16. May 2022 Blog

What is a Virtual Agent and How to Use One in your Call Center

illustration virtual agent MAIN

We’ve all been there. You open an e-shop or a company site, when suddenly that little bubble pops up to ask you whether you need help. “Oh, another chatbot”, you sigh. Chatbots have become exceedingly popular in recent years, and if the trend continues, by 2022 we’ll spend more time online talking to bots than actual humans.  

Don’t get us wrong, chatbots do a fine enough job with pre-scripted questions and answers (e.g. regarding office hours). However, they aren’t always sufficient when it comes to more complex questions. But that’s where the far more advanced virtual agents come into play. 

Today, we’re looking at what virtual agents are, how they work, and why they’re taking the world of contact centers by storm. Along the way, we’ll also discuss what sets them apart from regular chatbots, and also what benefits they can bring to your business. 

What is a virtual agent? 

On the surface, a virtual agent may look like your typical chatbot. However, they’re actually far more powerful. Powered by artificial intelligence and natural language processing, a virtual agent can understand the meaning and context of each customer’s message, and respond accordingly. 

Virtual agents can also understand conversation topics, customer intent, as well as their moods. This allows them to take some of the work off of your customer service’s plate by solving simple problems on their behalf. 

What does a virtual agent do in a call center?

We’ve already mentioned in the previous section that virtual agents help handle the dozens of questions and requests a call center receives on a daily basis. But what else do they do? 

Another great aspect of virtual agents is data collection. Virtual agents automatically aggregate data from each interaction. Thanks to that, they can be a source of vital information, like which issues are most common, where your customers live, what time of day they typically contact you, and so on. With this information in hand, you can improve your services and provide a personalized experience to every customer. 

But there are far more tasks that a virtual agent can help you with:

  • gathering data for lead generation (and following up on those leads too)
  • offering personalized recommendations for each caller
  • routing callers to a specific department or employee if the virtual agent can’t handle the question
  • answering questions during holidays or weekends, 24/7
  • processing simple payments (e.g. refunds)
  • handling repetitive customer interactions (e.g. appointment/callback scheduling, order management, lead qualification, and technical support)

Thanks to artificial intelligence, virtual agents are also getting smarter with time. This is because the more data they have to work with, the faster they learn. As a result, virtual agents will be able to provide even better customer service and handle their tasks more quickly and precisely as time goes on.

What are the main benefits of hiring a virtual agent?

Chatbots are already pretty valuable for companies when it comes to providing efficient customer service, but virtual agents can do so much more. Let’s look at the main benefits of hiring a virtual agent in more detail:

  • Faster response time68% of consumers like chatbots because they provide speedy answers. If you have limited capacity and a small number of agents to answer in real-time, they can be of great help.
  • Not restricted by pre-set instructions – talking to a chatbot might feel like talking to a wall sometimes. Meanwhile, virtual agents can understand what the customer wants to do and provide actual help.
  • Make reaching out to an agent much easier your virtual agent handles the simpler questions for you, which is a major benefit. Only the really important and complex questions make their way to your agents. This saves time and increases customer satisfaction.
  • Gather customer insights – every time someone comes up to a virtual agent, you get another valuable data point. Your virtual agents can collect information on the most common questions and complaints, making it easy for you to figure out what to fix and how.
  • Reduce agents’ workloads – your virtual agents cover the simple stuff so the real agents have more time for complex issues.
  • 24/7 support – for global companies, this is a major upside, especially if you don’t yet have the budget to hire an agent for each time zone in the world.
  • Get smarter with time – with each new interaction, your virtual agent learns more about your audience. And while it can never replace an actual agent, it performs much better than a chatbot.

Discover 10 Ways to Increase Productivity in Your Call Center.

Virtual agent vs. virtual assistant – is there a difference? 

Some websites may have you believe that virtual agents and virtual assistants are one and the same. And while their responsibilities are similar (e.g., handling phone calls, answering questions, etc.), there is one significant difference between the two – virtual assistants are actual human beings working remotely, while virtual agents are machines. 

Virtual assistants also have far more responsibilities they can take care of, including

  • answering emails
  • organizing meetings or business trips
  • scheduling appointments
  • providing customer service as the first point of contact
  • helping employees with administrative tasks
  • bookkeeping
  • any other small or large tasks that they are trained to do

Meanwhile, virtual agents are strictly designed to handle simple and repetitive customer support tasks, like the ones we described above. 

Virtual agent vs. chatbot – which is better?

From a technical standpoint, virtual agents and chatbots work in a similar way and have the same goal of boosting customer support while taking some work off human agents’ shoulders. Virtual agents, however, are far more advanced and sophisticated than chatbots. 

The main difference is how the two technologies work. Chatbots rely on a set of pre-defined instructions and responses that allow them to answer customers’ questions. They work either through scanning the keywords written in the message or by asking the customer to pick from a list of questions..

For example, if a customer picks the option “I want to ask about office hours,” the chatbot will reply by providing that information or by directing them to a page where the contact details can be found. Or, if they ask it to check an order status, it could direct them to a website where they can find shipment tracking updates.However, the number of questions that chatbots can answer is limited. 

Virtual agents are far smarter. Since they use AI and Natural Language Processing to read what the customer wants, they can understand various types of questions, find out what the customer wants to do, and then carry out the task.

So if the same customer asked a virtual agent to track their order status, it would take the order number and then look through its database to check where exactly the package is located before replying.

Through natural language processing, virtual agents can also actively understand what a customer says instead of relying on predefined keywords. By doing so, they can understand the customer’s intent, gauge their mood, and then respond accordingly – for example, by escalating an upset customer’s inquiry to a human agent. Therefore, virtual agents are better suited to troubleshooting, account management, and customer support than typical chatbots.

But here comes the tricky part – training the AI. 

Chatbots are easy to set up because they only need a set of instructions to be ready to work. Meanwhile, AI-based virtual agents first need to spend time “learning” the answers. The more quality data they have to process, the better service they can offer.

However, this takes time. If you don’t give the AI the time to get acquainted with all its responsibilities, the virtual agent might give incorrect suggestions or perform tasks incorrectly. And you definitely want to avoid that.

Conclusion

Virtual agents can enable organizations to deliver better customer service at a lower cost, with greater consistency. In less time. If you run a call center, a virtual agent makes your work significantly easier. 

And there are many more call center productivity features to discover. In CloudTalk, we have all the modern tools you need to handle inbound and outbound calls without a hassle.

Sign up for free trial today.

CloudTalk