Virtual Assistants: What Consumers Want and How to Deliver

In an independent survey of 3,000 U.S. and U.K. consumers by late last year, consumers said no to virtual assistant (VA) or chatbot silos.

The research found that 59 percent of all respondents (62 percent in the United States and 55 percent in the United Kingdom) felt that having to repeat information and context to a human agent in the event of escalation from chatbots was the biggest hassle by far in using virtual assistants. The second biggest deterrent, at 32 percent (29 percent in the United States and 37 percent in the United Kingdom) was chatbots getting stuck and not knowing what to do next.

So how can businesses not only eliminate these barriers to consumption but also take virtual assistant adoption to new levels? Here are 12 steps:

  1. Put it in a hub: We have heard about customer interaction silos for years, and the last thing we need is yet another silo, namely, the chatbot silo! Make sure your virtual assistant is part of a unified multichannel customer engagement hub. That way, when it gets stuck trying to answer a customer question, it can escalate, with all the context intact, to a human agent.
  2. Make it self-aware: You don't want your virtual assistant to be like the stereotypical male driver, who would always think he knows the answer and never ask for directions in the pre-GPS era. The assistant should be taught to escalate to a human at a time that is not too early or too late. Experienced solution providers know what this might be and help set up the chatbots that way.
  3. Boost its IQ: Best-in-class chatbots go beyond natural language understanding to leverage other artificial intelligence technologies, such as machine learning, supervised learning, analytics, and reasoning, to boost their intelligence.
  4. Deploy everywhere: Deploy the assistant not just on your website, but also on other digital touchpoints, such as in-app, messaging, and social.
  5. Make it an ill-kept secret: Don't bury your assistant in the help section. Lead with the assistant and make it available on every page. Better yet, make it proactively offer help, push contextual web pages, and conduct tours of your website.
  6. Make it your brand ambassador. Virtual assistants are meant to represent your company and its brands. Best-in-class solutions include off-the-shelf avatars, letting you choose from cartoon or realistic characters, as well as static or animated options. Of course, you could choose to design your own assistant, even model it after your spokesperson if you have one. Good solutions also let you create a unique conversation style and tone.
  7. Keep it snappy. One of the main reasons consumers like virtual assistants is their speed. Pick a solution whose infrastructure will allow performance to scale with system load.
  8. Cut the consumer some slack. Make sure your virtual assistant is tolerant of bad spelling and grammar. Enable various modes of conversation, with support for text-to-text, speech-to-text, text-to-speech, and speech-to-speech. The virtual assistant should also integrate with virtual personal assistants. such as Alexa, Siri, and Cortana.
  9. Politeness pays, especially when the virtual assistant can't understand the question. Instead of saying, "Please, one idea at a time,"which borders on rudeness, the assistant could say, "I'm sorry, but that is a rather complicated request. It will be easier if you could break it up into a series of simple questions."
  10. Show rather than talk, and keep answers short. This is especially important for mobile and speech interactions. Instead, push relevant pages. Many customers might not know their way around on your website; in fact, that might be the reason they summoned help.
  11. Be consistent. The virtual assistant should talk the same talk as your other agents and self-service options. Make sure it does not run off a siloed, inconsistent knowledge base. It should be based on a unified platform not only for multichannel customer engagement but also knowledge management.
  12. Personalize. Good virtual assistants can remember details, such as the customer's name, once it is given to them, and use it through the conversation. In authenticated portions of your website, you could integrate the assistant with other systems to provide informational and transactional customer service. You could also make targeted offers to the customer through the assistant.

A good virtual assistant is like P. G. Wodehouse's famous butler, Jeeves: Always present, yet never in the way. It is knowledgeable, capable of keeping up with the workload, and able to summon additional help seamlessly when needed. Go Jeeves with your virtual assistant; you will be well on your way to wowing consumers with engaging customer service!

Anand Subramaniam is senior vice president of marketing at eGain.