How New Intelligent Virtual Agents Can Improve and Automate Retail Customer Service

Consumers have adjusted their e-commerce expectations during the pandemic, with studies showing that shoppers are more tolerant of delivery delays and other issues. However, the adoption of these new digital channels has also resulted in some friction points, which have led to increased customer service engagement. As brands look to strengthen their customer support, new developments in automation may be the answer.

Customer support has evolved in recent years, as the industry has embraced technology. Automated menus that let callers select from a numbered list were the first format to launch and many of these are still employed today. Then came interactive voice responses (IVR), which were designed to offer more personalized, specific support – but frequently failed to achieve this standard.

“IVR’s evolved to include some basic speech recognition,” said Dan Burkland, president of cloud contact center provider Five9. “However, these solutions were only able to listen for key words or a limited set of pre-determined phrases. This highly limited their effectiveness to understand the callers true intent, often creating frustration, as well as a low completion rate or resolution rate. This results in callers opting out for human agents to resolve issues.”

The aim of an automated customer support system is to reduce the burden on human support staff, allowing them to focus on more complex issues. After a comprehensive FAQ section on the brand website, automated customer service messages are a popular choice to help resolve more common issues. However, these need to be efficient in order to actually alleviate work for the human staff.

Fortunately, Burkland highlights a new development that brands may find more effective at handling complaints and queries: intelligent virtual agents (IVAs). Advances in natural language processing mean that these virtual agents are able to understand open-ended conversation – not just key words. They can then better respond to the consumer’s concern.

Customer service is most effective when shoppers don’t need to repeat themselves to multiple agents.
CREDIT: biscotto87 - Adobe Stock

“IVAs, bring a whole new level of automation, allowing consumers to get complete self-service without having to speak to a human agent,” said Burkland. “Through workflow automation, the IVA can retrieve information from the appropriate data source, and speak the answer to the caller in human sounding text-to-speech technology. This enables many tasks to be handled by Intelligent Virtual Agents at a fraction of the cost of human agents.”

These virtual agents can also be used for proactive customer service, as opposed to solely reactive support. Reactive support is useful for resolving issues, however it requires a problem to arise before the solution can be offered. This immediately puts the brand on the back foot, with damage control the best outcome.

Therefore, these efforts should be balanced with proactive steps. Burkland recommends that brands establish consumers’ communication preferences early on, so that they can then automate follow-up service. Brands can set up automated systems that will reach out to customers, at their preferred time and in their preferred medium, to ensure they are satisfied. Example check-ins could include confirmation of delivery or a reminder of the company’s returns policy.

“We are seeing that more consumers are likely to switch brands after experiencing a poor service or buying experience,” said Burkland. “Therefore, it is more critical than ever to provide a consistent and excellent experience.  It is also imperative to provide consumers with the options to interact in the fashion they prefer – in some cases that involves self-service automation (IVAs); in other cases it involves a human agent who can provide empathy and personalization.”

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