04 November 2013

New Opportunities for Virtual Assistants in European Customer Service

The IT consulting firm Gartner recently predicted  that Virtual Personal Assistant (VPA) usage in retailing contexts will grow more quickly in 2017 and 2018 than iPad usage did in 2010 and 2011. VPA technology can use a variety of channels – sometimes through text chat, but also using conversational interfaces on a smartphone – to connect customers with services that benefit from smart digital efficiencies.

Gartner has even claimed that in 2014 the number of speech recognition applications running on deep neural network algorithms (as touted by Google, Microsoft, Nuance and others today) will double, though most of them will probably handle personal information management tasks for individuals rather than customer services. So the question is: how can language and speech technology meet the specific challenges facing the customer-service market with respect to this evolution towards VPAs?

An interesting recent survey  by UK-based Creative Virtual, a CEM virtual assistant supplier, looked at the state of play and expectations for the immediate future in EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) countries and in the US for customer support challenges. The results are revealing.

Over a million inquiries a year
In the EMEA, 55% of those questioned would like to resolve customer inquiries faster. 40% want to reduce call volumes to live chat agents. And another 40% - over a third - want to step up the use of self-service channels. This presumably means installing the kind of technologies – search, natural language processing, and smart knowledge management – that can streamline the whole engagement process for customers.

To get a feel for the volume of calls or inquiries involved in customer service, and hence of the pressure on this service, 19% of the respondents referred to over one million inquires a year (close to 3,000 a day) in their businesses. Interestingly there appears to be a slight decrease in inquires to call centres and via email, presumably because more people are already using web channels such as social media or chat channels (a 45% increase). And of course customer service over mobile channels grew by 42%.

More self-service, less contact centre
What this means for businesses offering these CEM services is that increases in social, mobile and live chat suggest the rise of live/real time services over the web. This translates into an obvious opportunity for technologies such as virtual assistants, using text but tomorrow perhaps speech as an initial user search interface, or to engage directly with virtual avatars on service sites.

According to the survey, there has been faster “new channel” adoption in the EMEA, with 61% citing social media, and 55% seeing a rise in live chat. Unsurprisingly 62% of the respondents said they would be planning on developing social media channels in the coming years. This would presumably involve the use of smart technology to find and sort social responses to customer problems and personalise them to a given customer.

As for the tools they plan to roll out in the next 12 months, 23% mentioned virtual assistants, 21% online communities, and 16% cited forums. In the EMEA, 77% of those questioned already use FAQs, 69% feedback forms and 52% knowledge bases as primary service tools. This suggests that the emerging interfaces – VAs and speech – could both provide a faster, smoother front end to such inquires.
In all cases, these emerging trends in service management point to an increased use of conversation or a more “natural” interface whereby the richness of natural language will simplify life for human users, but require more advanced forms of language intelligence for tool and system suppliers.

Make sure your PVA is multilingual 
When it comes to PVAs, in the EMEA 70% of those questioned already use/plan to use virtual agents on their home page/customer service, 40% in the call centres, followed by 30% on live chat and on smartphones. In terms, of budget, respondents using PVAs said they devoted 1 to 10% of their budget to the solution. The next challenge is to make sure all these PVAs are as multilingual as is necessary in a single European marketplace.

Overall, then, a highly positive outlook for the numerous European VPA companies, from Artificial Solutions and Inbenta to Sherpa  - and even Creative Virtual itself.

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