What Should A Virtual Agent Look Like?

Not all companies that offer a virtual agent elect to have an avatar. However, many companies choose to make cartoon, 2D or 3D renderings of a human to personalize the experience, support the brand, and reinforce the conversational nature of the interaction.

 But what should an avatar look like? Here are some considerations for eBusiness professionals who are designing a virtual agent avatar. Your avatar should:

  • Resonate with your audience. Pam Kosta, CMO at VirtuOz advises, “It’s key to make the user feel like this is someone they can get help from.” Marketing & Creative Services Manager at Next IT Jennifer Snell agrees, “When it gets right down to it, if your consumers don’t like it, they aren’t going to trust it or use it.” Here are two examples of avatars designed to appeal to their respective audiences: The Army’s “SGT STAR,” which reaches 18- to 22-year-old potential Army recruits, is a 3-D animation while AT&T’s “Charlie” looks warm and caring, with a vague ethnicity and age to appeal to a broader demographic base.
  • Have a look that reflects your brand. Sometimes a company has a prominent brand persona like the Michelin Man. Though less common, others may take elements from their logo. Most frequently, brand will influence what an avatar is wearing, hair style, etc. For example, a brand appealing to a younger segment should choose edgier clothing, while a conservative brand should dress its avatar in a more button-down fashion. eGain suggests companies model their avatars after their spokesperson in other media.
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Co-Browsing: A Technology Worth Considering

I’ve had an abundance of inquiries recently on co-browsing — allowing a contact center representative to interact with a customer using the customer's web browser — so I wanted to share some thoughts on the topic here.

First, the cautionary tale: I believe it that co-browsing can potentially be a solution looking for a problem. For example, if you are looking for a solution to customers having difficulty understanding how to complete a form, it may be more cost-effective to do a page redesign or offer click-to-chat.

But that said, co-browsing — when implemented at the right time and place — can be an effective approach to escalated and personal support. Co-browsing can be used for many objectives including support, sales, product selection, and account management. The value proposition is that co-browsing can improve call handle times, support sales, enhance customer satisfaction, and — in some instances — be a teaching tool that deflects future telephone calls as customers learn how to perform tasks in a co-browsing setting.

Co-browsing can be an effective tool when it is offered at the right time to the right customer.  Here are a few key considerations for companies thinking about offering co-browsing:

  • There is consumer interest in the technology. According to the North American Technographics Customer Experience Online Survey, Q4 2009, 15% of US online consumers say they would be interested in using co-browsing as a customer service channel in the future. And before you ask — as I know some of you will! — there was no variation in the data by gender or age. In other words, interest was the same for men and women, and equal between Gen Y consumers and their grandparents.
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Defining Customer Service Will Be A Moving Target In 2011

Customer service has traditionally been defined as the interaction between a customer and a company — either its employees or its online channels — to obtain information or resolve an issue before, during, or after a purchase.

As we enter 2011, I’ve been thinking about how the definition of customer service has been changing. There are three forces that I think are challenging our traditional definition:

  1.  Social media is tightening the relationship between support and brand. Social customer service is about using social technologies to provide or facilitate customer service or support. As I noted in my report “Getting Social Customer Service Right,” the essence of social media is having conversations, and customers want to talk about their experiences and get resolution for their issues. Social customer service is offered publicly: The complaint and resolution (or lack of) are out there for the world to see. Marketers are acutely aware of the impact this has on brand sentiment and reputation. As a result, customer service is becoming an essential element to brand strategy.
  2. Customer service is becoming more proactive. Traditionally, customers initiated contact with companies to request assistance. But proactive technologies are changing that. Proactive chat and click-to-call have been associated primarily with sales objectives, but there is growing interest among eBusiness leaders to employ proactive live help technologies to assist with customer service issues. This means proactive chat capabilities that have sat on the sales side of an organization are shifting onto the customer service side.
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The Essentials To Planning A Successful Support Community

I was speaking with an eBusiness executive today who summarized his efforts around launching a support community in three succinctly non-ambiguous words: “It ain’t easy.”

A community can have many strategic purposes: PR, brand management, product development, customer service.

My colleague Melissa Parrish has written a really helpful report called “Community Management Checklist.” If you are considering launching — or have launched and want to optimize — a community, I highly recommend this report.

If your objectives are customer service-related, you will have unique requirements such as securing and rewarding internal product experts’ participation and creating internal guidelines around when to respond. To date, there hasn't been a wealth of established best practices for support communities. To assist in launching a support community, we’ve just published my report called, “Essentials To Planning A Successful Support Community.”

As a user of support communities, I’ve often wondered about what motivated these helpful strangers to guide me through resolving a download hiccup on my iTunes upgrade or navigating the mysteries of changing toner on my new printer. I’ve learned that — while their motivation may be a mystery to me — a good community manager knows exactly why each of these super-users participate, for example, for recognition, helping other people, or product passion. Some support community managers even telephone enthusiasts to develop direct relationships with them.

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Is Twitter Living Up To Its Customer Service Hype?

“Twitter is the fastest-growing customer service channel.” I hear this frequently, most recently during one of the keynote presentations at Dreamforce last week.

There are a lot of reasons to love Twitter -- or at least the idea of Twitter -- for customer service. For a customer, Twitter represents an opportunity to connect with knowledgeable, supportive, and humanized help. And for companies, Twitter is a way to publicly resolve public complaints.

I’ve used Twitter many times for service-related issues. These interactions fall into two buckets:

  • The times I contacted a company because other channels had either failed, were less convenient, or Twitter was simply easier.
  • The times I vented on Twitter and someone intervened.
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Introducing Forrester’s Online Customer Service Functionality Benchmark

Forrester has launched the Online Customer Service Functionality Benchmark, a new tool to help eBusiness professionals assess the performance of their online customer service functionality and gain insight into their competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.

