Study Finds What Consumers Really Think About Virtual Agents



Companies across industries are rapidly adopting virtual agents to automate customer service. However, according to research findings released by NTT DATA Services, enterprises have not properly planned for automation or its impact on customer experience. In fact, 54 percent of firms do not have a defined structure for selecting automation technologies.

The study also found that an overwhelming number of businesses (80 percent) have not yet executed a customer service automation plan.

"From my interactions with enterprises, I have observed that AI is a shiny new thing that organizations want, but they do not necessarily know how to use it," said Sarah Burnett, a vice president at Everest Group, in a statement. "One of the biggest challenges to deploying AI is access to good data. This is something that CIOs need to address."

Results also showed consumers don't trust automated systems for customer service support. At the time of the study, 9 percent of consumers said they do not have a lot of trust in virtual agents to solve their issues. One of the primary reasons reported is the speed and accuracy of being able to solve customer service issues.

However, it's not too late. An emerging consumer segment does trust automated customer service and has had good experiences with virtual agents. They prefer virtual agents over live agents for handling simple customer service inquiries, such as updating billing information, checking account balances, and tracking product shipments.

"Surprisingly, many of these virtual yay-sayers (62 percent), are not millennials, which leads us to believe that it is a mainstream trend and virtual agents will continue to grow as the future method for consumers to interact with customer service," said Kris Fitzgerald, vice president and chief technology officer at NTT DATA Services, in a statement.

Other key study findings include the following:

  • There's a perception gap between businesses and consumers when it comes to using virtual agents. Businesses overestimate consumers' willingness to use virtual agents. More consumers (86 percent) than businesses (78 percent) said that it is important for customer service to answer questions correctly the first time. In contrast, more businesses than consumers said that:
    • Consumers are willing to use a virtual agent if there is a good chance of solving their problem faster (77 percent vs. 63 percent);
    • Consumers don't care if they connect with a live or virtual agent, as long as their question gets answered (61 percent vs. 54 percent).
  • Consumers want quality customer service over warp speed. Respondents report that it's more important for their customer service questions to be answered correctly than quickly.
    • Only 24 percent of consumers would prefer a virtual agent, even if there's a chance it could solve their problem in just two minutes;
    • 76 percent of consumers would prefer a live agent with a higher chance of solving the problem, even if it takes 15 minutes.

Most companies are at low levels of customer service automation maturity. The majority of businesses surveyed are not as mature as they think and report inconsistencies about what it means to be automated.

  • 80 percent of businesses have not executed a customer service automation plan;
  • 59 percent of firms have no formal security, basic governance, or only minimal verification for automation tools;
  • 54 percent of firms do not have a defined structure for selecting automation technologies (including 48 percent of firms with more than $10 billion in revenue);
  • 44 percent of companies report that automation is not a competency in customer service or elsewhere in the organization.

"Success of automated systems involves focusing on the quality of the customer experience. Solutions that are quick and resolve customers' issues accurately will rebuild consumer trust," Fitzgerald said. "It is imperative that automation be part of the end-to-end internal process and not just another implementation of a shiny object."

The study was conducted in October and involved 1,249 consumers and 103 business executives to answer questions about impact, expectations, readiness, and challenges to overcome with automation.