Creating a Virtual Agent Chatbot for Your Business

Build Your ChatbotWhile it’s possible to develop a smart virtual agent from scratch, there are a number of software companies that provide easy-to-use and cost effective options for creating a customized virtual agent, or what is commonly referred to as a chatbot. I’m not affiliated with any of these companies. I’ve tried out some of the virtual agent products and I’ve chosen two at random to spotlight in this blog post so that you can get a feel for what’s involved in creating a conversational virtual agent for your business.

The chatbot companies we’re looking at in this post are MyCyberTwin and Chatbot4U.com.  At first glance, the companies seem quite different. MyCyberTwin presents itself as a virtual assistant vendor with products geared towards businesses. Chatbot4U looks more like a social site geared towards a younger crowd interested in creating and talking to chatbots impersonating popular teen idols. When I looked a bit further, though, I found that these two virtual agent providers have relatively similar business models, tools, and pricing structures.

Building Your Custom Chatbot

Both MyCyberTwin and Chatbot4U.com offer fairly straightforward user interfaces that allow you to program, or ‘train’, your chatbot without having to write any code or markup.  Both offer chatbots that you communicate with via typed input. You don’t speak directly to the virtual agent, but rather talk to it via text messages. Once you’ve created your free user account, you can create a blank virtual agent chatbot and then start filling its knowledge base with input (questions) and output (response) phrases.

With MyCyberTwin, you can start by specifying a website that you want your chatbot to reference to see if it can find answers to questions. This is a great feature, because it means that your chatbot will have at least some limited ability to successfully respond to questions that you might not be able to predict, or exactly replicate, in advance. For example, if someone asks the chatbot how to contact you, but you didn’t think to include this question in the chatbot’s knowledge base, there’s a good chance the chatbot may be able to point the person to your website’s “Contact Us” page, since it will use keywords to locate the appropriate content.

MyCyberTwin allows you to select one of several very life-like avatars to represent your virtual chatbot. When you embed the chatbot code into your website, the animated avatar appears in a separate window and invites the visitor to engage in conversation by typing in messages.

With Chatbot4U, you can set your virtual agent’s avatar by uploading a photo. The avatar is not animated. As you train your chatbot, you have the ability to add multiple layers, or ‘go backs’, to an ongoing conversation. For example, if the visitor types in the question “How are you?,” you can train the chatbot to respond “Fine. And how are you?” Then you can have the chatbot say something more or less appropriate when the visitor responds. These types of meaningful threads are typical and essential to human dialog. They’re difficult to recreate with current chatbot technology, however, because a chatbot has a very limited memory and can’t remember what it said beyond its last utterance.

Another useful feature of the Chatbot4U platform is that it allows you to add knowledge modules to your virtual agent. These modules endow your chatbot with the ability to tell jokes, to provide current weather information for any location, and search Wikipedia.

Training your chatbot is a simple procedure on both of these platforms, but it’s a time consuming endeavor. I recommend that you pick an area of your business that you want to concentrate on, such as your FAQs. You can also use my blog post Does Your Business Need a Virtual Agent? for some ideas on how to train your virtual assistant. You’ll want to create as many possible questions as you can think of and provide the best answer to the question. Training the virtual agent is simply a means of defining what the chatbot will say in response to pre-defined questions. To liven things up a bit, you can provide more than one answer to the same question and the virtual agent will randomly vary which response it uses.

Testing Your Chatbot Trial Version

MyCyberTwin and Chatbot4U.com both offer a free, personal version of their chatbot technology that you can try out with no time limit. The personal version lacks some of the features of the business version. Starting with a personal virtual agent will give you practice in using the platform and help you get a feel for creating conversational inputs and outputs.

Both vendors also offer you the option of running a 30-day trial of the full business chatbot. You can take advantage of the complete functionality available for training your virtual agent, including providing it access to web-based information sources, adding apps, and creating go-backs for more realistic conversations. I recommend that you converse with your chatbot at least a dozen times before you publish it to your website. Make a note of any questions you can think of that the virtual agent can’t answer. Converse with the agent as you would with an actual person and make sure that it has good responses for typical greetings and questions. You can also train the chatbot to direct the conversation towards its preferred topics about your business.

How Much Will Your Chatbot Cost?

At the time I’m writing this post, both MyCyberTwin and Chatbot4U.com offer basic, introductory chatbot solutions at the low-end of the price range for intelligent digital agents. Both will host your chatbot for around $25 a month. The fee includes some level of reporting, which will allow you to track conversations and train your virtual assistant to answer questions that it missed.

In future posts, we’ll look at the process for coding your own customized chatbot from scratch.  We also recommend that you visit Chatbots.org if you’re interested in seeing a thorough listing of virtual agent vendors available on the market today.

When the Virtual Debt Collector Comes Knocking

Virtual Agent Collecting on DebtIn my last post Does Your Business Need a Virtual Agent, I provided a couple of examples of how local businesses might leverage intelligent virtual assistants ton their websites to gain competitive advantage. Today I ran across a company that has an even more targeted use for virtual agents. InterProse offers  the Ammina Virtual Agent that is specially geared towards collecting from your delinquent customers.

