IntelliResponse Joins [24]7 for Smarter Virtual Agents

[24]7, a provider of customer support technology, recently acquired IntelliResponse, a top vendor of virtual agent and other web self-service solutions. I did a brief email-based interview with the IntelliResponse team after the acquisition to learn more about how joining forces with [24]7 will strengthen their brand.

IntelliResponse [24]7Prior to the IntelliResponse acquisition, [24]7 didn’t have a virtual agent product. They did have a well-rounded suite of customer support solutions, including dashboards and tools to assist live agents supporting customer interactions via web and mobile chat, voice, and social media. They also had predictive analytics that track customer data and flag patterns to alert call agents about potential reasons customers might be calling. These predictive services are also linked into smart interactive voice response systems to provide customers with a tailored support experience right from their smartphone.

The [24]7 product portfolio, prior to the IntelliResponse acquisition, seemed to be focused on helping live agents and automated systems provide customers with the best support possible. The IntelliResponse virtual agent technology adds a strong self-service component to the [24]7 portfolio. It became clear from our email exchange that the IntelliResponse team sees huge potential in joining their virtual agent capabilities with the predictive analytics that already enable [24]7 solutions to excel at personalized, smart customer support.

So how do predictive customer analytics work? The system gathers information about the customer and uses the data to anticipate what the customer might be calling about and the type of support they need. There’s an online video on the [24]7 website showcasing predictive analytics using the following example:

A traveling consultant who just returned from a foreign country notices that his wireless bill is much higher than normal. When he calls the support line, the system has already flagged this anomaly in the consultant’s account. The system can make an educated guess that the customer is probably calling to get information about these recent high charges to his account.

When the consultant calls, he’s greeted by a pleasant, automated female voice that asks if he’s calling about billing. The automated solution has voice recognition and can understand the customer’s responses. It texts a link to the customer’s smartphone and he can access the link to see details about the charges to his account. He can clearly see roaming charges in a foreign country caused the unusually high amount of his current bill. A live agent can seamlessly engage with him and assist him in adding an international plan to his account.

Predictive analytics seem to be a great match for self-service virtual agent applications. The top goal of self-service systems is to infer the intent of the customer and quickly give them the most accurate answer or set of instructions as possible. Web interactions are complicated. It’s not always easy to understand what the customer really wants when they start typing queries into a search box or a virtual agent’s user interface. But what if you knew where the customer had already been on the website, what actions they’d performed, and you had background information about previous purchases or other account information? And what if you had an analytic engine that could connect the dots to figure out what the customer might be looking for? You could use that information to make the virtual agent look really smart. The days when virtual agents ask “how can I help you?” might soon be a thing of the past. With systems like [24]7 IntelliResponse, they’ll already know the answer.

IntelliResponse OFFERS – Just In Time Marketing

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.

IntelliResponse OFFERSWhen 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.

IntelliResponse VOICES in Action

Earlier this week I wrote about IntelliResponse’s launch of their VOICES analytical product. I now have some updated screen captures of VOICE in action.  Click on the image of each screen to see an expanded view.

This first bubble screen shows an overview of the common themes that VOICES has picked up from customer conversations with IntelliResponse virtual agents. Based on the size of the bubble, you can see at a glance that debit cards has been a top topic with customers for about the past six months. Customers were also inquiring a lot about mortgage rates, medical insurance, and other related topics during that time.

VOICES 1

Bubble Dashboard with Customer Themes

The second screen shot shows how you can zero in on a specific time slice. During that short time window, some completely new themes popped up. In particular, customers inquired a lot about their account number. This might be an indication that something changed with customer account numbers during that time. It’s certainly something that you’d want to investigate further to find out why the account number topic suddenly became so prevalent.

VOICES 2

Snapshot of Increasing and Decreasing Theme Prevalence

The third screen shows a drill down view of a specific theme. This view lets you learn more about what customers were asking when they made inquiries related to a specific topic–in this case travel rewards. Based on the questions, we discover that customers are interested in credit cards that let them earn travel rewards. This information is gleaned from real customer conversations, so it’s presumably more reliable than data that could be collected from a survey. This would be interesting data for the product development and/or marketing teams.

