Virtual online assistants are better than human customer service representatives, according to a recent study. Customers of large European banks prefer internet "bots" (robots) to live customer service representatives - but acceptance of the new technology depends on how well it is implemented...
The study was commissioned jointly by eGain Communications and a large European bank, and was conducted by The Usability Company. It aimed to determine how customers would react to eGain's virtual assistant product - and the final analysis revealed a rather unexpected result: People seeking answers to financial questions would rather ask a robot than a human being.
Accuracy and relevance of response are the most important factors in customers' acceptance of a virtual assistant. The participants in the study entered their questions in English sentences, and accepted the need to occasionally rephrase in order to obtain a relevant answer, but only up to a point. Three rephrasings exhausts the typical user's patience. However, the fine details of the implementation play a big role in whether customers enjoy the experience or merely tolerate it.
The participants in the study overwhelmingly preferred the eGain virtual assistant to telephone-based customer service. In contrast to long periods of time spent on hold and the uneven quality of service the participants associated with call centres, the virtual assistant's responses were perceived as quick, accurate and trustworthy.
Accuracy is paramount
The eGain virtual assistant achieves over 90% relevancy in its responses, reaching 96% for one major financial institution. This is done using an automated process that creates a specially structured 'knowledge base' from existing resources such as FAQs (frequently asked questions). The process takes into account not only keywords but synonyms, misspellings and syntax rules.
Ten tips for success
The study revealed these ten useful tips on getting the details of the implementation right:
- Have the assistant constantly (but unobtrusively) available on the screen on every page.
- Put the assistant near the top of the screen, but not at the very top. Consumers expect adverts at the top of the screen.
- If the assistant has to be reached via a button, put it near the top of the screen and label it clearly.
- Avoid pop-up windows. Consumers reacted negatively to a virtual assistant window that obscured other windows.
- Make the text box large enough to contain a typical query so that users can see what they've written.
- If the virtual assistant refers visitors to a particular page, provide a link that takes them directly to that page.
- Be tolerant of common grammatical and spelling mistakes: queries shouldn't have to be rephrased because of unintentional errors.
- Make sure that there is a mechanism to escalate the inquiry to a source that can provide a more satisfactory answer (either online or offline.)
- Provide adequate infrastructure so that bandwidth and processing time don't slow the assistant's responses down. One of the main reasons consumers like virtual assistants is their speed.
- Be polite! In particular, phrase error messages so as not to antagonise customers who are already frustrated because they've made an 'error'.
A friendly face
Typically, a virtual assistant's answers are delivered with a human representation (either a series of facial photographs or a cartoon figure capable of a variety of expressions). These expressions, combined with the language used in the responses, create a personality that can be friendly or reserved, humorous or serious, as appropriate to the company's image and web site. In the case of the bank that commissioned the survey, participants strongly preferred a female personality that was "knowledgeable but not patronising, concise, and not too formal."
eGain Assistant powers a number of virtual agents including Lori (McAfee.com), Rita (ABN AMRO CashProWeb), Rachel (Friends Provident, UK) and Japan's first virtual agent at Hokkaido Bank. Because the agents are available 24/7 and take no breaks, they answer many first-line customer questions that would otherwise tie up a company's telephone agents. In one instance, the eGain virtual agent deflected 50% of the most common phone calls, handling a volume of inquiries that would have otherwise needed a staff of 33 people. These kinds of results make the virtual agents a popular choice for providing first-level customer assistance, so that trained phone agents can delivery a higher quality of personal customer service by focussing on the more complex problems.
Not a call-centre replacement
"We're very pleased with the positive results of this study," said Michael Lehane, product manager for eGain Assistant, "but we're not surprised. Our technology may sound futuristic to the general public, but it's mature and has a proven track record of success." Lehane added that despite the results of the usability study, eGain recommends that companies do not deploy the virtual agents as a total solution for customer service. "Virtual agents offer an excellent first point of contact for customer service," said Lehane, "but the best service strategy is to combine the virtual agents with options to escalate the inquiry to assisted service if needed. Customers need the assurance that their inquiries will be answered - whether by virtual agents, or live customer service representatives."