Where Are We Going with the Virtual Assistant?

There are plenty of interpretations of what the term virtual assistant means, and, as usual, what you believe often reflects where you sit.

If you run a search, you’ll find the following definitions:

  • It’s a remote administrative assistant that you find and hire over the Internet, sometimes through a Web placement agency. This actual person helps you with all your personal tasks, like document editing and polishing, making travel arrangements, scheduling appointments, organizing meetings, sending flowers, and so on.  (Links to examples)
  • It’s a work-at-home agent (sometimes abbreviated to “WAHA”), employed either by a call center outsourcing firm or directly by an enterprise.  It’s a real person that works from home.
  • It’s a chatbot. A number of firms that provide chat automation solutions use the term. These vendors provide a chat interface on your Web site. From an application perspective, chatbots are generally focused on frequently asked questions (FAQs). They search a back-end knowledge base and display the best guess answer to the user.  Sometimes they make use of natural language technology to help them understand intent more accurately and consistently.  Often they respond to queries by providing navigational assistance in the form of links to Web self-service applications.  In this way, the goal of the chatbot is to promote adoption of Web self-service, thereby deflecting calls from the contact center.  So here the VA is really specific to chat; it would more accurately be called a chat virtual assistant.  (I should note that in Gartner’s published research, “virtual assistant” effectively means chatbot.)
  • It’s Siri, Apple’s speech-based assistant supported on iOS devices like the iPhone, iPad and iPad Mini. Siri can answer general knowledge questions, help you manage your calendar, set reminders, and search the Web.  Google supports voice as an input to Web search, and offers Google Now on Android devices, which provides prompts and alerts based on context (time of day, upcoming appointments and travel, etc.).  I call Siri and Google Now personal virtual assistants, because…well, they’re personal!  They differ in their capabilities, but their intent is to help you manage data and applications on your personal device.
  • It’s a cloud-based personal assistant that is entirely device independent. It lives in the cloud and stays with you for life. This is the apparent vision for Nuance’s Wintermute project, where the user is tied to a speech recognition solution vendor, rather than a device vendor.  
  • It’s an enterprise virtual assistant (EVA) provided by a specific enterprise.  Today these are typically channel-specific (i.e., for voice or Web chat), but the expectation is that EVAs will soon become multichannel and multimodal, able to interact with the user in either voice (phone) or text mode (chat, SMS, social, and mobile). The EVA serves the need of the enterprise to provide cost-effective customer care in a way that supports a persistent relationship.  It exists to promote adoption of self-service in a consistent way across channels. Increasingly the EVA will reach out proactively to customers with notifications, alerts, and interactive transactions for things like rescheduling appointments, bill payment transactions, upsell offers, etc. Brands look to communicate more frequently and personally with their customers in a way that brings strong value and is welcomed by the customer.

So its no wonder that you may be unclear about what is meant by the term virtual assistant.

This is what we’ve heard from our enterprise customers:  

  • Making a Big Push on Customer Experience:  Brand affinity rests on trust. To do this requires not just minimizing customer time and effort, but promoting communication in a mutually beneficial dialogue; in short, customer experience.
  • Going Multimodal:  Brands are rolling out the channels that provide real convenience for their customers.  This means voice, Web chat, SMS, and social.
  • Driving Cultural Change:  There is a cultural shift in the wind: While historically most enterprises have viewed the contact center as a cost center, the advent of the social Web is changing this attitude.  More and more organizations are realizing that customer engagement and interactivity is a brand relationship building opportunity: something to be encouraged, not maniacally “deflected”.
  • Consistent Business Rules:  There is little appetite for channel-specific communication solutions.  Any virtual assistant needs to be multichannel, and project business rules consistently across those channels.
  • Context and Personalization:  Communication needs to be personalized and contextual; context has to be maintained across channels, across time and within transactions.

If you’ve followed me this far, you’re probably wondering: How will all this play out?  Will we be doing everything through our PVA on the device?  Can we realistically deal with 50 different EVAs that (say) live within mobile apps on our devices?  Will the various flavors of VA talk to each other and figure things out amongst themselves?