europe) and Avatar (thanks in no loyalty,small part to the James Cameron movie of the samename) are also popular. Whatever your preference, • Protecting and expanding existing revenue whileall terms refer to the same concept: the use of a providing permission for up-sell and cross program designed to deliver an intelligentconversation with a character form (not lifelike) What’s more, the organization that truly embodieswith one or more human users via text and/or voice a post modern customer experience, accrues allmethods. these benefits while also having a bottom line impact on the costs. As Johan Jacobs noted in hisWhy Use Virtual Assistants? latest research report Key Considerations for Virtual Assistant Selection, “Virtual Assistants do not take aA fundamental problem faced by modern customers leave of absence, and never get sick or demand a paywho are interacting with organizations online is raise”. This non-stop availability delivers tremendousthe inability to find the answer to key questions. A benefit to the customer experience, customer service,September 2010 Harvard Business Review article marketing and other areas of your business.entitled “Stop Trying To delight Your Customers” putit succinctly, saying: “57% of customers report havingto switch from the web to the phone”. Another studyby Harris Research in 2009 showed that companiestoday waste over $47 billion each year by forcingcustomers out of their desired channels.
  5. 5. Virtual Assistants & Self-Service: Are Animated Digital Characters for Real? 4 The Competitive AdvantageChoosing The Right Kind of Digital That Isn’tCharacter Some analysts believe that theThere are a number of methods for implementing mere deployment of animated digitalDigital Characters. One of the few approaches to characters can provide a distinctcategorizing the continuum of Digital Characters competitive advantage and, in the sameis provided by Jacobs in Key Considerations for breath, report that there are a largeVirtual Assistant Selection. Although the approach number of nascent firms beginningtaken in the paper is sound and comprehensive, it to offer animated digital characters.does not discuss a critical requirement for any post How can both statements be true? Any technology that can be purchasedmodern self-service interaction. This fundamental off-the-shelf and is offered by a largecomponent is the ability to provide an intelligent number of competitors ceases to makeagent that delivers rational – and not just emotional that technology a specific competitive– intelligence. That is, to place the necessary focus on advantage for the purchaser. As withthe intelligence of the engine and its ability to derive most technology, there will be leadersthe intent of many different questions that all relate and followers in the VA space, andto the same concept and, therefore, have one right customers will realize value only if theiranswer. Fundamentally, any VA “worth its salt” in the deployment suits their organizationalpost modern world of self-service must support a and brand specific needs, as well as acustomer-generated question and answer paradigm. number of key functional criteria. In order for a VA technology solution to justifiablyThis next generation philosophy is the anti-thesis of claim to offer a competitive advantage,applying search techniques or, worse, tree-based there must be some intelligence in thesolutions which are merely menus in front of FAQs. underlying engine that precedes each interaction with the customer.When we consider the classifications of solutionswhich apply to digital characters, we represent theclassification as shown in the chart below:Classifying Next Generation Self-Service
  6. 6. Virtual Assistants & Self-Service: Are Animated Digital Characters for Real? 5ClassificationThe ecosystem for VA technology can be classified as follows:Level 1: a branded experience that is text-to- Level 2: a branded image that effectivelytext. A customer asks a question and receives a interacts (commonly in a web centric solution)response in a text based format. This approach through a text-to-text method. The Digital Charactercan rapidly support cross channel consistent typically does not interact with gestures or tonedelivery of answers to customers whether a web, based on the questions. This level is meant toagent, mobile or social channel is used. incorporate the customers brand into the ask approach.Level 3: a sophisticated animation that is Level 4: a rational and emotionaltypically web focused and provides full animation component. It is the sophistication of the digitalwith voice, text (or both) delivery of answers. You character and its intelligence that defines thecan interact with a sophisticated example of this experience, not whether it looks like a humanat Athabasca University’s Second Life university character. Iris at IntelliResponse guides youcampus where Petrov their Second Life 3D Digital through questions combining rational andCharacter, supports questions from other Second emotional intelligence. Responding with emotion,Life users related to the university. facial coding and body language within the interaction while being able to handle complex and varied questions.