VOICES 3

Drill Down Into Each Theme for Content

There are many data filtering options available in VOICES that aren’t shown here, but the screen shots give you a good general feel for the tool’s capabilities. There’s undeniable intelligence locked up in the conversations that customers have with virtual agents across all web self-service channels. It will be interesting to observe how IntelliResponse’s merger of virtual agents, customer conversations, and analytics takes hold in the marketplace and is leveraged by organizations.

IntelliResponse VOICES – Virtual Agent Meets Big Data Analytics

Big DataIntelliResponse just announced the official launch of VOICES, a product that merges virtual agent technologies with big data analytics to deliver impressive potential value to businesses. Imagine how valuable it would be if you could read the minds of your customers. What if you worked for a financial institution and found out that many of your customers were starting to think about how to increase their credit limit? Or, better yet, what if you saw these same customers thinking about a new promotion from a competitor that was designed to make them switch credit card providers? Equipped with this mind-reading capability, you could be proactive in meeting customer needs. You could make information on credit limit increases more accessible, while matching or beating your competitor’s promotion. Instead of losing customers, you’d make existing clients so happy that they’d sing your praises.

IntelliResponse’s VOICES product puts this powerful capability into your hands. I was invited to see a live demo of the updated product prior to the official launch. Paul A. Smith, Vice President, Product & Services, walked me through VOICES features. VOICES is an analytical tool that has access to all the conversations that have occurred between your customers and your virtual agents. These conversations can take place in any of the channels where you’ve positioned IntelliResponse web self-service agents; the corporate website, Facebook page, or other consumer-facing channels. The VOICES technology analyzes the unstructured data from these many customer conversations and identifies core themes. The themes are displayed as bubbles in a graphical dashboard. The more often the theme pops up in conversations, the larger the bubble representing the theme. It’s basically the same concept as a tag cloud, where the most common words and phrases show up in the biggest font size. Color coding lets you stay on top of things by showing at a glance which topics are trending with customers and which ones are waning in importance on a given day.

IntelliResponse VOICES

VOICES offers you filtering tools that allow you to look at the themes in different ways. For example, you can filter the data to view only the themes that originate in conversations from a particular source, such as your company Facebook page. What’s more, VOICES allows you to drill down into any theme to take a closer look inside the mind of the customer. Each theme is broken down into subthemes. For example, you might drill down into the theme ‘credit card’ and discover the subtheme ‘how to personalize my credit card.’ If you’re not already offering credit card personalization services, it might be time to think about the possibilities.

The primary purpose of virtual agents, sometimes referred to as web self-service agents or service avatars, is to assist the customer by quickly and effectively answering their questions. Instead of waiting on hold for a human service rep, consumers can engage a virtual agent directly from a web page, a mobile app, or a social media site and get the answer they need. But IntelliResponse has tapped into a whole new source of value with the launch of VOICES. There’s gold in every conversation your customers have with virtual agents. Customers are asking questions about your products and services and giving hints about what they like, what they’re considering buying, or what makes or breaks a sale. Prior to VOICES, this treasure trove of knowledge was going uncaptured. With VOICES, you not only harvest the treasure, but you have tools you can use to make sense of it all.

I don’t have hands on experience with the product. As a cloud-based “software as a service” technology, though, it would seem that an organization could be up and running with IntelliResponse virtual agents and VOICES fairly quickly and easily. I can also see applications for VOICES inside the enterprise. For example, large corporations who run social networking applications within the intranet could benefit from having access to trending employee conversations and themes. The VOICES analytical engine is currently geared towards processing interactions with virtual agents, but I’m guessing that the technology could be easily extended to handle other sources of input in the future.

VOICES is definitely a trend setter in the virtual agent space, enabling organizations to hear what their customers are really saying. It’s up to the company to decide how to use that valuable information to improve the customer experience and excel beyond the competition.

The Future of Web Self-Service – A Discussion with David Lloyd of IntelliResponse

Web Self ServiceI recently had an opportunity to speak with David Lloyd, CEO of IntelliResponse, a leading provider of virtual agent technology solutions for the enterprise. One of the topics we discussed was the future of web self-service and virtual agent technologies. David Lloyd has been in the web self-service space for well over a decade. He understands the trends and offered some interesting insights into how the marketplace for intelligent virtual agents might evolve.

While market penetration for virtual agents in a consumer self-service setting is still low, Lloyd sees a very bright future for these solutions. Two key drivers for future growth in this area are consumer expectations and the changing goals of businesses that serve consumers.

