Definition

virtual agent (intelligent virtual agent or virtual rep)

A virtual agent (sometimes called an intelligent virtual agent, virtual rep or chatbot) is used to describe a program based in artificial intelligence (AI) that provides automated customer service. Virtual agent can also refer to a human customer service agent who works remotely from his employer's location.

Virtual agent capabilities and benefits

Virtual agent software has improved over the past five years with advances in AI and cognitive computing programs. Current conversational technology allows virtual agents to go far beyond interactive voice response (IVR) systems; virtual agents understand customer intent and can provide personalized answers to customer questions in a humanlike manner. Virtual agents typically communicate with customers via email or live chat on corporate websites. For the latter, an avatar is often used to provide a visual representation of the virtual agent.

Still, most companies use virtual agents to handle highly repeatable tasks. For complicated tasks, live customer service agents are required. In the world of customer relationship management (CRM) software, virtual agents are used to provide 24/7 customer service including answering questions on accounts, help with a password, providing recommendations or following up on sales and marketing leads via email correspondence.

For example, a virtual sales agent can be used to email potential customers to request a meeting with a live sales agent. When a customer agrees to a meeting, the virtual agent can obtain a phone number and collect the information a sales rep might need to conduct a live conversation.

This is enormously useful for sales and marketing teams, as they typically only focus on leads deemed "high quality." With a virtual agent, all leads can be followed up on, which could result in higher sales. In addition, virtual agents cost significantly less than human employees.

Virtual agents are used for highly repeated customer service tasks

How to use a virtual agent

Companies interested in adopting virtual agent software through a cloud service provider or software vendor must invest time and resources into "training" the virtual agent. This initial setup period may take months to complete, depending on the level of confidence the company desires. Virtual agents are based on machine learning technology, which improves over time as the system ingests more data and "learns" through continued use.

Virtual agents can only provide information that has been "fed" to the AI system, and if the system contains bad data, customers will receive false information. This makes the setup phase critical. The initial time investment is worthwhile when it results in reduced call volume and frees up live agents to focus on complex customer service tasks.

There are a number of cloud-based virtual agent platforms that are pretrained for customer service tasks. These programs require no coding or machine learning knowledge; instead, users configure the virtual agent to suit their business needs and branding.

IBM's Watson Virtual Agent, for example, is trained to understand common customer service requests in the myriad ways customers ask questions. And as with any software-as-a-service platform, Watson Virtual Agent doesn't require installation and improvements are added automatically.

Live virtual agents

People who work as virtual agents are typically connected to call center (or contact center) customer service. Other industries which typically hire human virtual agents include the insurance and travel industries.

AI-based virtual agents as those described above are used to handle some of the simpler job responsibilities of live virtual agents.

This was last updated in December 2017

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