  7. 7. Virtual Assistants & Self-Service: Are Animated Digital Characters for Real? 6Other key considerations that will affect the potential Many of the current studies are examining the linkclassification include speech-to-speech and voice-to- between an individual’s level of engagement whentext. These typically are methods of converting the interacting with a Virtual Assistant persona. Thequestion posed by the customer. ability to instill proper facial coding, body language and emotions results in a more immersive andDoes a Persona Offer Distinct Benefits? engaging experience, one that closely mirrors one that a customer may have with a live agent. AsThere has been a growing amount of research a caution, this is the very area where almost allthat points to increased engagement with the end companies in the digital character solution space fail.customer in sales based engagements involving We explore the reasons why this is the case in theVA technology. Logically this should mean that next section.customer service oriented interactions would benefitas well.One study conducted by Lingyun Qui, et. al. fromthe University of British Columbia examined aninvestigation into the effects of Text-To-Speech voiceand 3D avatars on the perception of presence andflow of live help in electronic commerce.The results of this study indicated that the use ofa Virtual Agent (i.e. proper intelligence coupledwith a persona and voice) significantly increasesconsumers’ perceptions of flow, which is a constructdepicting a user’s interaction with a computer asplayful and exploratory.As part of this discussion on a persona’s impact onthe user experience, it is prudent to point out thatpoor delivery of accurate responses will undo anybenefit gained by using the actual persona. This isan important point and gets right to the heart of theneed for both emotional and rational intelligence inthe post modern self-service environment.
  8. 8. Virtual Assistants & Self-Service: Are Animated Digital Characters for Real? 7Three KeyConsiderations WhenExploring The Use ofDigital CharactersWhen examining the application of digital characters the sake of creating one. If we examine well knownin a self-service environment, there are many factors brands, many do not have an external facing personato consider. At the root level however, there are three that is recognizable by the end customer. Well knownkey considerations from which all other factors stem. examples of brand personas that have a digitalThese three key considerations are: character associated with them include McDonalds (Ronald McDonald), Royal Bank (Arbie) and Hotels. 1. What is the brand persona established or com (Smart). While using a fixed image to denote an planned by the customer? element of customer service/engagement may be appropriate, however, an animated digital character 2. Is the digital character a guide for customer could offer a deeper level of customer interaction and experience? should, therefore, be carefully considered. 3. Is the digital character supported by an If there is a strategic approach to building a digital intelligent engine? character that will truly “personify” the company’s brand identity and form an anchor for the customerWe will examine each key consideration in detail in engagement strategy, this matching of the brandthe sections that follow. promise to an appropriate visual representation can be useful. If an organization wishes to simply create a persona without attachment to the organizationThe Brand Persona one must be extremely careful regarding the risks ofThe development of a brand persona is an important confusing customers or diluting your brand identity.strategic decision often made by the company and The composite characteristics of age, ethnicity, sexits creative agency. This process should begin of and physical attributes could be viewed as engagingcourse, with a thorough evaluation of the strategic by some consumers and offensive by others.brand identity platform currently being deployed bythe organization. As a first step, the key stakeholdersmust explore whether or not ANY persona of ANYTYPE is complimentary to the organizations brandplatform and strategic mandate in terms of customercommunications. One must be willing to questionthe rationale behind creating a character merely for
  9. 9. Virtual Assistants & Self-Service: Are Animated Digital Characters for Real? 8True Value: The Digital Character the guide again provides alternatives to the customers. The guide’s purpose should not beas a Guide to simply enunciate the answer to each of theThere are numerous examples of non verbal customer’s questions. In fact most customers cananimated characters and ones that actually speak, read and process much quicker then waiting forthe latter of which are commonly known as “talking the answer delivery via voice. As well, limitations inheads”. In considering the use of digital characters, bandwidth, user interface (size) and other areas cansome pundits give greater credence to animated affect the delivery.characters that speak. In practice however, thispractice can be fraught with potential pitfalls and Psychologically, it’s important that the customeroften ends up