What Is A Virtual Agent & What Can It Do For Your Business?

November 21, 2022
Time:
7
mins
Virtual agent chatting to customer

Virtual agents are a convenient and powerful self-service tool that can reduce operational costs and improve efficiency.

That's why they're becoming an increasingly popular tool in contact centres.

In fact, 80% of businesses are expected to be using some form of virtual assistant or chatbot by the end of 2022. 

If you're considering utilizing this technology for your own business, then you've come to the right place.

In this article, we'll provide everything you need to know about virtual agents before you deploy one of your own. We'll cover:

  • What is a virtual agent?
  • How virtual agents work
  • The benefits of virtual agents
  • Best practices to get the most out of a virtual agent
AI virtual agent chatbot

What is a virtual agent? 

A virtual agent is an artificial intelligence (AI) powered system that provides automated customer service.

It's employed by many contact centres to provide immediate responses to customer questions and/or to field initial queries before directing the customer to a human agent.

Virtual agents vs. chatbots

The difference between a virtual agent and a chatbot is not always clear, and the terms can be used interchangeably. 

The easiest way to differentiate between the two is to look at their capabilities - virtual agents are typically more advanced than chatbots. 

Chatbot - a chatbot is designed to handle basic communication tasks. It's programmed to respond to questions with pre-approved answers using scripted decision trees. When a customer enters a query, the chatbot picks up keywords and responds with the most suitable scripted response from its knowledge base. In a lot of cases, chatbots require customers to choose responses from set phrases (e.g. to start the conversation the customer chooses between ‘account’, ‘order’ or ‘billing’), which limits the scope of user input and therefore the questions the chatbot can be asked.

Virtual agent - a virtual agent is designed to interact with a customer in a conversational manner. Rather than relying purely on scripted answers, a virtual agent uses machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) to understand a customer’s intent and respond in a more personalized, ‘human-like’ way. An advanced virtual agent can also ‘remember’ previous interactions, which means it can learn to handle more and more customer queries. 

chatbot analytics

How do virtual agents work?

A virtual agent draws on its knowledge base, machine learning, and NLP to answer customer requests in the most appropriate and accurate way it can. 

When a customer sends a message, the virtual agent will analyse the words to determine sentiment and intent.

Based on this, it will use the information in its knowledge base and experience from past interactions to respond. 

In this way, a virtual agent needs to be ‘trained’ to respond how you want it to.

Do you want it to simply direct a customer to the right department?

Do you want it to handle FAQs from start to finish, minimising human input wherever possible?

Do you want it to gather initial details to save time and then handover to a human agent?

There is no right or wrong - you can decide how you want it to function to best serve your business. 

If you do want it to handle complete customer requests, bear in mind that the quality and amount of information you provide it with will affect the quality and range of answers it can provide, and even then it will have limitations.

Virtual agents are great for dealing with routine queries, such as FAQs, but can get thrown by complex issues, which is why a human advisor should never be too far away. 

interaction wand

Key benefits for organisations

A virtual agent has many use cases and can bring plenty of benefits to a business.

To help you determine whether your contact centre needs to invest in a virtual agent, let’s take a look at the benefits in more detail. 

Improve customer experience

A virtual agent can help to improve customer experience and satisfaction in a number of ways:

  • Fast responses: one of the most important factors in determining a good customer experience is a fast response to queries. Virtual agents can answer customers instantly, making them a reliable way to provide fast responses. 
  • Reduce contact centre queues: both phone and live chat queues are a big turn off for customers. In fact, 60% of customers aren’t even willing to wait on hold for just one minute. One of the best ways to reduce contact centre queues is to provide a virtual agent. As the virtual agent deals with FAQs and simple queries, it puts less demand on other channels and significantly reduces, if not eliminates, queues.
  • Gather customer insights: virtual agents are a good way to gather information and data on customer behaviour and journeys. What are the most frequent questions it answers? What webpages trigger the greatest number of interactions? Insights such as this can show you where in the digital customer journey your customers encounter problems. You can then work to improve these areas and offer pre-emptive customer support. 
chatbot conversation

Reduce demand on agents

As a virtual agent can handle many customer requests, it is a great tool for reducing the demand on human agents in a busy contact centre.

