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a primer

Virtual agents

If your contact center is looking for ways to use automation to optimize your workforce and become more efficient, virtual agents are a great tool that can help guide customers through interactions, support your employees as they go about their tasks, and more. Book a product tour of Dialpad Ai Contact Center to see all this in action!


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In this guide, we’ll be covering what a virtual agent is, some examples of virtual agents in action, and important considerations for rolling out a virtual agent strategy in your contact center.

What is a virtual agent?

A virtual agent is essentially a software or app that provides automated service, guidance, or support to humans. If that sounds an awful lot like a bot, you’d be correct. However… New advancements in this technology (mostly thanks to AI, but more on that later) make virtual agents much more than just glorified automated virtual assistants.

Fun fact: Maybe one of the most famous early examples of a virtual assistant was Clippy, the Microsoft Office default virtual assistant you might remember from the late ‘90s to early 2000s.

While virtual agents have come a long way since Microsoft’s anthropomorphic paperclip first asked us if we needed help with our Word documents, the “how can I help?” style speech bubble and option to select from one of several common issues is still a popular virtual agent interface today. In fact, that’s the virtual agent model for pretty much every website chatbot we interact with.

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How the technology behind virtual agents work

Thanks to AI (artificial intelligence) technology, machine learning algorithms, and advances in natural language processing (NLP), virtual agents today can respond intelligently to a potentially limitless range of queries—and automatically suggest (actually good) solutions.

Just think of the way smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri are able to schedule events, retrieve information from the web, respond to messages, and even make purchases for you based on conversational commands.

These types of smart assistants are a great example of how virtual agents can use natural language processing to analyze text and speech with a much higher level of accuracy than ever before.

What this means: Good* virtual agent technology can do much more than just process routine standardized requests, and can actually carry out a range of more complex tasks.

*The key word here is “good.” There are a ton of different virtual agent apps and software on the market, and not all of them can do this type of complex analysis. Many chatbots are still very limited and can only recognize basic questions and provide basic answers. If you’re considering using a virtual agent, make sure you get a demo of how the different tools work.

👉 Did you know?

Some advanced virtual agent technology, like Dialpad Ai Contact Center's, can source instant answers to customer questions by searching across multiple sources of knowledge including your website, CRM platforms and ticketing systems—as well as support documents and any other unstructured information, and even transcripts from past customer support calls? Pretty amazing.

Virtual agent use cases

When it comes to business processes, virtual agents can do a lot more than answer basic customer questions. Here are a few of the most common ways they’re used today.

Sales

In recent years, one of the biggest trends in virtual agent technology has definitely been in ecommerce.

If you’ve bought something online lately, you’ve probably seen the trend of a small chatbot icon that pops up when you browse a website (usually in the bottom right corner).

Sales bots can help with routine lead generation on websites by gathering information about you as you’re browsing a website. They typically ask you what you’re looking for, and one of the conversation paths it might try to guide you through is to sign up to the company’s mailing list.

Usually, there’s no human agent needed, unless you type a more complex question or request into the bot (say, if you wanted a refund or had a very specific pricing question).

(Some web sales bots can even offer personalized recommendations and offers.)

Employee support

This is more applicable to larger enterprises, but beyond customer-centric workflows, virtual agents can also help optimize internal employee support.

For example, if your employees have IT questions about equipment or questions about healthcare or other policies, you could also have a virtual agent handle these questions in real time, as opposed to having your IT staff managing hundreds of tickets.

Customer service

Of course, this is one of the most popular use cases for virtual agents today. From automatically answering routine customer queries to deciding which human customer service agent to transfer a customer to, virtual agents are the perfect supplement to live agents in contact centers.

Bonus use case: Virtual customer service agents can also be used to collect and process basic information before connecting callers to human customer support agents. This means your employees don’t have to waste time asking for and recording information that a caller can easily input themselves.

One common type of intelligent virtual agent (IVA) that you’re already familiar with is the virtual receptionist, or auto attendant. You’ll often come across them when you call a company with an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) menu that sorts incoming calls and routes them to the right extension or department based on customized call routing paths.

With Dialpad's self-service functionality, you can build this out in minutes just by dragging and dropping—no coding needed:

Creating a chatbot flow in dialpad self service blog size
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When it comes to automation, you’ll typically see two types: “full automation,” which is a type of self-service customer interaction where someone just uses preset menu options to find answers without ever having to interact with a human agent.

You might find that many customers prefer fully automated encounters for straightforward tasks like payment processing. For more complicated tasks, full automation would probably be terrible for the customer experience, so use this strategically.

