Seriously, what is more fun than a little friendly banter with the virtual assistant on your smartphone? “She” retrieves directions, dials contacts and even retrieves the answers to life’s most burning questions, like “What is the capital of Indonesia?” or “How many feet in a meter?” or “Do I look good in the color blue?” After a quick, “Let me check that,” she materializes with the appropriate answers: Jakarta, 3.28 and “Judging from your voice, you must be fairly attractive,” (which I’m assuming means the blue thing is a ‘go.’)
But, don’t think for a minute that these digital divas are confined to the world of consumer electronics. The virtual assistant is rapidly becoming a vital part of the workforce, taking on everything from customer care to marketing and sales functions; to the surprise and delight of customers.
“Companies first started using virtual assistants on their websites and mobile apps to differentiate themselves. Initially, the goal was finding a way to build a stronger connection with customers using self-service channels,” explained Brett Beranek, solutions marketing manager for Nuance Communications. “Consumers could ask the virtual assistant a product question or get help finding a specific item on a retail site, instead of having to navigate around.”
Then came the suggested selling; the virtual upsell. But instead of a list of “other products you might like,” your personal virtual shopper presented these items to you, Nordstrom’s style. And that changed everything.
“In e-commerce sites, the digital persona replicated the experience of working with a seasoned sales associate. Instead of just being a differentiator, virtual assistants began increasing revenue,” Beranek said. “You weren’t just out there on the website alone. You had a virtual guide, with a natural language engine, that could access information on what you bought before; assimilate what you were looking for now and make recommendations, in real time, based on all of those factors.”
No wonder Theodore Twombly (the Joaquin Phoenix character in the movie, Her) fell in love. Like him, some companies are ready to take this virtual relationship to the next level: customer care.
Virtual Assistants and Customer Care
Most of us have implemented—or have used—the dreaded IVR of old. That “thing” developed to answer those basic customer questions, like “What’s my balance,” “What’s your mailing address,” or other fundamentals that don’t require the skill of a savvy agent to answer.
Yet, the IVR often failed to wow the customer. It saved money but didn’t necessarily save the customer time, nor provide a warm, fuzzy experience.
Enter the virtual assistant-enabled IVR.
“There’s a huge difference between interacting with a traditional IVR and interacting with a virtual assistant. The natural language capabilities make all the difference,” Beranek explained. “Instead of listening to a menu of options, the customer simply says what he or she wants. That saves time and gets the question answered or transaction completed more quickly.”
But, can you really build a personal bond without true human interaction?
With this new breed of kinder, friendlier virtual assistants, Beranek says “yes.”
“Persona is the key to a great interaction. When you’re calling a contact center, you want a friendly voice, good service and rapid resolution,” he said. “Today’s virtual assistants sound much more human.”
Look Who’s Talking—In Any Kind of Voice You Choose
If you find Beranek’s last statement a little hard to believe, consider this: today, you can get your company’s virtual assistant made-to-order, matching your new “employee” with your company brand.
So, if you want a warm, friendly, 30-year-old female voice with a Southern accent, no problem. A 50-year-old gentleman from Toronto? A sports jock? A cheerleader? An angst-filled teenage girl?
“We have a menu of voices to choose from, or we can create something unique for our clients,” Beranek said.
Oh, did we mention that these virtual assistants are multi-lingual? Nuance Communications’ “Nina,” for example, is fluent in a whopping 84 languages and dialects. Combine that with an always-pleasant disposition, an always-on, no-break-needed work ethic and it’s easy to see why companies are jumping on the virtual assistant bandwagon. And, why the rest of us mere mortals are feeling a little inadequate in comparison.
In most cases, the virtual assistants are connected to a company’s back-end system, so they can aggregate the information needed to answer the question. However, Beranek is quick to point out that the virtual assistant is not designed to replace human beings. It’s just a more engaging way to answer all of those basic questions that every company has been trying to automate for years, saving real people for the more complex interactions.
“Not too long ago, we were jumping for joy if we could reduce the number of incoming, agent-handled calls by 4 percent or 5 percent,” Beranek said. “Virtual assistants can reduce those calls by 40 percent to 50 percent in many cases. That’s transformational.”
The truly amazing thing is, this cost reduction often comes with higher user satisfaction.
“You’d be surprised how many times people say ‘thank you’ to the virtual assistant when the interaction is over,” Beranek said. “I think this speaks to the fact that, if you do it effectively, virtual assistants can help companies build relationships with their clients. Maybe not the kind we saw in Her, but something very real nonetheless.”