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I can pretty much guarantee you that, soon enough, the folks you talk to online for sales or service are not going to be human. In fact, the people you interact with for online sales or service support aren't even going to be real—they will be virtual agents.

Why? The answer has a great deal to do with human nature, as well as with current budget constraints.

Are you old enough to remember when televisions had knobs? I am. I remember turning a mechanical knob to tune into one of 13 stations that my TV was capable of displaying. And if you remember knobs on TVs, then you probably also remember calling up companies that managed your money, such as banks, mutual funds, and brokerages, to ask simple questions: What's my balance? What's the current price of my fund? Has my check cleared?

The interesting thing about that process is that you called up and actually spoke to people to get those answers. Although usually friendly encounters on the phone, they were time-consuming and sometimes the person you spoke with didn't have the answer you were looking for.

The Human Touch Gives Way to Automated Responses

Then one day the financial institutions you relied on implemented an automated system that would get you answers on the phone without your having to talk to a human.

At first the experience seemed unusual, but soon enough you recognized the value of getting rapid answers to most of your questions 24/7. More complex requests, of course, had to be escalated to live human support.

You embraced your self-reliance while the companies you interacted with embraced their financial savings—the beginning of a win-win relationship.

Along came the Web and you stopped calling altogether, instead just interacting with companies via a browser. Yet if you had a question or an issue you couldn't resolve, you would have to send an email or see whether the company had live chat, or you would revert to making a phone call. Or, as was often the case, you just walked away without an answer.

Déjà vu All Over Again—But this Time with Web Robots

Just as companies once moved from using all human attendants on the phone to integrated voice response (IVR) systems for a large percentage of their calls, now organizations are starting to implement virtual agents to assist people on the Web.

These intelligent Web robots have the ability to interact with customers in automated dialog, understand users' needs, guide them to Web pages, cause images to pop up, highlight portions of their screens—anything to help customers get the information they need.

Why is this happening? Here are five reasons.

1. Costs—Customers Just Keep Coming

More and more people are using the Web. And more and more people are basing their judgments of a company on how easy and effective it is to interact with its website. In response, companies are putting increasing amounts of information on their sites and allowing people to perform more business processes there.

But the more customers can do on websites, the greater the possibility of confusion or customer questions. When customers get confused, they typically have two options: walk away frustrated or contact support—via email, live chat, or phone call—which gets very expensive for the company in question.

Organizations just can't scale human support in a cost-effective fashion. There are no economies of scale beyond a point, and thereafter the costs go up linearly.

As a result, using a virtual agent is appealing to many companies purely from a cost-savings perspective. If you can "train" a nonhuman robot to guide customers to resolution on 20% of the issues that cause 80% of inquiries, the potential savings are enormous.

2. People Don't Want to Talk to Bangalore

Whether an organization's support group is in Bangalore or Dublin or St. Louis, it doesn't really matter. People don't want to interact with support—they want to be self-reliant.

A recent study from Forrester Research titled "It's Time to Give Virtual Agents Another Look" reported that "only 28% of US online consumers prefer to contact companies via telephone or email rather than using a company's Web site to get answers to their questions." People like to interact on websites at their own pace in their own way, so much so that often they will walk away without getting answers rather than contact support.

Such a person is known as a "silent sufferer"; most people at one time or another have been silent sufferers—leaving a site frustrated or confused.

A virtual agent enables customers to ask for assistance without having to depend on a human. They get the benefits of a self-service application that lets them be independent, while enjoying the guidance and customer-specific attention of a human—a much better solution for many people than walking away without an answer or placing a phone call to the call center.

3. Sifting Is Not Service

The amount of content that companies have on their websites is growing. And because search technology focuses on keywords, customers often find it difficult to sift their way through product key terms, because they tend to dominate the site. What I mean is that when you ask a site "Can I return [product name]," the search engine often spits out a multitude of links all related to [product name] but most have nothing to do with returns.

Ultimately, search is only as good as who is doing the "sifting" and how straightforward the processes are. Inevitably, search counts on users to find the right information and then determine how that information relates to their specific circumstances.

Virtual agents are growing in use at companies, even those with extensive search technology, because they recognize that search has its limitations and they want to provide that next level of service—which means they need to actively engage with customers rather than making them sift through information. Virtual agents can guide customers to the answers they want.

Sifting is not service.

4. Tell Me More About Me

When a customer comes to a website and has a question or issue, what they are truly concerned with is themselves. When John Doe comes to the site and wants to know why his bill is so much higher than it was the previous month, he is not interested in policies or pricing, he wants to know about himself and his situation.

The answer to John Doe's question does not exist on the site. No matter how hard he looks he will not find a document that says, "John, your bill is higher this month because of X." He may find a statement and then compare it to a past statement to attempt to discern the difference. Yet even if he finds the information, he may still be puzzled about why the change occurred and how to prevent it from happening in future months.

A virtual agent offers a whole new way for John to get an answer to his question. He can just ask the virtual agent why his bill is higher. The virtual agent can then do the analysis, display the difference between this month's and last month's bills, and then offer up a variety of options according to John's relationship with the company and the company's business policies.

The experience is all about John and his specific needs. It's the difference between someone handing you a wine list and a sommelier guiding you to the right wine. A list works some of the time but service is a much more compelling experience for people who care about their own needs—which pretty much includes everyone breathing on the planet!

5. Not Human, Superhuman

The last reason virtual agents are making a big push into corporations is that they provide an experience superior to that offered by their flesh-based counterparts. Virtual-agent technology has progressed enormously in the last 15 years from when an annoying paperclip used to help you in Microsoft Word.

The language skills of virtual agents have improved enormously. The user interface mechanisms that can be incorporated into the interactive dialog have taken leaps and bounds forward.

And the intelligence behind these virtual agents has improved so substantially that a virtual agent can often determine a customer's need faster, pull in back-end information, determine the right thing for the customer based on the policies of the organization, and take the customer to the appropriate Web page or execute an action on the customer's behalf, in less time than it takes for a customer service rep to clear his throat.

And with every interaction the virtual agent learns more and can be improved to handle situations better and better, with no fear it will ask for a pay increase, become rude to a client, or leave the organization.

Man and Machine

The robots are here to help. I can't tell you with any confidence whether in the future you'll be tucked into bed by a robot, but I can be pretty certain that sometime in the next five years you're going to interact with a virtual agent on the Web, if you don't do so already.

You may or may not know it, but chances are if you interact with agents via website and you feel they answer questions or bring up helpful images or Web pages faster than humanly possible, odds are you're right.

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Mark Gaydos is the VP of worldwide marketing at VirtuOz (, a virtual-agent solution provider. He is also the author of Marketing in the Time of Cholera (