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Home > Articles > Webmaster resources > Adding virtual assistants to your website

September 2011

How to add customer service agents and virtual assistants to your website

This article by Sean McManus outlines some top tips for creating effective virtual assistants.

Self-service is both cost-effective and speedy, so if customers can find what they need without having to contact you directly, you'll both be better off.

One way you can encourage visitors to try the self-service tools is to personify them with an avatar. An avatar is an on-screen character that answers customer queries, usually based on a fictional customer service representative. The assistant sometimes has his or her (or its?) own section on the website, but can also be available on every page to offer assistance.

Using a fictional character gives your search results personality, with many companies even naming their virtual assistants and scripting answers for personal questions as well as business ones. Even though people know avatars are just pictures, research suggests that people feel positive about engaging with them and will use words like 'helpful' and 'friendly' to describe what is basically a bunch of pixels.

The character's face can be computer generated, or can be a photograph of a real person. The assistant should portray the kind of person your customers will be happiest dealing with. Ask yourself: if you had a shop, would this be the ideal person to put on the front till? Don't use names or pictures that are too outlandish or unusual: they risk alienating users.

Make sure you test your avatar fully. When customers turn to an avatar for help, they may already have exhausted the normal navigation options, and will be frustrated if the avatar can't field basic queries.

It's important that you make clear that this is not a real person responding - if the robot can't provide the right answers, visitors will be more tolerant if they know it's just a program.

Sell the benefits of using the avatar and encourage people to use it to speed up problem resolution. Don't force people to use it instead of contacting you. If you use the virtual assistant purely to try to drive down the cost of customer service, you'll risk annoying customers. The virtual assistant is no substitute for having real assistants available on email when customers need them.

Example virtual assistant: US Army

The US army has created an avatar, Sergeant Star, so visitors to the website can ask informal questions about the army. Before the visitor signs in Sergeant Star stands full height, hands-clasped as if waiting to meet the visitor for the first time. Once the visitor signs in, the image of Sergeant Star changes to a head and shoulder image as if he and the visitor are having a conversation.

Screenshot showing Sergeant Star virtual assistant

Example virtual assistant: Virgin Holidays

Virgin Holidays chose a photograph for its avatar, Valerie. If you click on the link for Valerie, a new small window will appear on your computer screen with a dialog box to key in questions for Valerie. Since she is in a separate smaller window, the user can move the window around the screen to enable the various pages of the website to be viewed fully.

Screenshot of Virgin Holidays virtual assistant

Example virtual assistant: Alaska Air

Jenn is the computer generated assistant for Alaska Air, and she will also appear in a new window with a dialogue box. As you can see from my questions, the programmers have created her to respond to diverse questions from potential customers. Jenn always brings the topic back to aviation so that customers are not encouraged to become sidetracked by subjects irrelevant to the business of buying flights.

Screenshot of Alaska Air's customer service agent Jenn

Top tips for implementing a virtual assistant

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