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Organizations have been struggling for years to find effective systems to support customer self-service. One of the most popular techniques has been to deploy an IVR system, but my research into customer experience management shows that nearly two-thirds (61%) of customers using IVR end up taking the option to speak to an agent, and the old saying “customers hate IVR” still prevails. The same research shows that web-based self-service is achieving similar low levels of success.

Interactions, founded in 2004, has developed an entirely different approach. Its Virtual Assistant application listens to customers’ voice input, and responds based on what customers ask or information they provide. The software is programmed to ask questions, and the dialogue is driven by how the customer responds, either by asking further questions or providing information requested by the caller. The application is smart enough to understand normal conversations, so users talk and it reacts, as if they were talking to a live agent.

As it is software, users can program different types of calls to follow the same flow. For example, by listening to typical sales calls, users can set up Virtual Assistant to follow best practices in handling such calls, including offering preprogrammed responses that depend on what customers say. This ensures customers get the same experiences every time they call. Virtual Assistant can also extract data from other software applications; for example, if it recognizes a caller’s name, the system can be programmed to recover information about the caller from a CRM, ERP or other business application. Using this information, Virtual Assistant can personalize its responses or take a different direction in the dialogue.

This might sound like an advanced form of voice-activated IVR, and to a degree it is, but it doesn’t just follow set menus and provide canned responses. Virtual Assistant is programmed to engage in natural dialogues in ways that might happen with a live agent, but with a greater degree of consistency and personalization. From the case studies I have seen, organizations that program it to deliver above and beyond what customers expect from a live agent have achieved considerable business benefits. From what I have seen and heard I believe Virtual Assistant can enable real success for customer self-service, so I recommend organizations investigate how it can help improve their customers’ experiences.


Richard J. Snow

VP & Research Director

Recently I read that each person has an average of 1.8 devices connected to the Internet, and this number is likely to grow as people continue to buy smartphones and tablets. In parallel, the number of apps available in the various app stores is growing exponentially, with the iPhone store alone having more than 700,000 active apps. The big question for me is how much of this is about business and how much is purely social. Recently GenesysInteractive IntelligenceJacadamplsystems and NICE Systems made announcements showing they are banking on a greater portion being about business, as they all released tools that allow organizations to build what they call mobile customer service apps.

What is a mobile customer service app? As I explained during a recent webinar, it is an evolution from early times when all consumers could do was to use their favorite search engine on a mobile device to access an organization’s website. This had its limitations, not least from an accessibility point of view, and so provided very limited customer service capabilities, often limited to viewing FAQs. Next came what I call the business-specific app; for example a banking app produced by a bank that allows its customers to carry out a limited number of transactions: look up the balance of an account, for instance, or make a payment. While these advance mobile customer service, they have their limitations too, which boil down to the fact that if a transaction goes wrong the only option is to leave the app, call the contact center and start the process over again.

The latest developments aim to overcome both of these sets of limitations. They include a “click to call” icon, which allows consumers to reach the contact center without leaving the app. This means organizations can bypass IVR because the system is smart enough to recognize the caller, passing data already collected in the app to the person handling the interaction so the caller doesn’t have to start again, and giving the agent a running start in handling the interaction. If the caller wants or there is no agent available, the software can enable a callback to fit the caller’s circumstances. The most innovative of the tools allow developers to take advantage of the latest mobile device features such as touch screen data input, integration with GPS data and sharing of all forms of data, such as pictures or video. This combination of features should enhance the customer experience and contact center operations.

I say “should” because as with most innovative technologies I have my reservations as to whether they will gain wide adoption and indeed live up to customer expectations. The first challenge is for companies to choose the right app and include the right capabilities. The whole point of any app is customer use; if customers don’t use it or use it only a few times then it is unlikely to have a major impact. From the roundtables I chair at Directors’ Club customer experience days I know that many companies are struggling to see where they can mobilize their business. The discussions illustrate that companies need to think outside the box to identify what to do; quite often other members of the discussion give participants ideas they hadn’t dreamed of. A few of the discussions identified another best practice – design the app from the customer’s perspective, not the company’s. One of the most successful cases I heard came from two IT guys who developed an app for fun and designed it with what they would like to do in mind. Eventually, without any promotion, it garnered 10,000 downloads, and apparently their company is now hooked on mobile apps.

The use of smart mobile devices is increasing, and the use of mobile customer service apps will increase along with it. However, in these early days, companies need to get things right in order to avoid another version of “everyone hates IVR” with “everyone hating mobile apps.”  I’m interested in the experiences you and your company are having with mobile apps; please come and collaborate with us.


Richard J. Snow

VP & Research Director

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