A virtual agent is an AI-based software program that interacts with humans in a similar way to live agents. Virtual agents (also called virtual or voice assistants) can provide services and perform tasks based on different customer intents. Virtual agents can serve phone, chat, and text channels in a unified way. They augment human teams to provide a better experience for the customers and live agents. They take over repetitive customer interactions, freeing teams to solve cases only humans can solve.
A virtual agent:
- Handles repeatable customer interactions, like appointment scheduling, order management, lead qualification, and technical support
- Recognizes natural language and understands customer intent to maintain a human-like conversation
- Speaks using a human-sounding text-to-speech engine or a prerecorded voice
- Is connected to the same data your live agents and can read or change it when necessary
- Routes advanced interactions to live agents in a way that’s convenient to the customer
Virtual agents vs virtual assistants vs chatbots
While these names are often used interchangeably (as well as the term “chatbot”) there are subtle differences between each of the terms. It’s important to point out that these distinctions are not definitive as the market is still evolving.
The term virtual assistants is generally associated with platforms that help users in their personal life, performing internet searches, saving grocery lists, or updating calendars — like Siri or Google Assistant. On the other hand, virtual agents are associated with AI counterparts of customer service representatives that help customers communicate with businesses.
Chatbots are sometimes used to distinguish that they are designed for text-based channels like SMS, email, and live chat (while virtual agents are designed for phone support). Although, most experts say that the distinction between those terms lies in their complexity. Chatbots are used for the most basic conversations that follow a simple script with only single choice answers while virtual agents communicate with customers in a way that is similar to a conversation between humans; customers can interrupt, change the conversation path and talk the way they do with humans.
How to start using virtual agents
The easiest way to start augmenting your existing customer service team with AI-based customer agents is to find a vendor that provides know-how as well as the technology. The key to a successful implementation is figuring out what processes are best for machines, and what’s best to be left to humans. Those vendors help you prepare scripts, integrate the platform with the tools you use, and help you prepare your team for the upcoming changes.
What’s also important to figure out is if the vendor should take over the entire process (so you basically outsource it to another company) or give you the tools and the know-how so you have the flexibility to make any changes or automate more processes internally.
Virtual agents benefits
Infinite scalability — virtual agents can scale up or down on-demand, so when things get busy during the holiday season, you don’t need to worry about hiring temporary staff. Virtual agents can take as many calls as you need them to, and you only pay for the time they spend talking to customers.
Business availability — customers often call outside of business hours, but having human support round the clock is costly. Virtual agents can handle calls 24/7 and solve customer cases easily, so human contact is not necessary. If the case is too complex for the virtual agent, it can schedule a time when the live agent will contact the caller.
Shorter wait and resolution time — applies to waiting for the first response and how long it takes to solve the customer’s problem or provide a service. Virtual agents can take hundreds of calls at the same time, cutting the on-hold time to zero. They can also automatically pull data from databases to provide instant solutions to customer inquiries.
Better customer experience — customer expectations are constantly evolving, and as much as they’ve always expected prompt answers, now a lot of them expect effective self-service options that let them resolve simple issues fast on their own. And only talk to a human agent when the case is complex and can’t be handled by machines.
Lower agent fatigue — virtual agents free up your team’s time so live agents can focus on meaningful conversations. They do it by taking care of the repetitive queries that make humans feel like machines. Better agent experience means a better experience for customers and lower turnover.
Virtual agents use cases
Virtual agents prove useful wherever there are repetitive customer interactions, which means the range of industries and specific use cases for them is quite wide.
Here are a few most common use cases:
- Registration & warranty
- Tech support
- Recruitment and internal customer support
- Order management
- User-friendly IVR
- Reservation & scheduling
- 1st line of support
- Lead generation
- Debt collection
Start small, but start now
This is the time to augment your customer service team with AI-powered virtual agents, as the technology finally allows machines to have human-sounding conversations with customers. The thing is, you don’t need to start with a big investment and keep your fingers crossed that it will work out. You can start with one or a few processes that matter most, see ROI, and then keep adding more and more processes as your business needs grow.
If you’re curious about how AI-virtual agents can change the customer experience for your business, schedule a call with our team so we can figure it out together.