Consumer Expectations – Hand Holding Preferred

Not all that long ago in the history of the Internet, the typical consumer expected to have to put some effort into finding things on a business’s website. Websites were often cluttered and clunky. If there was a search box or sitemap, we’d dig in and spend some time figuring out what we needed to do to find the information or product we were looking for. But times have changed. Consumers have many businesses and channels, including web, social, and mobile, to choose from. We no longer expect to have to go hunting when we need information. We want the business to reach out to us and proactively find out what we want and need.

A virtual agent that is knowledgeable about the business and always ready to understand us and answer our questions is a perfect way to meet our evolving expectations as consumers. Presented the choice between a website with a static FAQ buried in the footer and one with a smiling virtual agent eager to answer questions, most of today’s consumers are going to choose the latter.

It’s Not Just About Selling Anymore – It’s About Engaging

We’ve transitioned from the first frenzied wave of social media to an era where social has become intertwined with the fabric of business. Progressive companies that meet their customers through social, web, and mobile channels are looking for new, higher levels of engagement with these customers. The more the business can learn about the people who visit their various storefronts and decide to purchase or not purchase their goods and services, the better positioned the business can be to serve these people effectively. It’s about adding value, and really getting inside your customer’s head enables you to create value a lot better than you could if you were just guessing.

Offering smart virtual agents that can answer a consumer’s questions, instead of leaving that person to fend for her/himself, makes a ton of sense.  Providing a web self-service option through a virtual agent is akin to asking the customer if you can be of assistance, instead of ignoring them. Not only that, you’re learning from the questions that your customers are asking. (More on this great learning opportunity in an upcoming post on the Voice of the Customer). Today’s successful companies want and need to build a relationship with their customers, and offering smart web self-service options can help them reach that goal.

Where Does This Leave Human Customer Support Agents?

During the conversation with David Lloyd, I made a comment to the effect that, given the technological advances in virtual agent capabilities, the future for human call agents was rather dim. Lloyd disagreed. He indicated that in his experience, companies using IntelliResponse virtual agents find that their human customer support agents take on an even more important role.

Since virtual agents do such a great job fielding the many low-complexity questions, human customer support representatives are able to focus more time helping the consumers who have bigger issues. Customer reps are no longer inundated with lots of simple calls, which means the customers who call in with more complex questions don’t have to spend time waiting on the line growing more and more frustrated. Being able to offer this more timely and higher quality support translates into happier customers, fewer negative reviews, and more positive word of mouth for the company.

Based on all of these trends, Lloyd expects the demand for virtual agent solutions and other advanced web self-service technologies to steadily grow. As these technologies become increasingly smarter and more adept at assisting consumers, they may become a necessity to maintain competitive advantage. If your company or organization hasn’t thought about a web-service strategy yet, it’s probably time to start.

Virtual Agents to Help Ease Transition to Arvest Bank

Intelligent Virtual Agent

IntelliResponse issued a press release today announcing Arvest Bank as a new customer of their virtual agent technology. Arvest Bank, one of the largest banks in Arkansas, has an interesting and compelling use case for virtual agents. With its history of rapid growth through the acquisition of other regional banks, Arvest often has the challenge of acclimating new customers. Virtual agent technology offers an effective approach to providing targeted support to these newly acquired customers.

Just about everyone finds change unsettling. It’s especially nerve wracking when the bank you’ve grown accustomed to is taken over and you’re forced to learn new systems and processes. Based on the press release, it looks like Arvest management has made a commitment to help ease the transition of these new customers by providing IntelliResponse virtual agent technology on the Arvest website.

According to the press release, banking customers will be able to interact with an intelligent virtual agent 24/7. I’m assuming that IntelliResponse will work with Arvest to prepare a knowledge base of frequently asked questions and perhaps provide the agent with access to existing data sources. Having a virtual agent available to walk them through the transition process will most likely be reassuring to many customers.

IntelliResponse has a patented core technology that apparently enables its virtual agents to understand the broader context of a question, even if the question is asked in different ways. This helps the agent return a more direct response that best addresses the real intent of the inquiry.

The press release also indicates that customers can be escalated to a live human support agent if the virtuel agent is unable to assist them. We look forward to seeing Arvest’s new virtual support agent in action.