Ten things to ask your next Virtual Assistant

Websites have become the service channel of choice for an increasing number of customers and citizens. Studies show that people prefer to visit websites when they need to solve an issue, gather information or make a purchasing decision. Yet, what’s missing from the online experience is the personal service that differentiates the web experience and guides the visitor to the information or solution that they are looking for. Industry analysts have identified that a new generation of Virtual Assistants (intelligent website avatars) can offer this personal touch.

Say Hello to Eve
Or more correctly, let’s say “guten tag”.

Eve is a Virtual Assistant that helps people using the German electricity supplier Yello Strom’s website – answering questions and dealing with customer enquiries. Eve is from a good family of online virtual customer service agents from Artificial Solutions that can maintain a dialogue with your visitors, answering questions and assisting in finding information, used by organizations as diverse as IKEA and the Swedish Social Security Agency (Försäkringskassan) to better serve their customers online.

Eve is capable of holding ‘human-like’ intelligent, two-way conversations. She understands questions, responds with meaningful replies and performs related tasks such as navigating to a relevant webpage or helping visitors complete a form. Eve remembers facts, learns from the conversations and can access online information by integrating with enterprise systems.

Eve is not just a pretty face, she is also able to troubleshoot, answer complex questions, engage in an interactive dialogue and connect to enterprise systems, and these attributes mean that Eve could be considered a third generation Virtual Assistant (according to the definition by Forrester Research).

Virtual Assistants like Eve are not just a gimmick either, they deliver incredible value to the organizations they ‘work’ for – customers using Virtual Assistants from Artificial Solutions have realized reductions in inbound calls and email to call centers by 30 to 40% – a significant cost saving.

So, what are the questions to ask, if you wanted an Eve of your own?

1. How intelligent are you?

OK, so you might not ask a real interviewee this question, but intelligence will be a key attribute of your Virtual Assistant. Your goal when ‘hiring’ a Virtual Assistant is to deliver genuine two-way, human-like conversations that engage the customer and if you are going to ask one question and not ten, this is the one. In order to understand and interpret the meaning and context of customer queries, your Virtual Assistant will need to intelligently apply this knowledge to real customer interactions. Like their human customer service counterparts, without intelligence, the Virtual Assistant will not be effective and the customer experience will be damaged, rather than enhanced. Therefore, the ability to build real intelligence into Virtual Assistants is the primary attribute organizations need.

2. What are your qualifications?

If you are going to put someone in the critical path of customer satisfaction, clearly track record and references are a must. How long have they been doing this and what benefits have other organizations, similar to yours, seen from the services of this Virtual Assistant?

3. Will you fit in here?

The Virtual Assistant needs to reflect the culture, language and values of your organization, reinforcing and protecting your brand. When your visitors interact with the Virtual Assistant, it’s natural to feel it has a personality and this needs to be tailored to each application and to the audience it is interacting with. For one company, for example a financial organization with a corporate audience concerned about privacy and compliance, the language and appearance of the Virtual Assistant must be very different to a Virtual Assistant serving a teenage audience buying skateboards.

4. What do you know about our business?

A standard interview question that applies equally here, it’s essential that the Virtual Assistant can be given context and knowledge, both in terms of general knowledge and of course information that is specific to your business or industry that will be useful to the visitor.

An intelligent natural language interaction with a Virtual Assistant must therefore be underpinned by a sophisticated knowledge base that give the Virtual Assistants the context and relevancy needed for a conversation with the visitor. The knowledge that a Virtual Assistant arrives with, the languages it can speak and how you prepare your Virtual Assistant to add value to your visitors is therefore an essential question to ask.

For example to an IKEA customer the word ‘Tag’ is the product name for a specific door handle, to a German it means day and an English speaker something completely different. So the context of a conversation, the depth of the knowledge base and its intelligent application is a subtle, yet essential science.

5. Will you work as hard as our website?

Your Virtual Assistant needs to keep pace with that most hardworking customer service representative – your website. Your website is always on, it can handle the peaks of traffic that are thrown at it – even when Oprah Winfrey mentions your product on her show, a popular celebrity Twitterer tweets about you, or your CEO makes the 6 o’clock news. Your new Virtual Assistant needs to be there.

6. Sprechen sie Deutsch?

We’ve talked about Eve who’s fluent in German, the critical attribute here is not just a bit of clumsy translation – it’s essential that the underlying knowledge based is localized, that the Virtual Assistant is able to adapt the linguistic and grammatical rules of each language.

7. Are you prepared to be flexible?

As pretty as Eve is, implementing Virtual Assistant technology is not just about setting up an avatar. Can your prospective Virtual Assistant pick up the phone, chat on instant messenger, update Facebook or send a text using SMS?

8. Will you get along with our other systems?

Once you get your Virtual Assistant talking, the next step is to enable it to help the website visitor to achieve their reason for being there. The visitor arrived on a mission, maybe it was as simple as learning something about your products or services, but perhaps they wanted to complete a transaction, to find out if something was in stock, book an appointment or to get delivery information. For the Virtual Assistant to truly add value to this web experience it needs to simply take care of it, to do more than refer them to a web page, but interact with the
back office and seamlessly serve this customer.

9. What do you think we are doing wrong?

Like any great employee, your Virtual Assistant should be able to give you feedback, to suggest where a process might be improved or report back what it is that every customer is asking for.

Your Virtual Assistant should come complete with powerful customer intelligence tools that continually analyze conversations, providing detailed customer feedback such as common concerns, product issues and market opportunities. That way, deploying a Virtual Assistant gives an organization unique analysis (over traditional web analytics) of the voice of the customer, an incredibly useful insight and a business advantage as they refine the way they engage over the web, their products and services.

10. Are you well turned out?

We’ve discussed that the contextualized language and knowledge of the Virtual Assistant as being essential to engage the site visitor – but equally a key influencer of the quality of that experience is going to be the appearance of the Virtual Assistant.

Your Virtual Assistant should be easily adapted to fit into the context of your website, your services, your products and the expectation of your audience.

Conclusion – Hiring your own Eve

Hopefully this has given you some high level questions to ask that will get you on track to hiring your very own Eve, a customer service asset that helps and engages your visitors and maintains your brand and service values. Across the ten questions there are three main attributes that contribute to a successful virtual assistant:

• The underlying natural language interaction intelligence, the capacity to adapt and learn and manage the complexity of a contextualized and relevant conversation in the language of your visitors.

• The adaptability of the Virtual Assistant in terms of appearance and industry, business, cultural and language knowledge. The depth of the general and industry knowledge that the Virtual Assistant comes with and the ability to augment this with local knowledge.

• The technical requirement to integrate with the back office and to be as reliable and scalable as the web property it supports.

As with all hiring process, all of these points should be supported by good references and a solid track record in doing this with organizations as demanding as yours.

Andy, who lives with his family in the UK, is Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer at Artificial Solutions. A regular speaker at industry conferences and events, Andy delivers insight on the rise of AI, the challenges businesses face and the future of intelligent conversational applications.

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