Virtual agents, assistants and chatbots belong to a family of programs that use artificial intelligence to provide a humanlike representation of an organization. They are designed to not only answer questions, but to try and hold conversations and manage discussions on issues relating to a company’s services and products, and aid in overall customer service.

Virtual agents and assistants assist visitors in voice or text-based dialogues, often accompanied by an avatar, as a humanlike video or animated character. It provides information, services and assistance, and supports a wide range of applications. Some use chatbot as a synonymy for the term virtual agent or assistant. Chatbots are typically used in the scenario for customer self-service, to automate live chat in call centers for example.

Whether it be via voice or text, virtual agents are becoming more ubiquitous as Apple has Siri, Amazon has Echo, and Google recently announced its Echo competitor called ‘Google Home’ which the company describes as a “virtual agent that answers simple questions and carries out basic tasks.” And, of course, the big news this past year has been Facebook’s announcement of chatbots for its messenger service, which currently has 900 million users. This will allow merchants to have a whole new level of interaction with consumers. However, this does not come without some controversy as privacy issues are brought to the forefront, but in response Facebook has announced an encrypted version of its messenger.

It’s important to note that virtual assistants have been around for a while as IKEA has had its virtual assistant, Anna, to assists users in finding information about furniture on IKEA’s online product catalogue. Created in 2003 by Artifical Solutions, Anna remains one of the largest implementations of a virtual assistant worldwide. Anna is used in 20 countries and is able to communicate in 18 languages via IKEA’s country websites.

The key word to all these types of technologies is ‘assistant’ as consumers today want highly personalized service, as indicated by Engageware’s latest research regarding personalization in retail. Consumers want help in making decisions and leading companies will provide this help in a timely manner, whether it be via voice, text, chat or in-person.

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