Whether a person visits a website or contacts a call center, a virtual agent can be used for customer support, lead generation, payment processing, account updates or information gathering.
How does a virtual agent work? Virtual agents use AI to enhance a conversation and make it more natural. With a high-quality virtual agent, the customer should have as seamless an experience communicating with the artificial intelligence (AI) powering the agent as they would with a live person. Virtual agents use Natural Language Processing (NLP) to parse speech and Natural Language Understanding (NLU) to figure out user intent and communication patterns. A virtual agent may also be referred to as an IVA (Intelligent Virtual Agent) because of their ability to engage, adapt, process, and analyze human dialogue.
Chatbots vs Virtual Agents vs Conversational AI
The line between chatbots and virtual agents is slowly disappearing. Many of the first chatbots were strictly text-based and did not use NLP at all, instead offering the user or customer a structured dialog, or used simple keyword spotting to respond to questions. A chatbot would be built with workflows that included these questions and mapped out answers. Oftentimes chatbots would lead to an FAQ or a knowledge-based webpage. They weren’t necessarily built to mimic human interaction. As more chatbots start to incorporate AI, however, the distinction between chatbots and virtual agents becomes blurred and at some point may not exist at all.
For now, virtual agents usually go a few steps beyond chatbots and are closer to natural dialogue. They might use IVR technology, but they also use keywords and tone to focus on user intent. With more complexity, more questions, and more changes in conversation topics, a virtual agent has the ability to process intricate communication. Virtual agents are intended to solve problems as a stand-alone solution. They use technological advancements to make AI platforms even closer to human conversations.
Conversational AI is the modern technology that virtual agents use to simulate conversations. Where a chatbot is a basic program that can text through a website interface, mobile application, or social media/messaging platform, it is usually rule-based. Conversational AI technology can automate dialogue. The AI uses word choice, sentence structure, and tone to process a text or voice response for a virtual agent.
Common Types of Virtual Agents
As technology catches up to what a human agent can assist with, there are a variety of types of virtual agents that can be deployed on your website or with your call center. Depending on how much automation or artificial intelligence is used, different types of virtual agents can accomplish a range of goals or business needs.
Sometimes users are aware of when they are engaging with a virtual agent and other times it might feel as if you are communicating with a person. It all depends on how much customization is used and if you are using a high-quality AI engine and partnering with top trusted AI development companies that provide a high level of effectiveness when building and training your application. Below are examples of common types of virtual agents that you might have interacted with.
Virtual Agent Definitions
Chatbots – Simple software programs that use basic keywords and rule-based questions or answers. Chatbots are used to inform, highlight Q&A content, or re-route users. They are not intended to replace customer support and chatbots are not able to handle certain types of user interactions.
Virtual Voice Agents (or Voice Bots) – AI-powered virtual voice agents that allow a caller to navigate a conversation using natural language. A voice agent avoids the process of a user listening to menus or pressing numbers on a keypad by using IVR. Voice bots are preprogrammed to rely on keywords but do not necessarily utilize high levels of conversational AI.
IVR Systems (Interactive Voice Response) – Technology that allows humans to speak with computers. IVR software processes the communication and keywords to reroute the caller to the right department. IVR technology can also integrate with other systems, databases, and CRMs. Traditional IVR is a speech recognition system that uses pre-recorded audio before escalating the call to a representative. However, modern IVR may be enhanced with AI-fueled virtual agents.
IVAs (Intelligent Virtual Agents)/AI Agents – Customized programs that are built using IVR technology that focuses on user intent. IVAs use NLU, NLP and AI to replicate human interactions and create more complex dialogue. Virtual agents can be voice agents or visual agents (animation) to assist customer support teams as robots that answer questions, collect information/payments, or place orders.
Hybrid Solutions – Sophisticated programs that utilize both virtual agents and human interaction to maximize efficiency and productivity. A product like Plum Voice’s SecureAssistant, allows your team to use a virtual agent to collect sensitive information about a payment or payment method, while your live agents remain shielded on the line. Using a tool like SecureAssistant gives your team the benefits of both human interaction and IVR automation. These hybrid solutions give you the best of both worlds and protect your team by keeping the sensitive material process compliant and secure.
Where Are Virtual Agents Used?
