Let A Virtual Agent Do The Talking

“The Wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask.”

Nancy Newhall

You don’t need me to tell you how much the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world.  It has disrupted the way we work, shop, socialize, relax, and communicate.  In respect to business communications, it has done two things.  First, it accelerated the adoption of workstream collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams, WebEx Teams, Slack, and the new kid on the block, Avaya Spaces. Usage of these platforms is growing by leaps and bounds.

It has also highlighted importance of old fashioned voice communication.  Now that millions of us have moved out of office buildings and into our homes, the over-the-cube-wall conversation has turned into some form of audio connection.  Be it a traditional telephone, a soft phone, or that newfangled Teams application, voice is once again an essential part of getting business done.

As excited as I am that businesses are embracing and enabling a remote a remote workforce (regardless of why this is happening), the challenges of moving people home are enormous.  My previous two blog articles (Home is Where the Work Is and Home is Where the Work Is – The Social Aspects) addressed many of these concerns.  There are issues with technology, procedures, policies, security, public safety, etc.  This is our BC (Before Covid-19) to AD (After Defeating) moment.

As if all this disruption wasn’t enough, enterprises are being inundated with a deluge of telephone calls.  In addition to their normal contact center traffic, the world wants to know how to work with them in this new reality.  While some of these questions require a trained contact center agent, a huge amount can be answered via some form of FAQ.  Unfortunately, both the complicated and uncomplicated questions are landing on overworked and overstressed ears.

Virtual Agents to the Rescue

In ordinary times, the answer to an increased call load would have typically been to add more agents.  However, we are about as far from ordinary times as you can get.  As a business struggles to move their existing people home, adding a significant number of new employees is unthinkable.  If a company wasn’t already considering augmenting their workforce with virtual agents (bots), they really ought to now.

Well before Covid-19, there were plenty of good reasons for enabling virtual agents.  These include:

  • 24/7 availability
  • Consistent customer experience
  • Scalability
  • Cost saving
  • Offloading repetitive tasks from human agents
  • Efficiency improvements

Simply put, a virtual agent can augment a company’s workforce while saving money and improving both the customer and agent experience.

Building the Intelligent FAQ

Most companies publish an FAQ on their websites.  These range from basic question and answer pages, to complex, how-to manuscripts complete with videos, links, and images.  For fun, I did an Internet search on “Covid-19 FAQ” and found hundreds of choices to choose from.  These range from federal government (the CDC) to state government (Minnesota) to education (Vanderbilt University) to restaurants (Sweetgreen).  Since nearly every public entity has been effected by the pandemic, they all want to be clear as to how they are dealing with it.

With the exception of a possible search bar, these FAQs are pretty static in nature.  The reader typically scrolls down until he or she finds the appropriate question and answer pair.  In other words, look, scroll, click, and read.  It’s impossible to speak a question and hear the answer.

This is where virtual agents and their use of natural language processing (NLP) comes in.  NLP allows humans to form questions and statements in exactly the same way they would if speaking to another human.  It also allows for the many ways the same question might be posed.  With NLP, “How do I get Covid-19” yields the same results as “Can I get coronavirus from a mosquito bite?”

To bridge the gap between text-based documents and NLP-powered virtual agents, artificial intelligence providers are developing knowledgebase tools that read, process, categorize, and AI-enable FAQs.  For example, Google developed a tool that can help turn webpage FAQs or structured CSV (Comma Separated Values) files into Intent/Dialog tuples.  In layman’s terms, it converts static question and answer documents into virtual agents.

Hearing is Believing

Since I learn best by doing, I built a virtual agent for the CDC Covid-19 FAQ.  The webpage can be found here.  Take a quick look and you will find questions like these:

How can I protect myself?

What does well controlled mean?

Do I need to get my pet tested?

While school is out, will kids have access to meals?

Since I began this article speaking about the importance of voice, I created a telephone integration for my CDC FAQ bot.  Anyone who calls 202-838-0593 will be connected to my virtual agent and can ask any question found on the CDC website.  Keep in mind that the website was not designed for a voice virtual agent, so some of the answers are very long.  I have also not finetuned it for “fuzzy” matches to spoken questions.  To create the best user experience, FAQ data should be written for a voice integration.

I added a few extra commands to the virtual agent.  For example, you can say “Thank you” to end the call.

Business Use

In the same way that I turned the CDC FAQ, a business can add a virtual agent (or agents) to solve their call overload problem.  Imagine calling into a contact center and immediately hearing something like this:

If you are calling about our Covid-19 policies and want to speak with our virtual agent, please press 1.  Otherwise, stay on the line for a long time so an overworked human agent can answer your basic questions.

Okay, maybe that’s not the best wording, but you get the idea.  The point is to take mundane calls away from humans and let virtual agents do the talking.

Also, don’t think that this is limited to pandemic questions and answers.  There is no reason why a virtual agent can’t respond to any and all FAQ questions.  The implementation time is minimal and the impact will be tremendous.

Mischief Managed

The goal of this article was to educate you on using virtual agents for automating FAQs, but that is only a starting point.  Once the virtual agent is live and taking calls, there is no reason why it cannot be augmented to provide more sophisticated customer service.  With NLP and AI, the sky is the limit as to how far you can take this.

Finally, virtual agents are not here to completely eliminate live agents.  A complete solution will include the ability to leave the bot and escalate to a trained human professional. Not all calls require human intervention, but clearly, some do (at least for now).  However, let’s keep the basic questions and answers in the virtual space.  Both the customer and agent experience will benefit from that.

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