IntelliResponse recently gave me the opportunity to conduct an email interview with CEO David Lloyd about their newly launched OFFERS product. IntelliResponse provides web self-service virtual agent technology to companies looking to improve customer service and automate the handling of more routine inquiries. They’ve recently been ranked as one of the top five vendors in the enterprise virtual assistant space in reports by Opus Research and TechNavio.
When I first saw the announcement about the OFFERS product I was a bit skeptical about it. OFFERS is basically a really clever way of showing people ads when they converse with a virtual agent on a company’s website (or potentially through other channels). Up until now, I’ve thought of interactions with customer-focused virtual agents as low-risk and low-impact to the customer. Research suggests that people actually prefer to interact with a virtual agent in some situations than with a human customer service rep. For instance, if the person is asking a question that they’re a little shy about, they’d often rather interact with an artificial virtual assistant. Or if they’re just curious about certain products and services and don’t want to be pushed into making a commitment, they often prefer to text chat with a service avatar than to engage a human.
What happens, then, when you equip the virtual service agent with the ability to present relevant ads to people as a result of the ongoing conversation? Does this dispel the fiction of a private, safe conversation? What happens if a potential banking customer thinks: “Here I was believing I was speaking in private to a virtual agent about my superficial interest in opening up a new savings account, and the next thing I know I’m being presented with an offer to sign up for the account now to receive a free toaster.” (IThat’s probably an anachronism, but I use it for illustrative purposes only!).
Is this type of context-relevant advertising creepy? Is it creepy in the same way that it’s creepy when you see an ad for white wicker lawn chairs on some completely unrelated website, just hours after you were searching for white wicker lawn chairs via some search engine?
After reading through David Lloyd’s responses to some questions I asked, I think OFFERS has more upside for both the customer and the business than any potential downside (or creepiness). Why? Well, according to IntelliResponse, the ads that are presented to the customer are extremely relevant to them. Using the IntelliResponse technology, the virtual agent not only understands and answers the customer’s question; it can discern the intent and then pass this intent onto the company’s ad servers. Knowing that the customer is really interested in booking a cruise, for example, would enable a travel company to present an ad for the current 50% last minute booking special. If the customer really wants to take a cruise, won’t they be grateful to find out that there’s a special going on that can save them 50%?
I don’t particularly like being followed around on the web based on my cookie trail and seeing white wicker lawn chair offers over and over again, no matter what the context of my current activity is. And this white wicker chair stalking isn’t very effective either. Chances are, I’ve moved on to some other obsession and couldn’t care less about lawn furniture. But with OFFERS, I’m being presented with an ad that’s directly related to the very thing I just asked about. This immediacy of opportunity has got to be a marketer’s dream. It’s like being able to show up at my doorstep with a box of bandaids two seconds after I just cut myself dicing onions. Need a bandaid? Why yes, yes I do! How much more immediate can you get? Is it creepy? Yeah, it’s probably still creepy. (Ok, the bandaid example is probably not a great one, because that one truly is the height of creepiness). But if I just asked about that cruise, then I want to know I can save 50% if I book it within the next two days. And if I get that deal, I’m likely to come back later for all my travel needs and engage with that kind and helpful virtual agent again. I might even send my friends to the site so that they can benefit too, if I’m a nice person.
I think IntelliResponse is on to something with OFFERS. If you combine OFFERS with the product VOICES that they launched last year, you can cover a lot of territory in terms of understanding your customers and being agile about offering products and services that meet their needs. VOICES, which I wrote about previously, analyzes the content of customer conversations to identify themes and trends. David Lloyd provided the following example: If VOICES shows that lots of customers are starting to ask about credit cards with travel rewards, then the company can be prepared to provide these cards and use OFFERS to make sure they get them in front of interested customers. It’s sort of like Just In Time product development coupled with Just in Time marketing.
IntelliResponse has been very innovative with their products. Apart for providing core virtual agent technology, they’ve been going further to offer customers a way to analyze incoming customer data and take action on it. Companies that implement these kinds of capabilities will probably be ahead of the curve, and I believe this trend towards gleaning customer intelligence through virtual agent interactions will continue to grow.