confusing the customer, while causing view the digital character as a trustworthy third partysignificant administrative challenges for service working with the customer on his or her behalf toorganizations in maintaining voice based Digital assist them in achieving their objective – not as anCharacters. The reasons for these common issues interruptive “pain”. Consider how easily this trust cancan often be tied to a number of complications be broken if the digital character speaks the answerrelated to supporting digital characters as well as to the question, and that answer is wrong or notlarger challenges related to the way in which an end available, or worse yet, if they interrupt the customercustomer interacts, trusts and relates to the digital as they are making their way through their buyingcharacter that is speaking to them. or service related journey? The customer now has reason to doubt the character, and not view them asWhen a customer is interacting with a digital helpful or reliable. Eventually, this leads us to outrightcharacter (for example entering a question) there are distrust or dismiss the content delivered by the digitala number of important triggers that occur in terms character. (Anyone remember a certain ubiquitousof psychological and expectation-related boundaries. paperclip animation?)The best practice is to utilize the digital character asa guide to the overall customer experience, but notas the sole source of all of the “answers” per se.In essence it is the digital character whom thecustomer views as a “helper” or guide to theeffective delivery of customer service information.For example, if the answer requires escalation,the guide helps direct the customer to the mostappropriate channels. That is, the digital character The Role of Emotional Intelligenceserves as a guide to “right channeling” to a live chatagent, call center or even email. The key concept in the application of an animated digital character is to ensure that the approach meldsImportantly, if an effective answer is not available, the character with an appropriate level of emotional
  10. 10. Virtual Assistants & Self-Service: Are Animated Digital Characters for Real? 9intelligence, applying both facial encoding for the Rational Intelligence: The Enginecharacter as well as body language. Almost every That Drives Satisfactionreal-world implementation we have seen at this The key component of any successful customerstage lacks these characteristics. Your customers interaction (regardless of whether or not a digitalwill form an impression of the digital character character is deployed) is providing the capabilitywithin the first 1-2 seconds of the introduction just to deal with the customer interaction (typically aas they would with a human. The concept of ‘fight customer interacts through a keyboard but voice-to-or flight’ will come directly into play, as a critical text is also possible). Fundamentally, an organizationfunction activated by the oldest part of the human can create the “slickest-looking persona” (static orbrain. How could a little digital character elicit such animated) possible. However, if it is not supporteda primal response? by an engine that delivers the correct answer to the customer, it’s merely a pretty image or animation—In an instant, consumers will subconsciously ask and a dangerous one at that, since wrong answersthemselves, Do I trust this character or should I will erode the trust the customer places in theleave? Some emotional intelligence factors can persona. The bottom line is this – if you cannotbe designed into the digital character to help build deliver Answers to your customers self-servicetrust. For example if the character greets visitors questions, all the animation and interaction in thewith a smile, and with the palms of their hands world is not going to help you meet your revenue,open and facing up, the facial and body language deflection and CSAT goals.coding is communicating comfort and trust. The delivery of one right answer to customerThe character can then, through text or voice, questions is absolutely critical to building customerprovide a set of options. For example, by engaging affinity and trust. In addition, this core capabilityvisitors to, “Ask a question in the Ask box below.” must transcend the channel itself, ensuring thatThis emotional intelligence transforms the the interpretation of customer questions connectingrelationship. The approach is not to convince the them to the right answer works in social, web, agentcustomer that he or she is speaking to a person, and mobile environments. When combined with thebut rather to establish that the animated digital right persona that has the emotional intelligencecharacter understands the best way to guide it can create a powerful and compelling customervisitors through the customer experience using experience.visual cues that the customer already intuitivelyknows and will respond to in a positive manner.Importantly, the key to utilizing an animated digitalcharacter lies with the ability to control the level ofinteraction, thus allowing the customer to dismissand recall them as desired so they do not interferewith the delivery of the customer experience.