This will give agents more time to deal with complex customer problems and improve employee morale.

Of course, an AI virtual assistant can never completely replace agents - but it can be a useful complement to human-powered customer support.

happy call cener agent

Round the clock support

Being able to offer 24/7 customer support with a virtual agent is a clear benefit for your contact centre.

An automated virtual agent can operate without human input, which means it can take over all customer support during your closing hours.

This is also particularly useful if you have customers in different time zones. 

customers waiting for support

Lead generation

Virtual agents can be used to capture more online leads.

It does this by collecting customer information, either via pre-chat forms or through the conversation itself.

This information can then be used to re-target potential customers in the future with nurture marketing campaigns, updates and product promotions. 

magnet attracting customers

Virtual agent best practices

If you’ve invested in a virtual agent, how do you ensure you get the most out of it?

The following tips are essential for ensuring that your virtual agent benefits your business and helps you deliver excellent customer service.

1. Build a decent knowledge base

Even though a virtual agent doesn’t completely rely on scripted messages, its responses are still drawn from its knowledge base.

This means you need to provide it with all the necessary information.

If its knowledge base doesn’t contain enough data, the virtual agent cannot provide the best answers to customers. 

contact center agent using laptop

2. Integrate with existing applications

Like any new software you introduce to your contact centre, it’s a good idea to make sure your virtual agent is integrated with your CRM and other systems.

This makes sure information is easily shared across tools (which adds to the virtual agent’s knowledge base).

It also makes it easier for live agents to take over from the virtual agent if needed. 

3. Enable escalation to other channels

A virtual agent is not capable of dealing with all queries, which is why it should be programmed to transfer to a human when it cannot resolve a request.

There are different ways you can trigger a hand-over (e.g. keywords, time passed etc.), but the key is to make sure the escalation is a fast and seamless experience.

Key channels for escalation are live chat, video chat and cobrowse.

These offer customers a personal experience and ensure swift resolution to problems, which is essential if a virtual agent has not been able to resolve the issue. 

customer hand and AI hand

4. Proactive interactions

Virtual agents are a great way to initiate a conversation with a customer.

For example, if a customer has been inactive on a web page for a couple of minutes, a virtual agent can pop up to ask if they need any help.

This proactive customer service is a good way to generate leads and guide customers to the next stage of your sales funnel.

You should set up rules to determine when your virtual agent is triggered. Be careful not to overdo it - virtual agents popping up as soon as they enter a web page can be irritating to site visitors.

5. Automation

It's important that you make sure your virtual agent is programmed to respond to customer requests and search its knowledge base without human input.

This automation is key to reducing human involvement.

Without it, a virtual interaction will still need to be manually triggered by a human agent. 

chatbot interactions

6. Compliance

Like a live web chat interaction, virtual agent exchanges need to follow the necessary rules to be compliant with your industry.

For example, if it gathers data, it needs to be GDPR compliant, and virtual agents for healthcare providers need to be HIPAA compliant.

Make sure your virtual agent ticks all the compliance boxes before it goes live. 

7. Multilingual support

If you serve customers in different languages, ensure your virtual agent can offer multilingual support.

This can be achieved through real-time translation technology or by adding scripted FAQ answers in different languages to its knowledge base. 

multilingual chat

The takeaway

It’s clear that a virtual agent can be a valuable tool for digital customer service.

When used alongside human-powered support, it can optimize performance, improve efficiency, and enhance the customer experience.

The practices detailed in this article provide a solid foundation for you to get started with a virtual agent for your brand.

But they’re not the end of the story – for a virtual agent to succeed, it needs to be powered by the right technology.

And that’s where Talkative comes in.

Our complete suite of digital engagement channels comes with an conversational AI-powered virtual agent that’s specifically designed to provide humanized support.

It can be deployed within your website, app, and via social media channels, to provide lightning-fast answers to all your digital customers.

With our virtual agent, you’ll also enjoy real-time translation and seamless escalation to human advisors when needed.

As a result, you’ll be fully equipped to provide superior customer service and experiences across all of your customers’ favorite channels.

Want to learn more? Book a demo with Talkative and discover how you can augment the human touch with innovative AI.

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