While 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.