Virtual agents can be used for a diverse assortment of tasks while also relieving your team of repetitive assignments. You might have encountered a virtual agent while registering for a webinar, planning a flight, or paying your phone bill. Any task that could be tedious, create human fatigue, require multiple languages, benefit from 24/7 assistance, or handle sensitive information could be a possibility for a virtual agent powered by conversational AI. The wide range of options depends on the industry, or the needs of your company, but listed below are some common uses for virtual agents.
Knowledge-Based Tasks – Assisting with answering frequently asked questions, redirecting complicated questions, or leading users to information on your website that answers their questions about your product or service. Virtual agents can be extended versions of your FAQ.
Customer Support-Based Tasks – Helping your customer support team de-escalate concerns or problems. Offering scalable, 24/7 support to your users before sending support calls or tickets to a human agent. The virtual agent acts as the first line of defense for your live support team and frees up the availability of the human agents. A virtual agent can also collect surveys after a customer support interaction.
Billing or Payment Tasks – Collecting payments or bill paying functionality. Virtual agents are great for financial-based tasks because of the high levels of security that can be guaranteed through descoping your contact center from PCI-DSS regulations. If your company deals with debt collections or regular payment collection, a virtual agent can fill this role or assist with staff-based agents.
Sales or Lead-Based Tasks – Generating leads by collecting information for potential customers is a useful way to put a virtual agent to work for your marketing or sales teams. Gathering contact information for potential leads is an excellent use for a virtual agent. Virtual agents can also promote an event or upsell a product during an appropriate interaction.
Registration-Based Tasks – Signing up users for an event or newsletter is another helpful use for virtual agents. If your customers or clients need to book meetings or calls, a virtual agent can handle the details.
Not All Virtual Agents are Created Equally
If you aren’t sure where to get started, or if you are looking to build a new virtual agent for your company, it’s important to realize how virtual agents can differ from one platform to the next. There are a variety of elements that should be considered before deciding on a vendor. Do not assume that any given virtual agent can handle everything. Start by reviewing the elements of the virtual agent system you’re looking at.
It’s important to consider the following factors:
How much customization do you require? Map out the types of problems, or types of customers, that your virtual agent will need to be able to communicate with. How extensive is your need for personalization? How much do you need your virtual agent to “learn” as it goes? Some callflows are simple while others are built to be a complex system based on a range of data. How much automation do you need to utilize? Ask yourself, and your team, these questions before choosing a platform that matches your needs. You do not want to spend time and money before realizing that the technology can’t support your vision.
Implementation & Integration
Whether or not your company has an IT team that builds and manages your virtual agent will determine how much assistance you need with the implementation and integration of your technology. How quickly do you need to deploy your virtual agent? Do you have a team to maintain it or update it? Your staff and timeline, or lack thereof, might help you determine which platforms are realistic options. Find a virtual agent that seamlessly integrates with your current processes, whether that means implementing API calls or connecting with your CRM. If you’re working with a vendor, you’ll also want to make sure that vendor has experience understanding the customer journey and successfully implementing customer self-service solutions powered by conversational AI for companies in industries like yours.
Your virtual agent needs to be able to compete with what a human agent can do. How efficient is the software that you are considering? Spend some time researching use cases, or explore how other companies have measured the effectiveness of a virtual agent before committing to a solution. You have options, so make sure that you choose an efficient platform that solves your specific problems. Your virtual agent should help stretch your budget for customer support while improving your First Call Response (FCR) rate. If you’re using conversational AI, you will have a variety of options from proprietary AI engines to major players like IBM, Google, Amazon and Nuance. All of these AI engines have differing capabilities and handle certain types of dialogs better than others. A solution like Plum Voice’s AI Fusion™ allows your application to seamlessly transition between these AI engines for maximum effectiveness.
Depending on your industry, and the information that your virtual agent is collecting or storing, security could be a critical factor. If you will be handling payments, ensure that the company you use to build your virtual agent has documentation on being Level 1 PCI compliant. Similar concerns exist in other industries, like HIPAA compliance in healthcare. For customer peace of mind, IVR security must be part of the consideration process while building the technology.
Virtual Agent Use Cases
Discover how other brands have implemented Plum’s virtual agents and automation in order to see what kind of success is possible for you. Learn more about how companies can benefit from Plum products with the relevant case studies below. Regardless of your needs, your outdated software, or your plans to customize new technology. Plum has a range of solutions and products to fill your needs.