Alternatively, you might take a “hybrid” automation approach, where your callers would interact with both a virtual agent and also a human customer support agent.

Debunking the “chatbots aren’t good” debate

For many years, the response to chatbots has been, well, lukewarm at best. And for good reason—the way that they’ve been designed just isn’t very good.

When most people think of chatbots, the bot isn’t very smart, and you often have to type and retype your question a few times with different wording because the chatbot didn’t give you the answer you wanted. By the end of the interaction, you end up getting transferred to a live agent anyway (which was probably what you wanted in the beginning and would’ve saved you time if you didn’t have to talk to the chatbot).

Virtual agents aren’t like that anymore. After years of refinement and testing, there are some quite good virtual agents or chatbots that can pick up customer intent and have built-in AI that lets them “learn” continuously from every conversation with callers.

The one thing to keep in mind? They’re not designed to replace your contact center agents—think of them as your agents’ best friend.

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The benefits of implementing a virtual agent

It takes tasks off your employees’ plates with automation

Virtual agents can fully or partially automate almost any routine task. They are especially useful for data processing challenges that would be tedious or even impossible for IT teams to deal with manually.

It improves your customer service

Virtual agents can improve customer satisfaction by improving response times and augmenting the knowledge base of customer service representatives.

For smaller companies with fewer resources, having a dedicated customer support team available even during working hours can be a challenge. In these cases, setting up a virtual help desk can vastly improve your customer service operations.

It can help you generate more leads

When applied in a sales or marketing context, virtual agents can live on your website and collect information from potential leads who may be interested in trying out your product or learning more about you.

Once you have virtual agents installed within your lead generation pipeline, you can even have one sort your leads according to their statistical likelihood to convert. That way, if you do decide to reach out with live agents, they can start from the top of the list (most likely to convert) and work their way down.

It lets you provide 24/7 support

Unlike human agents, software can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Because of this, when you deploy a virtual agent in a support role you can be safe in the knowledge that it will be there for whoever needs it even outside of business hours

It gives you long-term ROI and business scalability

With a range of cheap and easy-to-use pre-built virtual agents out there, businesses of any size in almost any sector can streamline their processes and boost productivity with the right application of virtual agents.

As you often only have to pay a small initial fee to be able to use pre-built virtual agents, long term, using this technology can offer a great ROI.

Even better, if a virtual agent program is working for you, or your business grows and needs more agent capacity, it’s easy to scale it up in a quick and cost-effective way.

📚 Further reading:

Learn more about the application of conversational AI in customer service and contact centers.

5 things to consider when choosing a virtual agent

So you have a task in mind that you believe could be carried out either partially or entirely by a virtual agent. Now, all you need to do is find the one that meets your requirements. There are a few key things you should consider when choosing a virtual agent provider or software.

1. Does it have a conversational interface?

If you’re deploying a virtual agent solution in a customer service, sales, or marketing context, you’ll likely want a conversational interface. This should be intuitive to the end-user and programmable from the backend.

2. Can it access omnichannel platforms?

Do you need a single virtual agent solution that can be deployed across multiple communication channels? If so, you should look into omnichannel virtual agents and software platforms.

3. Can it provide accurate responses?

If you intend to use a virtual agent to retrieve and deliver information, whether in a customer support context or as an assistive technology for your employees, the accuracy of this information is vital.

For this reason, it’s important to test how each virtual agent will respond to a range of anticipated circumstances before hand-off and deployment

4. What automations can it handle?

If you’re using virtual agents to automate routine tasks, there are a range of options out there.

Process automation is driving one of the biggest shakeups of the way businesses operate to have happened in years. Once you start automating your business processes you will find more and more avenues for further automation.

5. What software does it integrate with?

If you want to make the most of virtual agent technology, you need to integrate it into your existing software stack.

When virtual agents have properly connected to your other apps and databases the possibilities for automation are massively increased.

For example, virtual agents built for sales and marketing should be integrated into your CRM software and where possible, any other business tools you're using to record and access customer data.

👉 For example...

Here are all the tools that Dialpad Ai Contact Center can integrate with.

Find working solutions for customers with a virtual agent

Whether you’re looking to implement virtual agent technology on your website, in your call center, or elsewhere they can be just the thing to improve your customer journey from start to finish.

Gone are the days of customers lamenting the lack of a human operator at the end of the phone line or to respond to their emails. Thanks to advances in AI, customer interactions with bots are no longer the frustrating experience they once were.

In fact, many people actually prefer interacting with bots. There’s no waiting for them to pick up the phone, they behave in predictable ways, and there are different options available with regards to which channel you choose to communicate via.