Forget the chatbots, ‘virtual assistants’ are taking over now

Published on the 24/08/2018 | Written by Jonathan Cotton


Virtual assistant Jamie ANZ bank

The psychological and technological come together in the race for CX AI supremacy...

With voice-enabled AI applications like Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assistant, it’s a bold new world for enterprise, marketers and increasingly consumers.

While the no-touch, voice-enabled office is still some ways off, for marketers the changing landscape is an opportunity for even better customer experiences. While chatbots were the canary in the coalmine, it’s now Virtual Assistants (VAs) who are coming to give the customer experience an AI-enabled upgrade.

“Chatbots were the canary in the coalmine. Now VAs are coming to give customer experience an AI-enabled upgrade.”

“In the early years of AI, customer experience [will be] the primary source of derived business value,” says John-David Lovelock, research vice president at Gartner, “as organisations see value in using AI techniques to improve every customer interaction, with the goal of increasing customer growth and retention.

“CX [will be] followed closely by cost reduction, as organisations look for ways to use AI to increase process efficiency to improve decision making and automate more tasks,” he says.

“Customer experience is a necessary precondition for widespread adoption of AI technology to both unlock its full potential and enable value.”

There are big numbers attached of course. Gartner says that global business value derived from AI is projected to total US$1.2 trillion this year, an increase of 70 percent on 2017, with AI-derived business value forecast to reach US$3.9 trillion in 2022.

“Virtual agents allow corporate organisations to reduce labor costs as they take over simple requests and tasks from a call center, help desk and other service human agents, while handing over the more complex questions to their human counterparts. They can also provide uplift to revenue, as in the case of roboadvisors in financial services or upselling in call centers.”

Sounds good; so who’s going first?

One early adopter is banking group ANZ, which earlier this month started its latest trial of new virtual assistant ‘Jamie’, an interactive helpdesk/answerer-of-basic-banking-questions.

“Accessibility is something we’re really interested in when we think about design for our digital tools,” says Liz Maguire head of digital and transformation at ANZ.

“We’re really excited that Jamie gives the ability for customers to be able to ‘talk’ to one of our digital channels – our website….This is entirely about customer choice.”

It’s impressive-sounding technology. The system uses Soul Machines’ Human Computing Engine (HCE), a virtual nervous system that is modelled on the way the human brain and nervous system work. (Soul Machines’ tech is also being used to develop a human-like ‘digital teacher’ for Vector’s current ‘Be Sustainable with Energy’ schools programme, which sees ‘digital teacher’ Will helping to educate students about renewable energy, via desktops, tablets and mobiles.)

So how well does it work? Has Jamie finally brought emotional depth to the classically sterile visiting-the-help-page-on-a-bank-website experience?

The voice recognition works well and the interface looks good. The still-in-training (and ever-so-slightly dead-eyed) digital banking assistant can currently answer the top 30 questions ANZ receives on its help page – and doesn’t deal in personally identifiable information, so essentially, the system functions somewhat like a hands-free setting or the ANZ help page.

Simply put, it does what it says on the tin, but the valley is still rather uncanny. (Take Jamie for a spin yourself at the ANZ website).

We’ve written about chatbots before – and the potential they have to both revolutionise and ruin – the customer experience. Surely much of the same rationale holds here. If the tech improves customers’ interfacing with the business, more power to the progressive enterprises with the ways and means to AI their CX.

But there’s also a lot that can go wrong with this kind of tech (does anyone remember Tay, Microsoft’s racist tweeting chatbot)?

Chatbots have never had the reputation for producing outstanding customer experiences at the best of time. Given that CX is surely one of the most sensitive parts of most businesses working models, with the rise of the digital assistant the onus is well and truly on operators to make those CX experiences good, seamless and helpful, rather than just clever.

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