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Virtual assistants make real call center impact

Virtual agents, tools that prescreen customers before putting them on with a live agent, are helping organization cut costs and improve service.

Looking for a way to increase the productivity of your contact center agents? Get them an assistant. A virtual assistant, that is.

Organizations in search of a tool to evolve the customer experience while improving efficiencies may find that a virtual agent does both. The virtual agent is an automated front-end agent that is playing an emerging role in helping companies build smart and customer-friendly self-service through the contact center and mobile devices.

"You can use them for something as simple as reaching out to a consumer, authenticating them as being the right party, and then [connecting] to a live agent," said Pat Whelan, senior vice president of marketing at virtual agent developer PAR3 Communications. "It's an alternative to using a predictive dialer and getting the customer's 8-year-old child, which is not a good use of agent time."

Nextel Partners has used virtual agent front-ends in its collections department for some time and more recently implemented a PAR3-based solution in retention as well, as a means to contact valuable customers who may be on the verge of lapsing. Predictive dialers proved to be inadequate in both departments because of customer rejection and inefficient use of agent time.

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"We found it wasn't the most efficient way to contact people -- you would get wrong numbers or people we couldn't speak with about the account," said Victoria Peskett, account services retention manager at Nextel Partners. "The virtual agents help us prescreen and know we are having a conversation with someone we can speak with." The virtual agent asks the call recipient to confirm that she is the account holder before transferring her to a live agent.

In collections, the company found that the virtual agent voice kept callers on the line more frequently than a generic predictive dialer hold message. As a bonus, the technology can push settlement proposals tailored to the customer's credit score, often eliminating the need for a live agent. Because retention is a newer application for the company, Nextel Partners is not yet making detailed offers through the virtual agent, but the distinctive recording reassures customers that an offer is coming from a live agent. That keeps customers on the line longer, leading to more than a 400% improvement in win-back rates and a nearly 100% success rate for callers who actually reach a live agent. "The virtual agents have done wonders for our business, helping…use our resources to the best of our ability, which means we didn't need to have a dramatic increase in head count to meet our needs," Peskett said.

Italian credit card issuer CartaSi has also developed a series of virtual contact applications for its customers, including a new virtual agent with a visual representation of an animated contact center representative. The application is already available for its Web customers and is being rolled out to support customers with 3G video phones shortly.

"We are trying to use this video virtual assistant to ask the customer their needs and then drive the customer to the right answer in just three to four questions," said Luca Bellati, director of services and solutions at CartaSi. The company hopes to manage many of its 10 million annual calls through the mobile virtual agent to take some load off its 500-person contact center.

CartaSi is an example of how some companies are just starting to use the animated assistants on mobile devices. But industries like telecommunications and mobile services are already learning the benefits of providing virtual assistance to customers 24/7 on mobile phones.

"It provides a tremendous customer experience," said Armin Gebauer, director of mobile and converging services at CodeBaby, a provider of virtual agent technology. "For the carrier, they can give training on the device as customers are using the application, which drives business. They can also leverage virtual agents for branding."

Gartner research vice president Bern Elliot explained that telecom carriers and wireless carriers in particular are ideally suited to use virtual agents because the technology knows so much about the customer without any need for human intervention.

"You want to know the identity, the intent, and the value. If you're a mobile operator, you know a lot -- the person's name, the phone and the plan they have, you even know where they are or if they're in their car. And knowing who it is, you can develop an intelligent model for what the customer is likely to need or want," Elliot said.

According to Gebauer, although the Asia/ Pacific region and Europe are currently the primary markets for this new technology -- mainly because their mobile networks are more evolved -- the United States should see explosive growth of virtual agents over the next 18 months, due to the major telcos deploying high-speed networks. Gebauer added, "We're on the edge of a new way of how subscribers will manage [their] relationships." Reprinted with permission from 1to1 Media. (c) 2006 Carlson Marketing Worldwide.

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