A Pennsylvania-based paper and supply company increased their ROI on time and task operations by 1000% by using Plum technology. The company needed to update its IVR system and optimize the internal process for managing remote workers. They were working on outdated technology and it was no longer reliable or easy to integrate. The Pennsylvania Paper & Supply Company needed a new IVR solution to record time and task information for remote workers.
The Plum DEV platform provided the reliability and features the company needed. This enabled the company to provide a better employee experience, easily scale its business, and increase the accuracy of its time and task reporting. Plum built a solution that offered flexibility, multiple languages, and new functionality. The natural voice audio improvement was significant, and much easier for employees to understand. Plum’s VoiceXML platform was utilized to create a better experience for the company’s employees and increased ROI at the same time.
A major global mobile software company wanted to improve its customer service offerings without sacrificing developer resources. They sought to achieve a better balance between agents and self-service phone options. As the company continued to grow in foreign markets, efficient self-service became increasingly important to provide support to customers who spoke languages that their agents did not. They chose Plum Fuse to handle call routing for customer self-service.
With Plum Fuse, the company was able to streamline IVR development and increase its control over its telephone channel. Fuse’s multi-language support and cloning feature enabled the company to quickly develop and deploy voice applications that met the need of a diverse, global customer base. The client gained complete control over their call routing and IVR applications without overburdening their developers.
Fuse’s visual call-flow editor and user interface made it easy for anyone to create, modify, and manage powerful communications applications that automate customer interactions without writing code. Using Fuse, the mobile software company was able to deploy its first voice app in a mere two weeks.
A major insurance company with a high-volume call center used agents to manually process payments over the phone. The most frequent calls came from customers making payments. Agents spent precious time processing payments manually, which resulted in longer average call handling and average hold times. The insurance company wanted to automate this process and at the same time translate its care and attention toward customer service to an automated solution. The company chose Plum Voice IVR apps to automate over-the-phone payments. Automating payments meant that the company had to ensure that the IT infrastructure was secure and PCI-compliant.
The company chose the Plum Dev platform to construct a user-friendly automation application to handle its payment processing needs because Plum specializes in IVR solutions and offers unmatched flexibility in the development of their application. Using automation and Plum’s VoiceTrends analytics suite, the insurance company achieved an 89% call containment rate for payment calls, which resulted in 350% cost reduction and a better, streamlined customer experience.
Plum’s analytics revealed how well its payment application worked. VoiceTrends showed that it achieved an 89% automation rate and drastically reduced average call handling time and average call hold time while improving First Call Resolution (FCR) rate. All but 11% of payment processing calls were automated by the IVR.
With an 89% automation rate, the company realized significant savings. The average cost per call featuring a live agent was around $5 and the average cost per call using the payment application came to less than $0.15. This translated to annual savings on payment processing calls in excess of 350%. Furthermore, both the integration and transactional costs Plum offered were significantly lower than the other options that the client considered for the project.
OSG, a leading provider of omnichannel billing and payment solutions, sought to enhance its robust digital offerings by providing an IVR solution. The company sought to expand its digital capabilities and part of that process involved building out IVR payment processing.
OSG teamed up with Plum Voice to build its IVR payment application. This allowed OSG to deploy a custom application, and the Fuse platform also made it quick and easy for the OSG team to clone and tweak IVR applications for new clients.
The OSG team was able to use Fuse to create basic call-flows, but as they realized that their applications called for more complex development, requiring multiple API calls and incorporating more intricate, layered IVR call routing, they made the decision to lean on Plum Voice Professional Services to develop their core application. After adding IVR payments, OSG saw a 90% adoption rate of the technology and an 80% reduction in manual labor.
Start Building Today
A virtual agent works in tandem with your current staff to supplement their efforts and enhance the work they already do. It’s easy to add to your contact center workflow to deflect calls and improve first contact resolution – and easy to deploy, as a IVR or virtual agent solution doesn’t require coding, a long turnaround time, or an extensive IT staff. With the right provider, your team can start improving internal functionality and increase your ROI immediately with custom solutions that leverage the power of conversational AI. Contact us today with a list of your pain points or current technology challenges to see how Plum products like Plum Fuse, Plum DEV and AI Fusion™ can improve your efficiency or replace your outdated technology.
Learn more about how Plum can build and implement a solution for you!