There are different names out there for intelligent conversational software programs that offer customer support. I typically use the term virtual agent, but the phrase “service avatar” seems to be in the vernacular as well. All Things D published an article today by Jeff Cavins, CEO of FuzeBox, in which he seems to use service avatar as a derogatory term. The thrust of the article (which certainly has a clever title!) seems to be that cloud-based services companies, in particular Software as a Service companies, have lost the fine art of true customer service.
Cavins observes that many cloud and tech companies are so focused on growing their business, that catering to the customer isn’t a priority. Being tech savvy, these companies feel that it’s okay to let the customer fend for him or herself by running them through what Cavins refers to as a “low-touch, self-service experience.” Automation has become so common in everything these tech companies do, that they’ve naturally sought ways to automate the customer support experience too. Cavins claims that customers feel abandoned and that they don’t appreciate being told to “deal with my service avatar.”
Those of us who believe in virtual agent technology might have our feelings hurt by this criticism. But I’ve long been told to take criticism as a gift. It would be great to start collecting objective evidence from consumer interactions with virtual agents to understand what is and what isn’t working for customers. Will a consumer always prefer interacting with a real person over chatting with a service avatar? Are there settings in which a person might actually prefer talking to a virtual agent? If a consumer can get to a virtual agent is seconds to have a simple question answered, wouldn’t that be preferable to waiting many minutes to speak to a human service rep? Is it possible that a person might feel more comfortable conversing with a service avatar about money matters or health issues? Perhaps there’s a threshold of technical capability that has to be reached before a person will really prefer a virtual agent over a live human? For example, if the service avatar / virtual agent is able to process more information more quickly and retrieve the correct answer more reliably than a human, wouldn’t the consumer prefer dealing with the agent?
These are all areas ripe for study. In the meantime, we should take the observations of Jeff Cavins to heart. Let’s not assume that, just because it’s easier and cheaper for us, the consumer will always be fine chatting with a bot.