After a wave of pretty abysmal attempts in the early part of this decade, virtual chat agents pretty much disappeared from the scene. However, the past couple of years has seen a new wave of implementations of this customer-facing technology with some large-company implementations, including “Frank” on the Verizon website (Ask Verizon); “Louise” at eBay France (Votre conseillère virtuelle); and “Anna” at Ikea (Have a Question?). Virtual chat sits in the interaction spectrum between search and live customer service agents and combines natural language processing, conversational interactions, and an (optional) animated persona.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to three different vendors in this marketplace — all of whom have seen an uptick in the their business over the past 12 months. The common themes expressed by all three — the ability to engage customers with a more conversational tone where questions are answered, rather than search results based on keywords presented; and common results of better sales and higher service call avoidance, indicate that virtual agents may make a good corporate “hire” in the right circumstances. Rough estimates of costs — about $0.25 per successful resolution of the customer problem.
I talked recently with the SAP CRM management team and partnering with SAP appears to becoming less onerous for vendors of customer-facing complementary software products. Many of these interaction-centric products in areas such as email management, knowledge management, and communication channel management had been forced into a go-it-alone strategy when looking to integrate with SAP CRM and Customer Service installations due to complex partnering rules and high fees. In a recent briefing, SAP appears to have loosened the reins a bit – structuring mutually beneficial agreements with a number of companies (announcements to follow) outside of their traditional partner channels. This bodes well for all three stakeholders in such a relationship: SAP, who broadens the capabilities of its product with well-integrated point solutions; independent software vendors, who can now work with SAP to tighten integrations; and users, who will benefit from co-marketed, tested solutions. As an indication that this is not just trading logos on PowerPoint decks, in at least one case, most of the work to integrate the products is taking place by SAP within the SAP product. Expect more news about the specifics of this new strategy in next few weeks. This is a vast change from prior policies which offered potential “partners” two choices – take it or leave it.