In a digital-first world, where customer expectations continue to rise, more and more companies are turning to automation to scale their teams with technology.
Artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities make adopting AI applications easy and cost-effective. One such capability gaining enormous traction is intelligent virtual assistant.
Intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs), sometimes known as virtual agents, are specialized AI designed to communicate in a human-like manner. They understand the way people speak and respond to all kinds of requests, mimicking actual human conversations.
IVAs are built for a specific purpose, such as providing customer service or qualifying leads. They allow companies to scale almost instantly while delivering a great customer experience.
But what exactly are IVAs? How do they work? Will they really help your business operate more efficiently? And is there a risk that they’ll take jobs away from humans? Let’s find out.
What are intelligent virtual assistants?
Intelligent Virtual Assistants (IVAs) are AI-powered software helping businesses engage with their customers. Essentially, IVAs are ultra-sophisticated chatbots that understand and respond to natural language without being explicitly programmed.
Think of them as digital assistants that emulate human interaction to perform certain tasks, especially simple, repetitive ones.
IVAs are extensively used in customer support automation to automate email, chat, or social media conversations with customers. They act as the first line of defense for your organization’s customer service team and escalate complex cases to human agents when necessary. IVAs enable 24/7 omnichannel customer support with automated customer interactions while eliminating repetitive and time-consuming processes.
Although these bots replace many agents’ workloads, they can never replace human support. The most efficient and effective teams operate with a combination of human and artificial intelligence to provide the best customer service.
IVA acts as a virtual agent that works with live agents to field customer inquiries. It deals with routine, high-volume queries that would otherwise bog down live customer service agents and leave the more complex queries to human agents.
This reduces costs since you pay for one virtual agent rather than hiring and training multiple human agents. IVAs can also improve job satisfaction among live agents as they ease agent workload and leave employees feeling empowered to work on complex and rewarding cases.
In some cases, live agents become specialists in conversational AI, bot building, and training. This reduces employee turnover and improves their profiles.
Overall, intelligent virtual assistants dramatically change how your business interacts with its customers. IVAs streamline processes, quickly scale teams, and positively impact customer and agent satisfaction.
Intelligent virtual assistants vs. chatbots – what’s the difference?
IVAs and chatbots are often used synonymously, but IVAs are far more sophisticated. Both mimic human dialogue, but chatbots are restricted by a programmed script, while IVAs have contextual conversations.
Below are the three main differences between IVAs and chatbots.
How IVAs and chatbots speak to customers
Chatbots are programmed using rule-based algorithms. This means they can recognize certain keywords or a set of predefined questions and provide customers with answers to those specific questions.
IVAs use neural networks and machine learning-based algorithms that recognize customer queries and respond accordingly. Their natural language processing (NLP) capabilities are more sophisticated in input and output.
For example, when a customer asks a question, IVAs recognize synonyms, misspelled words, plurals, and informal language. They respond with precise answers, even if they aren’t explicitly programmed to respond to the query at hand.
How IVAs and chatbots provide answers
Most chatbots are basic question-and-answer machines – customers need to write the exact match to receive an appropriate answer. Chatbots use scripted responses or direct customers to frequently asked questions (FAQ) pages. If they cannot provide an immediate answer, there is usually a way to escalate the request to a live agent.
IVAs use conversational AI to communicate in a human-like manner. A combination of natural language processing (NLP), natural language understanding (NLU), machine learning, and AI helps them understand a customer’s intent and respond naturally.
IVAs are often integrated with an organization’s backend systems, using existing data or prior interactions to provide context for both the customers and the human agents. This also enables personalized responses. If necessary, IVAs can loop in agents for complex questions or requests.
How IVAs and chatbots learn
Chatbots are rule-based systems, so only more human rules can make them “learn”. They don’t retain information or learn to answer context-based questions better.
IVAs that use deep learning models can learn from examples. This means that the more data you provide to your AI model, the better it gets at recognizing what customers want and responding to them accurately. Even the most advanced IVAs can be trained with deep learning.
Human agents delve into conversations that the virtual assistant doesn’t understand properly and train it to recognize the intent the next time it encounters a similar conversation. This makes the IVA more efficient and able to handle more inquiries over time.
How intelligent virtual assistants work
IVAs work on different AI technologies, including deep learning, natural language processing, and natural language understanding.
Deep learning is a type of machine learning that makes the IVA better with every interaction and retains contextual information. NLP enables IVA to understand the text, including grammar, structure, and keywords. This differs from NLU, which allows it to infer the intent behind the language used to derive meaning and context.
These technologies combine to power an intelligent virtual assistant to predict a customer’s intent and provide an appropriate answer like a live customer service agent.
But even with the most sophisticated AI technology, IVAs cannot predict what information users are looking for, so it’s important to ensure the data powering your IVA is right. Some IVAs use industry-standard data sets, but the best use a company’s historical data.
Every past customer support conversation is stored in your customer relationship management (CRM) platform. If you upload this data to your virtual assistant, the AI can cluster the most common topics and identify common customer “intents”. Once you decipher what your customers are looking for the most, you can create conversation flows to automate these inquiries.
When this process is based on historical data rather than pre-built data sets, you can precisely address customers’ needs and customize your IVA to your brand personality and processes.