  11. 11. Virtual Assistants & Self-Service: Are Animated Digital Characters for Real? 10 The Uncanny ValleyWhy Old School Self-Service Falls One of the reasons for notFlat differentiating between an animated human-looking character and a digitalHistorically, most “old school” self-service character is that in general the useimplementations have focused on either a static of a human looking character withinmethod of engaging the customer through a series a customer implementation is notof tree based menu items acting more or less as a recommended. The Uncanny Valleystatic FAQ, or on search based approaches to return phenomenon suggests that virtuala list of pieces of content that may contain what the characters approaching full human-customer wants. In both of these cases the customer likeness will evoke a negative reactionexperience fails terribly triggering high customer from the viewer due to aspects of theeffort and low customer efficiency. character’s appearance and behavior differing from the human norm. If forThe first approach assumes the customer can example we look at a picture below ofcategorize their problem and that the designer of a robot that is given humanistic facialthe tree interpreted this the same way. The second features it typically causes a reactionapproach asks the customer to categorize what they with the viewer.are asking in terms that match the content that wasindexed (something the customer will not be awareof). Neither of these approaches demonstratesrational intelligence.The interpretation of the question in the customer’sterms and the relation of this question to a single There are ongoing studies in 2010correct answer should be the foundation across and 2011 examining the impact ofchannels. Without this “rational” intelligence the 3D animations that are attemptingbest one can expect is that the customer will self- to determine whether there is realserve to the point of fortunately finding the correct impact on the individual interactingcontent, abandon the purchase/action which drives with characters. The use of anrevenue or escalate to the most expensive resource animated character is a more(i.e. the call center) in most cases. In either of these appropriate approach thanscenarios the result is a poor customer experience attempting to make the digital assistant as lifelike as possible.that results in escalating support costs and a lostopportunity to delight the customer and open theopportunity to drive new products or services.
  12. 12. Virtual Assistants & Self-Service: Are Animated Digital Characters for Real? 11Blueprint for Success:Planning A VirtualAssistant InitiativeWhen embarking on a next generation self-service based on the costs and administrative overheadinitiative that may include a virtual assistant/digital required to build and maintain a Virtual Assistantcharacter component, one should consider a number persona (using a digital or real human image) youof key questions while laying out a deliberate, may only want to deliver content to the top 5-10diagnostic approach for success. answers then use the Digital Character as a guide for the balance of the experience.Key initial questions to consider: The next set of questions is actually a challenge for 1. Does the organization currently understand many companies, and it involves the use of coveted the nature of the questions their customers online “real estate”. The use of any level of Virtual are asking? Assistant requires the consumption of web page space. As the sophistication grows, (from a simple 2. Does the organization understand the task branded question box to an actual persona) the orientation of the customer? What are the amount of space needed also increases from simply typical items the customer is attempting providing a method to ask questions (providing to resolve (sign-up for a credit card, send a the answer can be done in a separate window wire transfer, get their Bluetooth device for example). Success therefore is predicated on talking to their headset). considering the following questions: 3. Is there a desire to support web, mobile, 4. Typical use of digital or human Virtual social and agent channels and differentiate Assistants is focused on driving engagement, the content based on the channel? the location of the Virtual Assistant is critical. Fundamentally is the customer willing to Do you have the ability to set aside 10 -20% of support different mediums for the answers your prime web real estate to rendering a based on the channel? persona and providing an area for engagement?These first three questions help frame the contentchallenge. This challenge is important as it may be 5. Do you have a brand persona that you will usedesirable (and recommended) that a Level 1 solution as the face of the organization or do you needis put in place to begin the process. For example, to create one?