This review assesses the availability, accessibility and functionality of online customer service channels. Our approach follows three steps:

Step 1: Define user goals.The review attempts to complete user goals that we selected for each customer service channel such as looking for product information, seeking pricing options, and managing accounts.

Step 2: Score the sites on user criteria for five online customer service categories. We evaluate 103 criteria to assess a Web site’s ability to provide best-in-class online customer service. The review is broken up into categories including self-service, live help, social customer service, email and video customer support. Forrester assigns weightings for criteria based on importance, with higher weightings for availability and resolution. The score for each category is normalized to accommodate the varying number of criteria in each.

Step 3: Apply category weightings. Forrester assigns weights for each of the online customer service categories. Categories are weighted based on higher consumer usage and higher satisfaction data.

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How Consumers Complain About Poor Service

I am not one to suffer poor customer service in silence. Regrettably, the last week has provided me with the opportunity to be unusually prolific. I’ve written an email to the furniture retailer who didn’t deliver on time, sent several tweets while on hold with an airline, and followed up with an email to that airline about the multiple errors in my bookings. Last week’s restaurant with the wonderful chef was noted on Yelp, as well as the interminably slow service. The florist who sent me near-dead lilies was also called out on Yelp. And I’ve responded to two online surveys, offering both companies what I hope was constructive advice on how they could improve their service for future customers — of whom I am unlikely to be among.

I am not alone. According to Forrester’s North American Technographics Customer Experience Online Survey, Q4 2009 (US), 68% of North American consumers say that they've had unsatisfactory service interactions in the past 12 months. And many of us are not suffering in silence: 71% of these consumers have provided feedback directly to the company through surveys, phone calls, emails, or letters. Further, 16% of these consumers who have had bad service experiences have vented through social channels, such as online customer reviews, Facebook status updates, or blog posts.

If you haven’t already, I recommend reading my colleague Andrew McInnes’ report called “How Consumers Complain About Poor Service.”

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Do Customers Want Customer Service To Delight Or Simply A Hassle-Free Resolution?

In customer service, we talk about “delighting” customers, providing an experience that is personalized to an individual's preferences and needs. The quest to delight goal is the goal of CRM and one-to-one marketing strategies. It is not easy to achieve and can have compelling results for a business.

But it makes me wonder — do your customers want to be delighted in customer service, or do they just want a hassle-free resolution?

Recently, my suitcase handle broke. I pride myself on my Ryan Bingham-like airport efficiency. Struggling with the broken handle forced me to slow every queue from security to boarding in a recurring tug-of-war with an uncooperative roller bag.

I contacted the company on the telephone and had a strikingly unmemorable conversation with the only meaningful takeaway being that I needed to go to the Web site to complete a warranty form. The form did not offer me the option to print before submitting nor send an acknowledgement email, raising my suspicions that this could require following up.

I was mistaken. A mere eight days later, a new suitcase arrived at my door.

It would have been nice if there was a note accompanying the new roller bag:  something to acknowledge my inconvenience, to express regret that the product didn’t perform, to at least address me by name. I didn’t receive any of these — just an anonymous box containing a new suitcase. And I was delighted.

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Understanding The Distinctions Between Social Marketing And Social Customer Service

The relationship between social media and customer service is no longer just flirting; it’s getting serious.  Among US retailers, 23% offer customer service via community forums and another 27% plan to implement; 16% offer customer service via Twitter and another 21% plan to implement. We’re starting to see Twitter listed in an online Contact Us support section (see Xbox and Rogers).

The essence of social media is having conversations. Customers want to talk about their experiences. These experiences relate to customer service -- complaints, compliments, looking to peers for support.  Savvy eBusiness professionals are leveraging social media to offer social customer service in several forms, including facilitating (i.e., helping customers assist each other), resolving (i.e., using social media such as Twitter to resolve customer service issues), and redirecting (i.e., using social media to listen and redirect customer service issues to appropriate customer service channels for resolution).

This is fundamentally changing how companies approach social media and challenging notions of who “owns” social media. Social media was born and nurtured in marketing and PR departments, but its customer service objectives come with uniquely customer service requirements including alignment with customer service objectives and metrics, integration into customer service technology, and support skills.

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Call Deflection Can Drive Customer Satisfaction

Call deflection -making alternative customer service channels available to deflect calls to telephone center - is a concept with two frequent misconceptions that I think should be addressed:

  • Call deflection can drive customer satisfaction.  I’ve spoken with clients who say that their key objective is customer satisfaction so call deflection is not a goal. But call deflection and customer satisfaction are not mutually exclusive. According to Forrester’s North American Technographics Customer Experience Online Survey, Q4 2009, 72% of US online consumers prefer to use a company's Web site to get answers to their questions rather than contact companies via telephone or email.  So from a customer perspective, call deflection means having alternative customer service channels available that offer choices other than the telephone. If your customers prefer online customer service, then call deflection tactics may actually drive customer satisfaction.
  • Call deflection is not call avoidance. The telephone will continue to be the most appropriate or most preferred alternative for some customers or situations. Not being available on the telephone will compromise customer satisfaction. The savviest companies proactively offer telephone support to ensure customer satisfaction. For example, if you post a question on Intuit’s support forum and don’t receive an answer within 48 hours, Intuit will respond with a toll-free phone number and invitation to telephone for assistance. Intuit’s forum certainly deflects some support calls but they don’t use it to avoid offering the telephone when their customers need them.
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