IVAs Enter the Business Conversation

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The intelligent virtual assistant (IVA) market, though still in its early stages, has advantages few other contact center technologies have had the good fortune to experience. In the span of a few short years, smart speakers, including Amazon Alexa and Google Home, have become invaluable additions to tens of millions of homes in the United States alone. The widespread adoption of voice technology also includes the billions of smartphone users worldwide who rely on native voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby, or who download these capabilities via apps like Microsoft Cortana. The ubiquity of voice personal assistant (VPA) technologies has paved the way for the acceptance of IVA solutions in voice-based channels.

IVA Contributions

IVAs are making contributions throughout the enterprise, not just in voice channels. Web chat, short message service (SMS), social media, and a growing number of messaging apps provide a perfect backdrop for IVAs. Prospects and customers interacting via text-based channels care little about who they are conversing with—the contact is faceless and voiceless. Their primary concern is obtaining the right information, completing their transaction on a timely basis, and receiving the correct answer to their question. Whether this result comes from a human or an IVA is largely immaterial.

Vendors are making it easier for their clients to support omnichannel IVA interactions by leveraging and retaining content across channels when conversations move or escalate. Additionally, by providing increased transparency into the development environment, enterprise users are able to design and build IVA capabilities and easily deploy optimized versions in all supported channels.

IVAs have tremendous potential in a wide variety of verticals and functions. They can be equally effective as customer-facing resources or internally to provide employees with round-the-clock access to support functions such as HR or an IT helpdesk. IVA self-service capabilities can help customers schedule service appointments with a field technician as effectively as they can assist a contact center agent in scheduling time off. Adoption of IVAs is growing both horizontally, to new areas within an enterprise, and vertically, to industries including financial services, insurance, hospitality, travel, and beyond.

Meeting Customer Demands

Consumers want to conduct business conversationally rather than being forced to follow menus or respond to standard prompts, which has been the case since the introduction of interactive voice response (IVR) systems back in the early 1980s. Early adopters of IVA technology recognize the importance of making natural language capabilities available to their customers. It also helps that prospects and customers view these artificial intelligence-enabled capabilities as differentiators and the companies that use them more advanced than their counterparts that haven’t embraced AI.

The Art and Science of Self-Service

IVAs leverage the science of AI to elevate the art of self-service. Although IVA vendors initiated their offerings based on different use cases (e.g., customer self-service vs. a virtual assistant for employees), and some began in a digital channel while others started as a replacement for IVRs, the goal is similar for most of them. IVAs are intended to support omnichannel interactions—voice, chat, messaging (Facebook Messenger, Telegram, WhatsApp, etc.), mobile apps, text/SMS, email, social media, and other digital channels—and to enable seamless migration between channels, with retained context. IVAs vastly improve voice and digital self-service and help provide a consistent experience across all channels, including the company’s website, which, in most cases, receives the largest number of interactions and inquiries. And when an interaction does require agent assistance, IVAs function as virtual coaches, providing agents with context-based guidance pulled from knowledge bases, FAQs, intranets, and other sources as needed to help improve an agent’s efficiency, accuracy, and quality.

Final Thoughts

Most companies that use IVRs have not overhauled these solutions in the past five to 10 years, the period that has seen the greatest innovation in this market. While there is a clear self-service maturity path that many organizations have taken, companies are encouraged, and are often able, to transition from any of these solutions directly to IVAs. This enables them to take advantage of an array of sophisticated capabilities, including natural language understanding, natural language processing, natural language generation, machine learning, and intelligent augmentation. During the next three to five years, these solutions are expected to incorporate unsupervised learning, which will position organizations to achieve their self-service goals at an even higher level. x

Donna Fluss (donna.fluss@dmgconsult.com) is the president of DMG Consulting, a provider of contact center, analytics, and back-office market research and consulting.

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