More advanced IVAs learn and improve quickly. A “set it and forget it” model is often easier to set up but results in poor performance in the long run. Your IVA becomes more efficient when it starts recognizing new intents.
Where are intelligent virtual assistants used?
IVAs are used in many industries, including e-commerce, fintech, travel, healthcare, gaming, customer communications management, and more. They’re beneficial for customer service teams that deal with a high volume of repetitive requests.
Using an IVA can also benefit companies susceptible to rapid or unpredictable increases in support volume. For example, an e-commerce company that experiences a huge surge in support tickets around Black Friday can use an IVA to handle routine inquiries, freeing up the human agents to work on other useful projects.
Fast-growing companies can also use IVAs to hire staff when the hiring is time-consuming or human agents cannot get a good return on investment (ROI). B2C businesses with existing contact centers often use IVA.
You can use an IVA regardless of your industry. Some of the common reasons for implementing an IVA are:
Scaling a company’s support team capacity
Serving the customer base with 24/7 support
Increasing customer satisfaction score (CSAT)
Driving more revenue
Reducing employee churn costs
Empowering customer support teams to work on challenging escalations instead of mundane tasks
The ultimate goal of using an IVA is always the same: providing excellent support that ensures customer satisfaction while automating processes to keep employees happy and save the company money.
Benefits of intelligent virtual assistants
IVAs dramatically improve customer service processes. Here are some ways IVAs benefit both the customer and the company.
1. Deliver exceptional customer experiences
Customers now expect and demand efficient and personalized service. 71% of buyers want an experience tailored to their needs and preferences, and 74% an immediate response. Implementing an IVA with back-end integrations lets you provide quick responses and ensure they're personalized to your customer's data and preferences.
2. Increase efficiency
IVAs address recurring requests and save the customer support teams time and effort. With an IVA as the first line of defense, customer inquiries are redirected via phone, email, and live chat channels. Support tickets are automatically tagged, reducing the backlog, and agent time is used where human intervention is required. This reduces waiting times for everyone and saves the cost of hiring and training live agents.
3. Improve your agents’ KPIs
Average handling time (AHT), first response time (FRT), customer satisfaction score (CSAT), and net promoter score (NPS). What do all these acronyms have in common? These key performance indicators (KPIs) evaluate customer success and performance.
Companies using IVAs often see improvements in all of the above metrics. Virtual agents resolve inquiries or escalate the problem to an agent with the appropriate tags and context to address the issue faster, resulting in low AHT. Bots greet customers instantly, leading to an extremely fast FRT. And as IVAs increase overall efficiency, the CSAT and NPS also increase over time.
4. Reduce agent frustration and churn
Many agents in traditional contact centers spend time handling recurring requests, such as order tracking, returns, and cancellations. This is frustrating for people looking to handle more complex problems and perpetuates the age-old stereotype of call centers and customer service as temporary jobs.
If an IVA handles these routine tasks, like checking dates, names, and order numbers, your live agents can focus more on solving other complex issues. This can make customer service rewarding and a sought-after career field, reducing employee attrition.
5. Provide global, 24/7 customer support
A big advantage of IVAs is that they can work all the time. This is an invaluable asset for companies operating across time zones. Instead of hiring more employees in different time zones, IVA can provide 24/7 support and escalations during regular business hours. This helps reduce the backlog and workload and keeps customers engaged round the clock.
Some IVAs offer multilingual support. This enables businesses to operate in multiple markets without hiring as many bilingual or multilingual agents as they would without IVA’s support.
Examples of companies with successful IVAs
IVAs impact various industries. Here are some case studies of companies where IVAs enabled better customer service.
How Finnair’s IVA helped them navigate 2020
Finnair's traffic saw a huge spike at the pandemic’s onset in March 2020. Finnair had to respond to the enormous customer influx asking for cancellations and refunds. Fortunately, they had already implemented chat automation IVA.
The IVA greeted customers with a personalized welcome message to determine whether their request was related to the current health situation and travel restrictions. They also implemented a new support path exclusively for refunds and cancellations in both Finnish and English, automating many customer requests.
How an IVA became GM Financial’s most valuable team member
GM Financial had a simple FAQ bot that wasn’t performing so well. Their customers weren’t receiving the expected or prompt answers as their agents spent most of the time answering questions about balances, account details, or other high-level inquiries.
GM Financial replaced its FAQ chatbot with an AI-powered virtual assistant and delegated other complex tasks to its human agents. This helped improve job satisfaction and enabled their employees to do their jobs better and have a more meaningful and engaging workday.
Facelift customer support with automation
Automated customer support is becoming the go-to solution for companies conducting most of their business online and scaling quickly. In fact, 79% of contact center leaders plan to invest in greater AI capabilities in the next two years.
Industry leaders in travel, e-commerce, fintech, and beyond greatly benefited from IVAs and will continue to implement them in the future. As automation becomes the norm, customers will get more accustomed to it. Companies that don’t adopt AI will be abandoned for more innovative companies with better customer experience.
Erika Madriñan is the Partner Marketing Manager at
ultimate.ai, the world's leading virtual agent platform powered by artificial intelligence. Erika is passionate about driving mutual impact for partners and customers through strategic marketing initiatives.
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