Virtual Assistants Acting Naturally

When 20 percent of customers’ questions take up 80 percent of live chat agents’ time—and many of those questions are predictable and repetitive—getting a robot involved with the conversation seems a no-brainer. The problem is, robots don’t have brains. Not really.

After all, it’s proved very difficult over the years (although not impossible) for robots to pass the fabled Turing Test; a test in which subjects try to distinguish between machines and humans on the basis of responses to their questions. Bot chats can be a frustrating business, and everyone (not just me, surely) has had fun disrupting them by taking the conversation off the beaten track (“What are you doing tonight?” Please ask me a question about the product…).

The Arouga Hills, Ca.-based online engagement solutions vendor TouchCommerce today announced TouchAssist, a virtual assistant capable of conducting intelligent, responsive chats in natural language. Part of the RightTouch conversation engine, the product is designed to offer a friction-free customer experience as conversations segue between robots—or “virtual assistants” (VAs)—and live agents.

I spoke with George Skaff, TouchCommerce’s CMO, and Marina Kalina, Sr. Director of Product Marketing, and saw a demonstration of TouchAssist in action. Brands are doubling down on live chat, Skaff explained, partly because calls are expensive and “75 percent of chats deflect a call.” But there’s more to be achieved in terms of cost saving and leveraging customers’ interest in self-service support. According to Forrester, 84 percent of US customers have used self-service apps, FAQs or Help on company websites in the last 12 months.

This is a VA, said Skaff, “which understands intent, responds accurately, and improves customer satisfaction, while reducing costs.” It’s not the only smart VA on the market, of course, but Skaff points to integration of VA and live chat as a differentiating factor. Escalating a conversation from bot to human is frustrating for a customer if the live agent has no context for the conversation and details need to be repeated. Not that escalation always needs to occur; many of those frequent (20 percent) questions can be fully answered by a TouchAssist VA.

Without suggesting that these VAs are Turing Test-ready, what did impress in the demonstration was the bot’s ability to understand and respond to questions posed casually, idiomatically and even with typos. Speed was also notable. Rather than wait for a live agent (and one always assumes they’re conducting several chats simultaneously) to laboriously type a response, responses from the VA—in the demo, at least—were prompt, and even perky.

TouchCommerce is partnering with Nuance, the intelligent systems vendor with specialties in voice and natural language understanding, to power TouchAssist’s ability to engage in human-style conversations. (The Nuance technology is fluent in 20 languages). Natural Language Understanding technology is key to the VA’s ability to infer a clear request for information from a quickly typed text message. 

The VAs are trained using existing transcripts from live chats. Training is semi-supervised, meaning that the VAs are populated with the transcripts automatically, but human eyeballs still come into play when it comes to identifying and correcting misinterpretations. You can try TouchAssist here. Yes, it’s still possible to bewilder the bot, but on-point questions generate instant and generally useful responses, and redirection to a live agent—when I tried, anyway—was fast.

TouchCommerce, which currently operates in 16 countries, is primarily targeting Fortune 500 enterprises with its proffer of a single digital platform for all eCommerce interactions.

Story Update:

On July 21, Nuance announced an agreement to acquire TouchCommerce. The companies had been working together on the AI-live chat solution for several months.

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