How to increase the attention span in human-machine conversations

Earlier this year Gartner predicted that by 2015 “50 percent of online customer self-service search activities will be via a virtual assistant for at least 1,500 large enterprises”. Interestingly, one of the main challenges the release cited was not a customer’s willingness to interact with an automated mechanism, but the ability for it to maintain an interesting dialogue.

This implies that the conversational aspect of a virtual assistant is crucial, how it phrases its responses, engages in small talk and displays a sense of humor all reflects its personality which in turn needs to reflect an organization’s brand.

To achieve this, we work closely with our customers to help them build the profile and personality of their online virtual assistant. Indeed, this is the ideal way to introduce the concept of an online virtual assistant to the wider business by using it as a way of engaging the relevant departments and teams to help develop and then select the preferred profile.

A classic example of this approach was used by Telenor, one of the leading mobile operators globally and the leading provider of mobile and fixed services in Nordics, as they built the profile of their own virtual assistant, Emma. Working as collaboration between their customer services and marketing departments together with an outside agency who helped provide the graphics, they initially created three different personalities for Emma, with the final vote given to customer services.

It was decided from the outset that one of the key criteria for the virtual assistant to be accepted by customers and staff alike was to make her one of the customer service team. Profiles were developed for each potential virtual assistant including star sign, marital status and previous career (for example, Emma was a ski instructor). Just like every other employee the chosen assistant has an employee number, identity card and is included on the internal phone list. A humorous advertisement for the position was even created.

But why would you go to so much trouble? Well, Telenor brand is ‘built around people,’ and it is part of their stated mission to “constantly seek new ways to ensure the best possible user experience.” With this goal in mind, they wanted their virtual assistant to be able to engage with customers and felt that letting her discuss other subjects beyond simply answering mobile related queries would make her a more complete individual to whom their customers would respond. One example of this is the way Emma greets people depending on the time of day. Of course, at every stage they are always careful that Emma uses plain, simple language that is easy to understand.

So, personality and small talk are important but, it’s also important not to lose sight that at the end of the day it’s giving an accurate, correct answer to a specific query that is usually the main objective for an online virtual assistant. In a recent survey by Artificial Solutions 88% of respondents said they abandon their online purchase if they cannot find a quick answer to their question. It’s also about the consistency of the answer given, even over different channels. So the number one objective is delivering the right answer first time.

And this is where the intelligence of a Teneo Virtual Assistant comes into its own because they can be built to respond to small talk queries in many different ways that can be quirky and fun and give an edge to their personality. However, when the conversation turns to sales or service related queries it is important that the answers be precisely worded, accurate and consistent to ensure that there is no possibility of the answer being misunderstood.

Which neatly leads us back to Gartner’s release that goes on to discuss the reasons why enterprises implement virtual assistants indicating that they range from “profound cost savings and increased customer loyalty, to simply the entertainment of having a robotic presence on a website.”

So, as with all things in life it comes down to a balance! A balance on the one hand between giving your virtual assistant a brand appropriate personality to keep it engaging and entertaining, and on the other hand, keeping the conversation entirely focused on sales and service queries.

Carmen is currently working as a Knowledge Engineer in the Information Technologies Sector. From 2005 to 2011 she worked for the University of Seville's spin-off company Indisys. During this period, she was also a member of the Julietta Research Group at the university. Carmen holds a B.A. in English Language and Literature from this same university. She spent the first year of her graduate studies as a visiting student at the Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. Her prior research experiences include a position as a phonetic annotator at the University of Poitiers, France. Her interests include Non-Verbal Communication, Sociolinguistics, Discourse Analysis, Natural Languague Processing, Dialogue Systems, and Anaphora Resolution.

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