This is a pretty clever use of non-human intelligent agents. It seems to make intuitive sense that when you’re behind in your payments, you’d rather avoid talking to a real person about it. The interaction is awkward and a human agent is more likely than not going to try to pressure you into paying. There’s something less threatening about a machine that refrains from judging you, but that’s simply there to state company policy and maybe even offer you some settlement options to consider. It’s also somewhat comforting to know that you’re not going to be subject to human emotions. Even if you lose your cool, the virtual agent is guaranteed to treat you with the same dispassionate politeness.

Check out the Interpro debt collection virtual agent for yourself.

Does Your Business Need a Virtual Agent?

Virtual AgentIf you’re a business owner, adding a virtual agent to your company’s website is something you might want to consider. When employed effectively, a virtual agent, or what is commonly referred to as chatbot, can bring you more customers and increase sales. In this post, we’ll examine some examples of effective strategies for using chatbots to help you reach your business goals. Keep in mind that current chatbot technology is quite limited. As described in our previous post Sweet Spot for Intelligent Virtual Agents, chatbots are designed to respond to a very narrow range of questions and inputs. It’s therefore best to target your chatbot to a few specific areas of your business that prospective customers are most likely to inquire about.

Given these limitations, how can you employ a virtual agent to increase sales and help grow your business? How can a chatbot engage visitors to your website and deliver new customers? Let’s look a two different business examples where intelligent virtual agents might be used effectively.

Blue Rooster Diner

Blue Rooster Diner is a local eatery that’s been in business for over forty years and is known for it’s delicious comfort foods. The owners of Blue Rooster add a chatbot to their website. They design a chatbot character that looks like a blue rooster and they train it to answer two areas of possible questions: the menu and the diner’s rich history.

When visitors come to the Blue Rooster website, they’re invited to have a chat with the blue rooster himself, the diner’s virtual mascot. After greeting the visitor, the blue rooster is able to answer questions about any menu item, explaining how it tastes, how it’s prepared, the ingredients, and so on. The rooster can even call up photos of various dishes. In some cases, the rooster is able to suggest a dish based on information from the visitor about what types of food they enjoy.  For folks who are ready to place an order, the rooster can walk them through the process of ordering online or phoning in a to go order. The rooster might also remind visitors to try one of the diner’s famous desserts.

The blue rooster mascot is also able to share information about the diner’s long family history. If visitors ask about the owner and about how the diner has changed over the years, the rooster has compelling little stories to engage the visitor and further entice them to visit the diner soon.

Great Bay Plumbers

Great Bay Plumbers is a family owned and operated plumbing business. They serve clients in a local area and thrive on customer referrals and great customer service. Great Bay adds a chatbot to their website that focuses on communicating to prospective customers how important customer service is to the business. The virtual chatbot appears as a professional looking young lady. After greeting prospective customers who have found the Great Bay website, the chatbot answers any questions they may have about all aspects of the company’s service. She lets them know that they guarantee to arrive at the client’s address within ten minutes of the appointment time, or there is no charge for the service call. She also tells them about money-back guarantees on work and parts, points to recent customer reviews on third party review sites, and describes the experience of the Great Bay staff. Visitors to the site are impressed and reassured and are motivated to call for an appointment.

We’ve offered these two fictional examples  to provide a taste of how you might leverage chatbot technologies to enhance your business. We expect the appearance of virtual agents to become increasing prevalent on the web and in smartphone apps over the coming decade. Getting in on the ground floor of this opportunity could put you ahead of your competition.

In future posts, we’ll look at the process for creating and operating a customized chatbot that can support you and your business goals.

Sweet Spot for Intelligent Virtual Agents

Intelligent Virtual Agent

The future of virtual agents?

Virtual digital assistants are starting to pop up on the websites of online retailers and service providers. These digital agents, trained in the gift of gab and often mimicking a live human agent, engage with web visitors to answer simple questions or point to relevant web content. Common uses of virtual conversational agents include providing web visitors with information around fairly static business practices, such as an online retailer’s return policy or information about shipping.

How effective is the current generation of virtual agents? This is a question I’ll be exploring on this blog. To start the ball rolling, I think we can safely say that conversational agent technologies has made marked advancements over the past decade, but it still has a long way to go to completely replace live agents offering deep levels of customer support and interaction.

The capabilities of a virtual agent are largely determined by their underlying technology. The simplest digital agents, often referred to as chatbots, are little more than pattern matching programs that look at user input and then pair that input up with a predefined matching response stored in a large knowledge base. Chatbots are notoriously inflexible, since they are only able to respond to input that matches one of the patterns in their knowledge base.

More versatile virtual agents take advantage of natural language processing engines that allow them to recognize a variety of inputs. As with chatbots, these agents still require a knowledge base of appropriate responses that they can use to reply to input, once they have construed its meaning.

Currently the sweet spot for conversational digital agents seems to be in use cases that mirror Frequently Asked Question scenarios. If the question being asked by the web visitor is a common question, and if the proper response is static and easily stored in a knowledge base, then virtual agents have high rates of success in answering the visitor’s question. As soon as the questioners deviates from the known lexicon of commonly asked question, however, the chatbot or virtual agent is obviously out of its depth.

In future posts, we’ll take a look at some chatbots and put them through their conversational paces.