The Path to Productive Virtual Assistants for Customer Service

The best technology gets out of people's ways. Quality user experiences should connect people with services without forcing a change of behavior.

Artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistants are a perfect example. These products recreate the way humans interact with the world through written and spoken language. It's made possible through advancements in natural language processing and deep learning. However, many AI virtual assistant providers are so thrilled with showing off the complexity of their technologies, they forget about their core task, which is improving customers' lives.

AI virtual assistants should use their complex technology to create amazing experiences, not complex interactions. Here are three qualities of AI virtual assistants that business owners should seek out, and AI providers should strive to harness.

Truly Natural Conversations

Ask anyone. They'll tell you that they prefer to interact with humans instead of machines. It's no wonder; machine-based conversations still largely feel like... well, like you're talking to a machine.

Rather than pushing humans to speak like machines, AI virtual assistants should be challenged to understand humans. This isn't a small nuance in sentence structure but a shift in our approach to customer interactions. It's about developing applications that adapt to human behavior.

This means understanding accents, figures of speech, intonation, and language variation; adjusting to comprehend intent, rather than defaulting to a stale menu of options. It means increasing the number of devices on which the AI-based virtual assistants can be used; and it means enabling conversations to start on one device and flow onto another.

Conversations With Context, Across Channels

Think about how you interact with friends or family members. A conversation might start on the phone, but could continue with little or no context the next day through text or email. We should hold AI virtual assistants to this same standard.

Why not? We find AI virtual assistants in nearly all devices with an internet connection—smartphones, laptops, tablets, even cars and microwaves. But the majority of those assistants aren't connected with context as you move about your daily life. AI virtual assistants have an opportunity to connect these voids without human effort.

This gets back to my original poin that great technology is invisible. The challenge of getting different devices to act in harmony with one another should not rest on the user, it should rest on the tech provider.

What You Need, When You Need It 

AI virtual assistants can and should do more than be available across channels or devices. They should also consider how to proactively add value through people's device ecosystems.

For example, imagine a trip that involves a train and plane. You're on your way to the airport. But, you're running late to catch the train that will bring you there. As you run toward the station, you get a text notification: a snowstorm is on the way, your flight is cancelled. Frantic, you call the airline to book a new flight. You expect to hold for 20 minutes. Your train is leaving in five minutes. Do you hop aboard? Will it be a wasted trip?

To your surprise, an AI virtual assistant answers the line almost instantaneously. It's aware of your situation. You're greeted with multiple new flights from which to choose. You get a new flight and catch your train on time.

That's because the AI virtual assistant in your smartphone identified the situation and offered possible solutions when you needed them. It inferred how to provide value to you from the situation. Moments like this are possible when technology stays out of your way and does the complex problem solving in the background.

There is monumental potential in AI-based virtual assistants in customer service. But, for all of the hype, I see more solutions that want to prove to me how intelligent they are rather than get out of my way and go to work for me. If that's the future, it's one of missed potential.

Instead, we'll soon reach a place where AI-based virtual assistants inherently improve customers' lives. It will be full of challenges, complex technology, and strategies. But, in a sense, it will be easy to monitor progression along this path by asking questions based on the pillars above: does this assistant converse naturally? Does this assistant use context to connect various devices in my world? And, does this assistant proactively inform me of critical information and connect me to the resources I need?

If technology providers hold themselves to these standards, they'll truly improve our lives with intelligent virtual assistants.

Robert Nagle is chief technology officer and chief product officer at Interactions.

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