At the beginning of 2011, Gartner predicted by year-end 2013 (that’s very soon now) at least 15 per cent of Fortune 1000 companies would be using a virtual assistant. The question is: will this prove to be the case?
When it comes to answering questions like that in the digital world, we’ve certainly come a long way from a process that began with the FAQ. Back in 2000, this format was a new online content category, created when websites were first being built on the brand new WWW. The idea was to anticipate customer information needs by using the sort of interactive exchange that goes back to the Socratic method and beyond. As customers typically ask questions to solve their problems, the idea was to provide typical online answers. The FAQ was a frozen simulacrum of conversational interactivity.
Almost ever since Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, businesses have enabled users and consumers to ask “real-time” questions over the phone to a contact centre. You often waited a long time, or punched lots of buttons until the right agent answered and talked you through a solution for your hardware problem or your bank query. This kind of customer experience service inevitably led to high staff costs, plus additional management solutions to handle agent supervision, maintain quality and prevent customer loss due to unacceptable wait times.
One of the great breakthroughs in Q&A sessions like these, therefore, has been the shift from the relative complexity of real-time calls to the apparent simplicity of customer self-service, using ‘virtual assistant’ online software solutions to extract answers to questions from existing corporate content. Gartner estimates that this self-service market was already worth a billion dollars in 2012.
Up to 2016, the market for global intelligent VAs is likely to grow by 39% a year.
One of the key players in this new virtual assistant space has been the Barcelona-based company Inbenta, one of the first European companies to offer an online customer service that can actually understand the language of the question and then find the most relevant answer. Founded in 2005, Inbenta has unlike many of its competitors invested deeply in a linguistically sophisticated model of language meaning that can be implemented computationally to hide the understanding process from customers and optimise the search for the right information to solve the service question at hand.
This means paying close attention to the potential ambiguities of natural language.
Under the leadership of CEO Julio Prada López, Inbenta has expanded its customer-service client portfolio to more than 90 large companies and organisations, and posted sales of over a million euros in 2012. Its self-service solution has been adapted for websites and intranets and is available in multiple languages.
Inbenta has signed a number of partnerships to expand the range of VA opportunities for clients – one of them in 2011 with CodeBabyhttp://langtechnews.hivefire.com/articles/share/69971/ which provides digital characters that engage website visitors and seamlessly guides them through the online self-service experience.
As a result of this focus on very high quality language understanding technology, Inbenta won an EU Platinum Seal of e-Excellence In March 2011. And earlier this year, Inbenta was awarded an LT-Innovate Prize at the second LT-I Summit in Brussels, crowning eight years of enviable progress in semantics-driven customer self-service, whatever the device or interface involved.