The COVID-19 pandemic shifted customer experience to the virtual. From telehealth appointments to contactless payment methods, companies suddenly needed to find ways to maintain satisfying experiences for customers without in-person interaction. Many organizations turned to conversational UI to fulfill the sudden demand for contactless service, but will this trend continue after establishments reopen?
Over the past year, the number of worldwide consumers who prefer interacting with conversational UI jumped from 65% to 85%, likely due to the pandemic. This isn’t surprising, since conversational UI has become more sophisticated and personalized in recent years and can handle complex customer needs with ease through artificial intelligence (AI). With such a sharp increase in demand among consumers, knowing the complexity levels of personalized conversational experience, and how the technology can translate to potential business solutions, will be essential to satisfy customers in the years to come.
Anatomy of Conversational UI
We define conversational UI as software-enabled conversation agents that mimic having a conversation or interaction with a human with a varying degree of maturity or intelligence. They are also referred to as “bots” and can be categorized based on the following criteria:
- Chatbot/voicebot: A chatbot operates on a single-turn exchange basis. An example of this would be an iPhone user asking Siri about the weather.
- Conversational assistant: Conversational assistants engage users in a conversation to understand the nature of a problem. They are trained to ask a set of questions that can pinpoint, and potentially solve, the problem. When a bank customer states that she is having trouble accessing her account, she is speaking with a conversational assistant.
- Personal or virtual agent: A personal agent exhibits its own personality and is uniquely associated with an individual user, similar to a human personal assistant. The personal agent retains information associated with a user to provide contextualized answers, and its answers improve over time as it learns more about the user. The devices that remind users of appointments, check travel information, and manage to-do lists are personal agents.
Let’s explore the different types of conversational UI.
As the most basic form of conversational UI, scripted chatbots look for key phrases and give pre-defined responses to questions. Scripted chatbots allow customers to quickly obtain answers to frequently asked questions, such as listing hours and locations, without having to wait for a customer service representative. They allow for more convenience for the customer, and have, in recent years, become more secure. Scripted chatbots use natural language processing (NLP) technology, allowing customers to interact with them through everyday conversation.
The simplicity of scripted chatbots allows organizations to handle customer requests quickly and efficiently. Marriott hotels have leveraged chatbots for the past five years, allowing customers to resolve issues such as requesting services, changing reservations, or checking account balances. Within two years, the technology had fielded more than 2.5 million requests, with more than half placed before guests checked in.
Conversational assistants take it a step further from scripted chatbots with machine learning (ML) capabilities. They have a greatly improved understanding of user intent and can determine relationships between words to extract meaning from a request.
Healthcare organizations are increasingly adopting conversational assistants to streamline various tasks, both for healthcare workers and patients. At some organizations, staff stay in touch with teams through voice-activated badges that can route and receive messages. In at-home care settings, conversational assistants deliver daily schedules and remind seniors to take their medications. Instead of using an emergency call button, seniors can give voice requests to send for help with more detail for first responders.
Conversational assistants can also securely conduct transactions for financial services organizations. Bank of America’s virtual assistant Erica is able to schedule payments and pull up recent transactions for customers while using predictive analytics to give advice on customers’ financial habits.
Personal agents provide interaction to customers delivering personalized support via email or live chat on business websites. They are able to understand what a human is trying to achieve and can hold an end-to-end conversation through human-level AI, the type of artificial intelligence that can understand and reason in its environment the way a human would. Personal agents can also connect to other systems to leverage user data and insights, and one feature that sets personal agents apart is the technology’s ability to learn and improve over time through machine learning.
The best-known personal agents are probably Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple HomePod, or Google Home, but the technology can be adapted to business use as well. They can provide inexpensive customer service solutions, such as automatically responding to customer questions, allowing for improved customer satisfaction, reduced support costs, and higher sales for businesses.
There is a thin separation between chatbots, conversational assistants, and personal agents, as they operate within a large range of complexity in both dialogue and processes. Each category depends on the maturity of the technology and the experience enablement. However, organizations should choose the right level of intelligence depending on what is needed for the interaction. Here are some examples:
- For answering frequently asked questions, simple chatbots would be the most appropriate technology. They can understand questions and give the user the most relevant answer.
- For performing basic actions, such as looking up personal information, conversational assistants can get the job done since they employ slightly higher intelligence and can integrate with enterprise systems.
- To completely replace an employee, the most intelligent form of conversational UI should be deployed, which are virtual agents. These bots can handle the most complex dialogues, processes, and security protocols, essentially replacing employees when needed.
- Conversational agents decrease service desk workload by, for example, looking up vacation days of an employee, or enabling an employee to buy vacation days through the chatbot. Likewise, virtual agents can handle complex processes, such as walking a client through making a bank transfer or making changes to personal information, effectively replacing an employee.
As conversational UI continues to evolve, it offers organizations the opportunity to save time and costs on helping consumers navigate many different scenarios. Enterprises should take advantage of this technology in order to drive the types of experiences that customers have come to expect.
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EVP of Digital Engineering & Cloud Engineering