Contact Centers Cuddle Up to Intelligent Virtual Assistants

If your company isn't familiar with intelligent virtual assistant (IVA) software, thinks it won't really help your contact center, or believe it's too costly, think again. While the technology won't replace human customer service agents, it can alleviate pressure on the contact center by gathering customer information and transactions, and can even troubleshoot technical problems, such as those on a residential Internet service. IVAs don't always have to be Web-based either; many business sectors are increasingly meeting the challenge of providing customer self-service through IVA mobile apps. Are you craving a pizza? There's an IVA app for that too.

"IVAs are the go-to resource for customer care, tech support, and even marketing," said Dan Miller, senior analyst, Opus Research, in a statement. "Enterprises can see real economic benefits from diverting customer contact to these automated systems."

In fact, the IVA market, although still immature, is seeing steady growth. Opus says that by 2016, companies will invest roughly $700 million in the technology. "Given that a call with a support representative carries direct costs of over five dollars, the direct cost savings associated with an enterprise IVA are formidable."

In 2011, Hyatt Hotels deployed an IVA system from Interactions to act as a reservation agent. The solution handles many of the same tasks that a live agent does—getting information, gathering data, selling and closing, and confirming payments. The results were impressive: The hotel chain saw 15 percent in savings on new reservations; 94-plus percent savings on fully automated interactions, and a year-over-year ROI from 2011 to today of between 125 percent to 150 percent.

IVA Use Cases

Traditionally, the majority of IVA deployments have been on the enterprise side and mainly on Web sites. The typical players included financial institutions, utilities, and telecommunication companies, but in recent years the market has branched out to include retail, hospitality, and travel.

IVA technology provider IntelliResponse has a number of clients including Duke Energy, Blue Cross Blue Shield Kansas City, Yale University, Optus, and Copa Airlines. Copa Airlines, which serves Latin America, has deployed an IVA named "Ask Ana." Ana now handles 50 percent of all interactions.

Nuance Communications counts many IVA customers as well, including Coca-Cola, Pfizer, Pitney Bowes, and financial organizations such as ING Netherlands, Tangerine Bank in Canada, USAA, and U.S Bank. In addition to self-serving banking customers, there are more and more customer-facing IVAs. Remember that pizza you wanted to order? With Nuance's technology, hungry customers can order a pizza from Domino's without ever talking to someone.

The healthcare arena is also seeing more traction in the IVA market. That market is ripe for business cases, such as IVA deployments, considering the myriad recent changes and confounded consumers.

"Healthcare has a huge business problem," says David Lloyd, CEO at IntelliResponse. "They've got so many customers who are so overwhelmed looking for healthcare alternatives. The IVA can play a critical role there."

As Nuance continues its march into mobile customer-care IVAs, Brett Beranek, senior principal solutions marketing manager of enterprise, sees business possibilities everywhere, but believes the most traction remains in the financial institutional domain. "We tend to see the snowball effect," he says. "Once one bank deploys IVA solutions, their competitors have discussions about deployments as well."

Cross Sell, Upsell—IVAs Can Do It Better Than You

Although it might seem strange, according to Lloyd, customers are actually more likely to go for offers from IVAs than human contact center agents. Lloyd even goes so far to say that although human agents can deliver great selling statistics, they still might only address 50 percent of opportunities. Why? The answer is simple: IVAs are smarter than you. With IntelliResponse's IVAs, for example, the technology can extract meaning and context so that it anticipates what customers may want.

"IVAs can make contextual or intentive offers based on the nature of the questions and what is relevant to [them]," he says. "What customers hate is when they get a question answered but then think of another question after they've hung up and have to reconnect. No one was thinking about the question before the customer. To have the ability to understand and engage the customer is huge."

With just some of these advantages, will IVAs replace humans at some point? "Absolutely not," Beranek says, noting that customers will always need a human touch.

Lloyd agrees. "It's not about replacing humans," he says. "It's about allowing businesses to scale. You also have to be where your customers are, and now more and more they prefer digital to live channels. It's not your software replacing people; it's about people's expectations and meeting them."

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