As online commerce matures, automated virtual representatives may solve staffing problems by supplementing humans in some aspects of e-commerce customer interaction. And the technology is getting sharper all the time. Instead of being limited to a natural language search engine concept, virtual representatives take the idea to the next level, actually holding up their end of a conversation with customers.
Which is to say, they’re interactive enough to prompt a customer with a logical follow-up question and, if it comes to that, humble enough to admit they don’t know the answer and kick the query over to a human rep.
Virtual reps are not perfect but, if implemented properly, they’ll either answer the question correctly or refer it to a human who can, which is about all anyone could ask of a customer service rep – human or otherwise.
Whether in online sales or post-sale support, studies show that human reps spend at least 80 percent of their time answering the same 20 percent of queries. And then there’s human error. Human customer service reps are often slow at answering questions or simply incorrect. That’s partly because of boredom and inattention, but it’s also because people often hate to admit they don’t know the answer.
According to a 1998 report by Service Intelligence Inc., “Very often, [human] representatives were inefficient at finding an immediate solution, sometimes taking a considerable amount of time or giving incorrect solutions before coming up with the correct one.” Furthermore, the study found that customers wait on hold an average of 8.6 minutes before getting through to a human service rep. In the hotly contested online business market, that’s just not good enough.
Virtual customer service technology, on the other hand, is instantly available, just about always right when asked questions within their domain of knowledge and absolutely egoless. It gives the correct answer or admits it’s clueless, at which point the human rep can take over. Meanwhile, humans are freed up from the hundreds of mind-numbing tasks involved in answering the same questions over and over again and can concentrate on the more cerebral aspects of their jobs – like day trading, perhaps.
The trust factor. There’s a human vs. machine factor that plays out on the customer end of a business as well. Despite the fact that virtual reps can deliver highly accurate information, customers aren’t always willing to trust a nonhuman upon first encounter.
With their knowledge limited to specific products or services, virtual reps never know all the answers. Stumping the technology is easy outside its area of expertise, which actually serves to build trust in humans. Oftentimes, once customers realize they can trip up a virtual rep, they then feel more comfortable using it for its intended purpose – for delivering and gathering information.
In fact, once a customer trusts a virtual rep, that customer is more likely to divulge important information that a human rep might not be able to gather, because a nonhuman rep is nonjudgmental. For example, a cyber-rep on a healthcare Web site will more likely get the actual age or weight of a customer who is looking for a specific solution to a personal problem, whereas a customer might not impart such facts to a human customer service rep.
Two-way data flow. Another business benefit to this technology that’s worth considering is that virtual reps are a two-way street. They ask questions as well as answer them and can provide information of long-range strategic importance for any online retailer.
They can identify frequently asked questions and add the answers to their knowledge domain. They can help business strategists examine demographic patterns, identify which groups are concerned about which issues, and develop specific marketing and advertising campaigns for those people.
Attitudinally correct. To further enhance customers’ experience, virtual CSRs can be customized to reflect the personality of a particular organization. They can be staid and formal as befits a bank, or hip and chatty as suitable to a cosmetics manufacturer. In this fashion, they serve to extend a company’s brand or culture to the Web.
Humans and virtual reps are partners, not adversaries. They both have vital roles to play in online customer service. When properly designed, this technology allows e-commerce companies to bring their customers as close as possible to the ideal bricks-and-mortar experience. Cyber-CSRs improve how a company does business, helping turn browsers into customers by, among other things, eliminating the endless wait for a live human.