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Virtual agents go from service to sales for antivirus software maker

Better technology and consumers eager to avoid phone calls are increasing the use of virtual agents for customer service, but one pioneer is adding them to online sales as well.

Advances in natural language processing, organizations growing comfortable with the idea of using virtual agents and customers who would rather not speak with a live call center agent have together renewed interest in online virtual agent technology.

But for Kaspersky Lab’s European operation, the new interest in virtual agents is about more than simply using online avatars to deflect calls -- they’re actually helping make sales.

The Russia-based antivirus and information security company is using a virtual agent from VirtuOz named Lena. Lena began on the customer service side of business, but the organization quickly saw some opportunity in sales.

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“We had very, very good success with customer support and Lena helping our technical support team to decrease phone calls,” said Michael Neumeyer, director of online operations in Europe for Kaspersky Lab. “We decided to start first with a project to help Lena author sales.”

Lena sits on the online store page for Kaspersky Lab Germany. She helps customers find the correct product and answers questions about the order process. Lena even asks asks some questions herself, such as, Are you using online banking? social media? Do you need a password manager?

Virtual agent Lena demonstrates potential 
While Lena has only been in place since December, the results are encouraging. The company has seen an 80% sale support success rate, according to Neumeyer. The average order value increased 8% last month.

Kaspersky is just one of a growing number of companies seeing the benefits of virtual agents, according to Diane Clarkson, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

Lena, Kaspersky's virtual agent

“What we’re starting to see is a renewed interest in them across a variety of industries,” she said. “Two things are driving that. E-business people are realizing that call deflection is a good thing for their customers, because customers don’t necessarily want to talk to them and there’s very high customer satisfaction from self-service online. The other thing is the technology has gotten a lot more sophisticated over the last couple of years.”

Extending virtual agents to sales, however, is rare, she said. Kaspersky is a pioneer here, though companies are considering it.

“We are seeing more interest in it,” Clarkson said. “People are expanding the technology in a way that’s going to be important because its’ going to serve multiple goals. Most look at it based on call deflection or customer satisfaction. This introduces a whole new layer of business benefit.”

A similar shift took place with chat, Clarkson noted. It began as a support tool and then people realized it could be offered proactively.

However, shifting virtual agents to a sales role requires two things: a really good virtual agent and clear communication.

“When you have something with goals sitting in different parts of the organization, it requires clear articulation around ownership,” Clarkson warned.

At Kaspersky Lab, Neumeyer and the online operations oversee Lena. The technical team oversees the service side; online sales team, the online sales deployment. They all have weekly calls with one another and VirtuOz.

That cooperation was vital from the beginning of the project as support, marketing, operations and representatives from VirtuOz as well as Digital River, the e-commerce software provider, combined to build the Lena sales database over six weeks.

“We have a very, very good database, which finds out what a customer wants. It’s all in one database,” Neumeyer said. “The database is nearly completely new. All the sales questions and questions about how do you receive an advanced activation code, those are new. The only old questions were technical questions.”

Virtual agents and the knowledge base

According to Clarkson, most organizations embarking upon a virtual agent roll-out will tie the project to their knowledge management database, depending on their current strengths and the nature of the customer support they provide.

“A lot are getting the basics in place, a really good knowledge management and interface to get online self-service. Then you can look at virtual agents,” she said. “Typically the best thing companies can do is the 80-20 rule. Start off with a virtual agent by really focusing on the top questions people come to you for.”

Kaspersky Lab is certainly taking a gradual approach. It started Lena in its shopping cart section to get a baseline and after four weeks rolled Lena out to the product information and license renewal pages. Now she appears on nearly all pages where a customer can download the software.

“We have had very positive reaction from customers to Lena,” Neumeyer said. Kaspersky monitors Lena daily and customers are surveyed about their activities with the virtual agent after every interaction. “We have a very high rate of saying it was helpful.”

The hope now is to gather more information and ultimately roll it out to different countries. That in turn may bring up some other issues around cultural differences.

“The problem questions are nearly the same -- Where can I get my activation code? Where can I find my invoice?” Neumeyer said. “From marketing it would and should be a little different to sell a different product from each country. Spain is more focused on antivirus. In Germany it’s more complete Internet security.”

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