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September 2011

How to add customer service agents and virtual assistants to your website

This article by Sean McManus outlines some top tips for creating effective virtual assistants.

Self-service is both cost-effective and speedy, so if customers can find what they need without having to contact you directly, you'll both be better off.

One way you can encourage visitors to try the self-service tools is to personify them with an avatar. An avatar is an on-screen character that answers customer queries, usually based on a fictional customer service representative. The assistant sometimes has his or her (or its?) own section on the website, but can also be available on every page to offer assistance.

Using a fictional character gives your search results personality, with many companies even naming their virtual assistants and scripting answers for personal questions as well as business ones. Even though people know avatars are just pictures, research suggests that people feel positive about engaging with them and will use words like 'helpful' and 'friendly' to describe what is basically a bunch of pixels.

The character's face can be computer generated, or can be a photograph of a real person. The assistant should portray the kind of person your customers will be happiest dealing with. Ask yourself: if you had a shop, would this be the ideal person to put on the front till? Don't use names or pictures that are too outlandish or unusual: they risk alienating users.

Make sure you test your avatar fully. When customers turn to an avatar for help, they may already have exhausted the normal navigation options, and will be frustrated if the avatar can't field basic queries.

It's important that you make clear that this is not a real person responding - if the robot can't provide the right answers, visitors will be more tolerant if they know it's just a program.

Sell the benefits of using the avatar and encourage people to use it to speed up problem resolution. Don't force people to use it instead of contacting you. If you use the virtual assistant purely to try to drive down the cost of customer service, you'll risk annoying customers. The virtual assistant is no substitute for having real assistants available on email when customers need them.

Example virtual assistant: US Army

The US army has created an avatar, Sergeant Star, so visitors to the website can ask informal questions about the army. Before the visitor signs in Sergeant Star stands full height, hands-clasped as if waiting to meet the visitor for the first time. Once the visitor signs in, the image of Sergeant Star changes to a head and shoulder image as if he and the visitor are having a conversation.

Screenshot showing Sergeant Star virtual assistant

Example virtual assistant: Virgin Holidays

Virgin Holidays chose a photograph for its avatar, Valerie (no longer online). If you click on the link for Valerie, a new small window will appear on your computer screen with a dialog box to key in questions for Valerie. Since she is in a separate smaller window, the user can move the window around the screen to enable the various pages of the website to be viewed fully.

Screenshot of Virgin Holidays virtual assistant

Example virtual assistant: Alaska Air

Jenn (no longer online) is the computer generated assistant for Alaska Air, and she will also appear in a new window with a dialogue box. As you can see from my questions, the programmers have created her to respond to diverse questions from potential customers. Jenn always brings the topic back to aviation so that customers are not encouraged to become sidetracked by subjects irrelevant to the business of buying flights.

Screenshot of Alaska Air's customer service agent Jenn

Top tips for implementing a virtual assistant

  • Remember that people will use more natural language when dealing with an avatar than when using your search engine. Make sure you can handle questions such as 'how often do you fly to Turkey?' and not just keyword queries like 'flights Turkey'.
  • Find out what people most often need help with by asking your customer service reps, checking your customer correspondence logs and auditing your website search logs. Use this to shape the questions you script answers to.
  • Use friendly, supportive language. Customers will lose interest if the avatar keeps spouting marketing-speak and hyping your company.
  • Enable the avatar to take customers to the page they're looking for when appropriate, but make sure you don't interrupt them if they're in the middle of filling in a form or digesting information on screen.
  • Make sure you can reply to queries for which you have no scripted answer. You can encourage customers to re-phrase first time, but if customers are clearly struggling to be understood, recommend they contact a real customer service rep. Make it easy for customers to get from the avatar to live customer service.
  • Keep a log of queries that result in no scripted answer. If you see similar questions reoccurring, it's time to script an answer to them.
  • Don't overdo the animation. Remember the goal is to provide great customer service, not to become the next Walt Disney. Too many facial expressions or animations can prove distracting. You just need enough to give some character to the avatar. Many avatars use no animation at all.
  • Be all means show personality by scripting some answers to personal questions, but try to make those answers bring people back to your website's purpose. When customers have a service enquiry which might be stopping them from buying, you don't want to divert them into playing word games instead of closing the sale. If your personal answers are too entertaining, customers might waste time trying to uncover all the scripted wit.
  • Before getting too deep into development, conduct usability tests with your customers to identify the avatar appearance and name that seems most approachable.
  • Companies such as Synthetix and Creative Virtual specialise in creating customer service avatars for large corporates, but if your product set and website are relatively small you can create your own. Pandorabots provides artificial intelligence tools to help you create your bot, but take care that you don't end up with an artificial intelligence demo on your website where your virtual customer service should be.

Related pages

  • Web Design in Easy Steps - my web design book has much more advice on creating effective websites and online experiences
  • The Customer Service Pocketbook - top tips for improving customer service across your organisation
  • Chatback - chat to Virtual Sean. It was created before the idea of virtual assistants took off, but it embodies many of the same ideas, enabling visitors to this site to chat to a virtual version of me

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