For many customers of banks and other financial institutions over the past few years, the first voice heard on the corporate telephone line is artificial, not a human. An ever-growing number of companies have proven two critical points: First, their customers are willing to talk to a “chatbot” or virtual assistant if it gets them faster and more effective service. Second, the conversational artificial intelligence technology can be very cost-effective. Beyond the phone line, there is even more potential. IBM’s “Watson” AI system defeated two human champions before a national television audience on Jeopardy! Here on The HotLine Magazine, the first research phase of The SaaS & Support Project  in 2009 enjoyed a significantly higher level of initial participation when Sage, a digital character, did the introduction. Clearly, there is more than promise in the use of non-human automated assistance. Is there a chat-bot in your company’s future? Almost certainly. Identifying an appropriate vendor and product combination and effectively realizing the value from your investment, however, is a question that will take more to answer.
What’s In A Name?
Chat-bots, chatter-bots or chatbots. Virtual assistants. Digital characters. Conversational Artificial Intelligence, or just AI. Speech recognition/interaction technology. Virtual Reality. Avatars. Virtual CSR, or VCSR. Artificial Assistance or Assistant. Erwin Van Lun, a futurist writing on Chatbots.org , has identified over 127 synonyms for chatbots, and cautions that there is no agreement on definitions for any of them. Is it an actual voice that makes an artificial intelligence technology worthy of the name? Must there be a digital representation of a human to provide non-verbal emotional feedback in the product to qualify? In an era where texting or text-chatting is increasingly a common experience, even dominant in some sectors of the community, a company seeking to provide cost-effective support or service definitely ought to consider an automated natural language processor resource, regardless of what it’s called.
There is little likelihood that the current gallimaufry of conflicting and confusing names will be resolved anytime soon. Vendors and prospective customers will continue to use the same terms while meaning very different things. It will take time, and debate, before any common understandings are established. The important issue, however, is not the name, it’s what the resource can do to increase your company’s customer retention and profitability today and what it will cost to deploy and to maintain.
We’ve Come A Very Long Way Since Bob
The use of artificial intelligence in the high technology industry is not a new thing. I worked on my first AI project team in the mid 80’s. In 1995, Microsoft introduced Bob, a product intended to be a user interface for several of the company’s software systems. It was not well received, to put it very mildly, and justifiably so — it was poorly targeted and poorly designed. The failure of Bob does, however, point out some critically important initial factors for companies to consider when seeking options for automated assistance today. How will your customers react to a chatbot or avatar? How do you know? What, specifically, is the business goal to be accomplished? What are the drivers? What are the specific aspects of the technology that make it particularly suited to the task? How will you measure success?
A lot of people in the younger and middle sectors of the generational spread of today have grown up with or at least had some significant experience with video games. Interacting with digital characters is nothing new. Virtual reality products have been in use in education for many years. In the fall of 2006, I wrote an article  — “Educational Gaming: All The Right MUVE’s” — about two examples of using such technology for teaching. Both River City and Whyville have proved to be very effective and very popular, clearly demonstrating that if properly designed and presented, virtual digital assistance technology can deliver excellent results.
Is There a Match?
Acceptance by the customer base is only part of the evaluation process. Is there a large enough part of the company-customer conversation spectrum that could be handled by some sort of an automated assistant to justify the investment? A good starting point for that analysis can be found in the case management system of your company’s customer service & support contact center. It’s important to ask the right questions, though. What is possible may not always be cost effective, or may require careful customization to remain in accordance with the company’s overall strategy for managing conversations  with the customer base. But in many cases, deployment of conversational artificial intelligence will make excellent sense, and free up human resources for more productive and profitable work.
As the industry quickly moves into widespread adoption of the SaaS/Cloud business model, the pressure on vendors to provide cost-effective support and service to customers is skyrocketing. The old approach to support, endlessly reacting to Break/Fix challenges and read-the-manual calls, is no longer sustainable. Companies simply can’t afford to waste their expensive human resources on unprofitable activities any more. Are chatbots the answer for your situation? The potential advantages are definitely worth taking a careful look.
I have developed an initial request-for-proposal (RFP) template for use by technology companies investigating the various forms of assistive technologies, and have identified over a dozen potential vendors with solid track records. If you’re interested in a vendor-neutral discussion of what chatbots / avatars / virtual digital assistants / and/or artificial intelligence by whatever name might do to improve customer retention for your company, send me an email  or call to arrange a complimentary Office Hours  session.
–The SaaS Customer Retention QuickStat