  13. 13. Virtual Assistants & Self-Service: Are Animated Digital Characters for Real? 12 6. Are you focused on simple delivery through a Technical limitations (Flash on the iPhone) or rich text based response or do you want bandwidth (needed for sophisticated animation or to integrate with voice? Keep in mind that ADA video delivery) are all considered to be short term compliance (support for hearing or sight limitations. Consider the growing influence of these impairment) may be a consideration. alternate channels on the servicing of your customers.The next question encapsulates several The final questions that need to be explored inconsiderations relating to the various channels for the use of Virtual Assistant personas involves theengagement. The intelligence brought to the delivery management of these new “people”. When beginningof one right answer is critical regardless of the the process of implementation, we noted thatchannel through which the customer is engaging. considerations for the management of the appropriateTherefore, the next question to ask is: persona are important. An additional level of content complexity is introduced when using personas with 7. What are the most important channels in which almost the same consideration for digital and human your Virtual Assistant will appear – either now personas. For example, in voice applications, it is wise or in the future? to anticipate the ongoing need to manage, edit, and develop new voice responses. Important questionsAnswering this question requires careful relating to persona management include:consideration, and leads us back to the premise thatVirtual Assistant personas work in some channels, 8. Will you be using a consistent persona (humanbut not others. Some current limitations are based on or digital)? How will these be adapted for newbandwidth or other short term technical limitations. and updated content?In other cases personas may simply not be anoptimal delivery method. For example: 9. How will the management of personas influence or impact the speed at which you • Internal customer care agents (voice, chat or can implement new responses/content based email response agents). Do persona’s truly on business need? improve the internal agent service rates? • Social mediums (Twitter, Facebook or other areas where the richness is not available) • Mobile (primarily due to limitations on viewable “real estate” and bandwidth related to rapid delivery of content)
  14. 14. Virtual Assistants & Self-Service: Are Animated Digital Characters for Real? 13ConclusionAs noted at the beginning of this paper, there isa general belief that there may be competitiveadvantages gained through the deployment of For More InformationVirtual Assistants in a self-service environment. In For more information on cost effective ways to enhance the customer experience at your organization visit us online at:some cases this is true, however the competitive or contact us directly:advantage specifically stems from the use of info@intelliresponse.comanimated digital characters in the appropriate About IntelliResponse IntelliResponse enhances the multi-channel sales and customer servicechannel, using the right methodology and applying capabilities of hundreds of enterprise businesses and educational institutions. The company’s Answer Suite technology is an industrythe right approaches to their use. As seen in the leading On Demand software platform that allows customers and service agents to ask questions in natural language, and get one right answer -recent Harvard Business Review article “Stop Trying regardless of the hundreds of ways the question may be asked. With more than 350 live customer-facing implementations, IntelliResponse is the goldto Delight Your Customers” as well as many recent standard in first line customer experience management.studies on customer self-service, the advantage goes Some of the world’s most recognized corporate brands and higher education institutions trust their customer experience management needs totowards those firms focused on the challenge of IntelliResponse - including ING Direct, CitiBank, Charter Communications, Computer Associates, Everbank, Union Gas, Penn State University, The Ohiocustomer experience management as a whole, and State University and Harvard University Extension School. For more information, visit, visit us on Twitter, Facebook,in particular, on reducing the overall effort required or via our solve informational inquiries in a self-service Copyright © 2011, IntelliResponse Systems Inc. All rights reserved.environment. The first step involves introducing high Second Life is a registered trademark of Linden Research, Inc. The Microsoft Office Assistant animated paper clip icon is property of Microsoft Corporation.customer efficiency and low customer effort in bothservice and sales interactions.Where customers have a specific brand personathey are developing (or have developed) to augmentthe self-service experience, this adds to the overallcustomer experience. The introduction of animateddigital characters that bring emotional intelligenceinto the equation coupled with the imperative ofrational intelligence, produces an optimal experiencethat achieves best practice and, more importantly, atrue competitive advantage.