In today’s digital economy, consumers expect companies to leverage the latest technologies and engage at every possible touchpoint. That requires an omnichannel engagement strategy to create seamless experiences that benefit both the brand and its clients. In fact, companies that implement omnichannel engagement solutions retain on average a whopping 90% more customers than those using just one channel. For those that don’t, that percentage falls to a slim 33%. Ultimately, companies that fail to incorporate new and emerging channels into their customer journey will fall behind their more innovative competitors.
Virtual personal assistant solutions are becoming increasingly important in customer experience transformation. By 2021, Gartner estimates that 15% of all customer service interactions will be handled entirely by some form of virtual office assistant—an increase of 400% from 2017. More broadly, the “intelligent assistant” business is predicted to grow to over $15 billion by 2021, and by that same year, 25% of digital workers will employ a personal virtual assistant in the office.
Forward-thinking enterprises understand that a virtual office assistant can help them stay ahead of the curve. For companies late to the party, developing the right strategy for deploying the technology is essential. With that in place, any company can leverage virtual assistant technology to create integrated, personalized, and efficient digital experiences that encourage customer loyalty. The starting point, however, is understanding what exactly virtual assistants are and what business value they add.
What Is a Virtual Assistant & What Do They Do?
If you’ve ever asked Siri a question or Alexa to play a song, then you’ve already used a virtual assistant. Virtual assistants are software agents that perform human-like tasks based on voice or written commands. They can live on any device connected to the internet, such as smartphones, desktops, or in-home speakers.
In the past, administrative assistant tools were limited to text-based solutions like chatbots. But with new advances in AI at the workplace, voice assistants are quickly taking over. In fact, Gartner predicts that 25% of employee interactions with apps will be through voice assistant technology by 2023. Crucially, unlike the majority of other channels, a digital voice assistant eliminates the need for a user-interface screen.
Even more importantly, the integration of natural language processing (NLP) allows individuals to speak to digital voice assistants as they would a human. With NLP, virtual assistants intake a user’s command and apply algorithms to decipher language and formulate a response. Many listen for a specific keyword or phrase (e.g. “Hey, Alexa”) and once they recognize that code word, a server interaction initiates to carry out a specific assignment.
These communication skills enable intelligent assistants to perform rudimentary work or administrative tasks. In a consumer’s personal life, these services can range from turning off lights to making phone calls or even posting to social media accounts. In the workplace, smart assistants can reserve office space, take notes, and assist with scheduling meetings. Industries including healthcare, banking, and retail are already harnessing the power of these digital voice assistants. Here are a few specific examples of what virtual assistant services can do:
Keep users organized: Commercial real estate firm JLL created personal voice assistant JiLL to simplify organization and create seamless employee experiences. The conversational AI assistant helps employees locate and book spare desks, set up meetings with coworkers, and submit help desk tickets.
Automate repetitive tasks: Finance and accounting departments across all industries are using virtual assistants to automatically create monthly reports that highlight key trends.
Perform manual tasks: Amazon’s Alexa for Hospitality Initiative brings the popular voice assistant to hotels to perform manual tasks for guests, such as adjusting room temperatures or scheduling housekeeping services.
Record and process data: In healthcare, doctors are using voice assistants for various data administrative tasks, such as recording patient data, requesting additional tests and medications, or setting new appointments.
Research information: Virtual assistants work to find answers to basic questions for users and point them to the right resources without them having to lift a finger or query various search engines.
All of these examples require a digital voice assistant to understand and respond to the natural cadence of human language. That’s what makes intelligent assistants so useful in the home, at the office, and increasingly, as part of a company’s customer engagement journey.
How Virtual Assistants Are Transforming Customer Engagement
Customer engagement transformation is the logical outgrowth of the rapid proliferation of virtual assistants within both the enterprise and home. In fact, in 2017, the voice-first device market grew by 126%, reaching more than 35 million units shipped in under two years. That’s faster growth than the iPhone, which took three years to hit 35 million phones shipped. As consumers grow accustomed to virtual assistants in their home and work, they come to expect the same service from the brands they interact and engage with. That’s possible because, on a technical level, there’s little difference between an individual asking Alexa to read the feed of their social media accounts and a consumer asking a given brand for product details or prices.
Therefore, one of the strongest business values of digital assistants is how they are paving the way for customer engagement transformation. Smart assistants can transform the way brands interact and engage with clients by:
Empowering customers to serve themselves
Across industries, customers want effective self-service options and their desire for these solutions is only growing. In retail, for example, 73% of respondents prefer self-service technologies over engaging with actual human associates. And in banking, a traditional late technology adopter, clients prefer to complete routine interactions through AI-powered tools by a wide margin. In fact, Bain & Company found customers show high levels of annoyance when unable to do so. Digital assistants can function as the self-servicing applications these customers want when handling lower-level concerns like technical problems or frequently asked questions. They simplify customer experience management by reducing support tickets and enabling customer service agents to spend more hours resolving high-impact problems.
Building seamless digital experiences
Customers are accustomed to digital channels in all areas of their lives. Brands that fail to deliver seamless experiences across these channels will be left behind. That makes the ability of virtual assistants to simplify the customer experience one of their biggest draws. With digital assistants, customers receive support in real-time, from the comfort of their own home, while doing other things simultaneously. This sort of low-effort utility explains why Google found that 72% of people who own smart assistants use them on a daily basis. Similar to the role of social media now, companies need to start implementing virtual assistant solutions to successfully meet their customers where they are—in this case, that’s “in the air.”
Creating customer interactions that are more human
AI allows brands to create human-centric customer experiences, and virtual assistants are a great example. In fact, Google reports that 41% of people who use a voice assistant say it’s similar to speaking with a friend. One reason that communicating with voice technology feels like interacting with a real person is that companies can customize the tone of their virtual assistant. In doing so, they bring customers closer to their brand in a way that feels authentic. Additionally, advanced virtual administrative assistant technology grows smarter over time. It learns with every action to anticipate a task before a user even thinks of it. As a result, it creates a more personalized experience than traditional channels like email or social media.
Integrating with other channels to build a better user experience
Virtual personal assistants can integrate with almost any other digital channel. Some of these potential channels for integration include apps, websites, social media, or even IoT devices, such as a kiosk or self-checkout machine. For instance, Amazon’s Alexa integrates with a variety of third-party devices, ranging from Fitbits and laptops to camera systems and thermostats. As a result, customers are empowered to use these devices in new ways that maximize their benefits. Smart assistants also have the power to transfer data across channels to eliminate silos. For example, Microsoft’s Cortana integrates across desktop, mobile, and speakers so that events added to one channel appear on all platforms. This integration creates a more efficient user experience overall by saving customers time and effort.
Overcoming Potential Challenges
The above are just a few ways that intelligent assistants promise to revolutionize the customer engagement journey. However, as a relatively recent technology, virtual assistants present new challenges that must be solved to fully realize their business value. For instance, some users are worried that they are being “listened” to by digital assistants and have privacy concerns. Digital assistants may also present obstacles for industries with stricter data regulations, such as healthcare’s HIPAA guidelines.
To successfully overcome the challenges associated with virtual assistants, organizations must work with the right virtual assistance technology provider and have a clear strategy in place. Prior to implementation, enterprises need to identify stakeholders, choose the business areas that are a good fit for the technology, and decide on the type of virtual assistant that will enable them to meet their objectives.
This due diligence is worthwhile because when businesses get digital assistants right, the possibilities are endless.