What do Aetna, the US Army, L’Oreal, and the London 2012 Olympic Games have in common? Each of these diverse organizations has deployed a virtual agent.

Virtual agents are software services that provide automated assistance by simulating a two-way conversation with customers. And they have come a long way from Clippy the dancing paper clip. The technology has demonstrated its ability to achieve business benefits, including improving efficiencies by deflecting calls to the contact center, managing initial customer contact by collecting information to populate a service ticket, and heightening the efficiency of contact reps when a case is escalated to live help

Selecting the right virtual agent vendor can be a complex undertaking because it can have an impact on multiple functional areas, including eBusiness, business processes, IT, customer experience, and, potentially, legal and governance.

To help navigate this process, we have published a new report, Five Essential eBusiness Criteria For A Successful Virtual Agent Vendor Selection.

Unlike traditional keyword search, which focuses on words or word patterns, virtual agents use some form of natural language processing (NLP) that derives intent by utilizing complex algorithms. 

One of the questions that I am most commonly asked by eBusiness professionals is how to assess how well a virtual agent understands conversation. 

Evaluating a vendor’s NLP capabilities can be challenging because the topic can easily be too technical or too abstract. I think the best way to evaluate a vendor’s NLP is to test its deployments. Ideally, select an example that is in your industry or one you are familiar with. Ask a question in multiple ways, ask in a longwinded sentence, and ask with spelling mistakes. What you’re looking for is how effectively the virtual agent understood your intent, provided consistent and contextual responses, and was appropriately conversational.

If you are at the stage where you are already evaluating vendors, ask them what deployments they can point you to that will best highlight their virtual agent’s conversational abilities (remember, sometimes a lackluster virtual agent is more of a reflection on their client’s knowledge base than on their capabilities). Ask vendors to indicate what back-end systems may be integrated into this deployment (i.e. inventory, shipping and delivery, product availability) so you can go deeper into testing the virtual agent’s capabilities.

There are many considerations to selecting the right virtual agent for your organization. “Five Essential eBusiness Criteria For A Successful Virtual Agent Vendor Selection” gives insight into how to evaluate how a vendor can enhance the user experience, contribute to avatar strategy, offer administrative tools that will support ongoing refinement, and factors that will affect pricing, as well as vendor experience you can leverage. I hope you'll find this report helpful.