The five most common mistakes made when employing virtual consultants
Life expectancy drops when the consultant is not asked anything
Cartoon characters that only look good fail to hit the mark
Virtual consultants have to pay off Virtual consultants are one of the Internet’s most successful developments. They are now helping many employees to answer routine questions, both in companies and in the public sector. However, investing in avatars is only worthwhile if their popularity is expressed in figures - either they have to increase sales or save the human staff time. For example, digital assistant PIA at www.derclub.de, and FRITZ FELGE at www.reifen.com have helped their employers generate more online shop orders. CLARA at www.die-gesundheits-reform.de and ELIAS at www.elster.de, on the other hand, helped achieve greater acceptance among the public and relieved staff every month of several thousand routine enquiries. But if virtual advisors are just for fun and do not offer website visitors any other added value, then the investment is not worthwhile.
Avatars that are not asked questions do not survive for long Digital figures took their first steps during the early years of multimedia agencies, on behalf of brand-name manufacturers such as Schweppes and Apollinaris. Their main job was to keep people on the websites for longer. However, these projects were abandoned after two or three years. Nowadays the only digital staff to survive are those who help improve customer service with their expert dialogue. And yet a virtual consultant has to understand small-talk too, an ability which strengthens the personal bond between the visitor and the character. ‘Dialogue objectives’ and ‘discussion strategies’ can help prevent visitors talking only about the hobbies of their digital acquaintances. For example, after two or three small-talk questions the character can bring the conversation back to the company’s products and services.
Virtual consultants in the form of a text box alone (without an avatar) do not hit the mark Having said that about the commercial objectives, the way the assistant looks does play a major role. The idea of a virtual consultant is to make the online sales pitch or advisory discussion as realistic as possible to customers. Part of that is an emotional connection between the user and the avatar. This is not possible with a text box. Projects without a cartoon character or a photographed consultant have always experienced lower acceptance among users. Furthermore, virtual consultants without a character tend to be seen more as search engines, with customers using keywords rather than whole sentences, which reduces the quality of the responses considerably.
The look must go with the overall image Whether the character chosen is a cartoon figure or a photograph of a consultant is not important. What is crucial is that the target group like and trust the avatar. Only then will they turn to the digital consultant with their questions. A bank or insurance company, for instance, would be more likely to favour a photographed consultant in a suit, while a company selling branded items may opt for a company mascot or cartoon character.
Incompetent consultants quickly become unpopular As well as the right outfit, the digital assistant’s knowledge of the subject is important. Virtual consultants should be as good at answering routine queries as their human colleagues. If, on the other hand, the avatar responds to every other question that he either does not understand it or does not know the answer, then he will hardly relieve the customer service department. A central knowledge database is needed where routine questions and their suggested responses can be stored. When it comes to other subjects, the digital consultant can offer basic information and provide a link to, or automatically open, a website containing further information. If the consultant does not have an answer at hand, then at least an e-mail address or contact telephone number should be offered. Other possibilities are that queries can be forwarded automatically to the e-mail address, or a live chat set up with a human customer consultant.
Even virtual consultants need ongoing training When product and service portfolios change, so too do the subjects about which visitors ask. That is why a virtual consultant’s knowledge database has to be updated regularly. It is also essential that the conversations held are monitored and assessed on an ongoing basis. If a project has more than 10,000 dialogues a month then it is hardly possible to read every single one; that is where modern datamining tools can safeguard the necessary quality controls. They enable database authors to eliminate shortcomings in customer care, and expand upon frequently asked themes. The virtual German Federal Eagle at the government site www.bundestag.de, for example, can be trained to deal with the many different - and changing - themes in politics.
novomind AG: innovative software for professional customer communications novomind is a software developer in Hamburg and the fastest-growing company in the field of electronic customer communications and mail management. As the leading provider of innovative solutions for digital customer communications, novomind AG provides software for service-oriented and personalised customer dealings. The software not only optimises efficiency in customer administration significantly, it also gives the user a faster return on investment. The portfolio of the Products division includes the novomind Self-Service Suite™. The software package contains all the communication modules necessary for a customer service centre on a central knowledge basis: e-mail management, virtual customer consulting and systems for interactive, real-time communication. The novomind AG Services division implements complex e-business applications. More than 40 major companies have already decided in favour of novomind technology, among them Citibank, Otto, Yello Strom and the German pension institution Deutsche Rentenversicherung Bund. Club Bertelsmann, EnBW and Mexx as well as public-sector users, such as the German Bundestag (parliament) and the German Department of Trade and Industry, have already successfully introduced novomind systems to optimise their customer communications, turnover and PR.