Staying on brand: How to humanize virtual agents, just enough

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We are currently at a point in time where virtual agents (VAs) have become more commonplace within customer service than ever. The global chatbot market is expected to reach $1.23 billion by 2025. Now, interacting through a text or a web app for customer service is not all that awkward and has gone mainstream. A growing number, starting with millennials, would even prefer doing business through a VA, or chatbot. The technology has advanced to the point that building VA’s is no longer a discussion around functionality and technology, but organizations are now dedicating more time developing the VA’s “personalities” to reflect the company’s mission, vision and brand.

Virtual agents use natural-language processing and analytics together to create an engaging human-like interaction with the enduser for simple or complex tasks and conversations. By including avatars that have traditionally been used to visually represent people in the virtual world, you are on your way in creating a simulated and meaningful human-to-VA interaction. However, don’t confuse the avatars of the virtual agents with the ones we used in chatrooms and games like “The Sims” in the past. These virtual humans are consuming information, processing it, and making educated and cognitive-driven decisions based from that data. Their outward appearance, personality and speech makes an apparent difference with their conversation counterparts. In the process, they are freeing up valuable human resources to address the less mundane, more individualized and higher level customer service requests.

Virtual agents becoming more ubiquitous

According to recent research by Forrester, the #1 trend for customer service in 2017 is “smarter”, “self-served” and more automated customer service. As the financial industry adopts artificial intelligence in the form of virtual agents, companies are exploring new and innovative ways to ensure their virtual agent not only fosters relationships with customers, but also embodies their brands. These virtual agents revolutionize customer experience in financial services by offering more ways for customer to interact with their financial institutions, faster response times, 24×7 availability, and instant, personalized service, using cognitive data. Today’s customers desire faster, efficient, thorough customer service, and the innovative AI technology can actually provide it. However, are your customers still looking for that “human” connection to have a trusted experience?

Venture Beat found that humanizing a virtual agent increases customer engagement, creates trust, and personalizes the experience.  Some brands have attempted to do this simply by using a “human” avatar and name, but does that go far enough for create a comfortable, natural experience? How does this bot, named and personified, support a brand’s vision and promise?

This is a field that is still very new and the research is limited. That said, consumer trends suggest that consumers connect with virtual agents when they have names, especially unusual ones — think Siri or Cortana. They also suggest that human-like avatars can leave end-users feeling uncomfortable—a phenomenon known as an Uncanny valley, or almost “too human” experience. 

Hey [insert virtual assistant name here]!

So if human-like avatars do not resonate with customers, how do virtual agents like Siri, Alexa, Cortana — even Watson — manage to foster an engaging, human experience? Especially in an industry built on customer trust, virtual agents used by financial institutions must interact with users in a way that leaves the user feeling understood, listened to, and taken care of — all very simple human emotions. The key to fostering that humanized customer experience—where the agent can build trust with the customer—is to set the content for engaging communication and interaction. Without an actual face, the most successful agents create human interactions with anthropomorphic representations, “having human characteristics.”

Customers can relate to the agents that possess some human-like nature in the way they converse, engage, and empathize with their needs. For example, to feel connected, the customer is looking for the impression that the virtual agent is alive and thinking. Animations, sound, and colorful images help to showcase the effect — Watson’s icon rotates and lights up as it thinks and speaks. The tone of the text or voice-based conversation matters; it is not necessary for it to be convincingly human since the user knows the agent is not a human being. But it is also not personable if it is too robotic. Something in-between is the best choice.

As with training human agents, ensuring every interaction with customers represents your brand is critical. Simply using the company’s name or logo is not enough to create an engaging interaction as the customer will only feel like the agent is performing rudimentary tasks that can just as well be done on the website or app. Virtual Agents should have the same “attitude” as your brand, and as they use human-like visual effects, the identity of their virtual personality needs to connect into brand look, feel, and tone.

Finding the right balance for your brand

Overall, artificial intelligence and cognitive technology is a rapidly evolving space and the use of virtual agents in it is still very new. As companies start to adopt the use of virtual agents, here are a few key design principles to consider:

  • Focus should be on humanizing the content of the virtual agents and not just the look. The idea is to design and create a genuine, engaging experience with the user, while making them relatable, comfortable and familiar.
  • Be mindful when choosing human-like avatars for your virtual agent as it may alienate customers when the features of the avatar do not reflect the customer’s own diversity.
  • Align the visual appearance of the virtual agent with the company’s brand along with maintaining an identity with which the user can form a human connection.
  • Use animation, color, and motion to help the user visualize and feel like this virtual agent is alive and thinking.
  • Think about how robotic or human-sounding the voice of the virtual agent should be, so the user can make appropriate levels of empathetic connection.

It is a testament to the tremendous progress made in the field of cognitive and artificial intelligence that now the personality of these virtual friends is a point of discussion and refinement. Embrace the future and befriend a virtual assistant in your next customer service journey!

Does your call center stack up in the age of AI? Take the self assessment here.

Learn more about Watson Conversation here.

Senior Managing Consultant, IBM iX

Natalie Ofoche

Senior Consultant, IBM iX

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