Mobile Personal Assistants and Customer Service

By Dan Nordale

When customers want to place an order, ask a question, or lodge a complaint, they reach for their mobile phones. More than 80 percent of customer service calls today originate from a mobile phone. Increasingly, these don’t start with a phone call, but with consumers opening a mobile app. This is true in telecommunications, it’s true in banking, and it is becoming commonplace in brokerage, travel, and insurance.

Consumers are pushing companies to provide more information and control in mobile environments. Viewing balances is no longer enough. Consumers expect to pay bills, transfer funds between accounts, book flights, and trade stocks from their mobile apps. This provides consumers with the control they seek and avoid waiting to be served when they know what they want to do. However, it comes at a huge cost to the customer experience. The more capabilities built into the mobile experience, the more complicated they become for consumers.

Speech-Controlled Virtual Personal Assistant: To simplify the experience, the consumer mobile interaction is becoming centered around a speech-controlled virtual personal assistant that resides on the mobile phone. Today’s personal assistants – including Siri, Samsung’s S Voice, Google Now, and Dragon Mobile Assistant – elevate consumer experiences and demonstrate the power of using your voice to find a restaurant, get directions, locate a friend, or schedule a meeting.

Familiarity and comfort lay the foundation for next-generation mobile personal assistants, which enable businesses and other organizations to accommodate another trend: Consumers increasingly prefer self-service options. A recent Nuance survey found that 67 percent of consumers prefer self-service to talking to an agent; among Gen Y consumers (ages twelve to thirty-four), it is 84 percent.

Consumers prefer self-service because they’re increasingly hyper-connected, which fuels impatience and a focus on improving personal productivity. Increasingly, mobile is becoming the first screen consumers turn to when they want to interact with a brand. Mobile personal assistants enable consumer-facing organizations to accommodate these habits and preferences and reinforce their brand promise.

These trends are good news for organizations because they present opportunities to reduce support costs while enhancing the customer service experience. According to Forrester Research, each conversation with a live agent costs $5 to $12. When a mobile personal assistant enables an inquiry to be resolved through self-service, costing just pennies, those savings are significant to customer profitability.

Virtual Personal Assistants and the Call Center: Mobile personal assistants are able to handle an increasing percentage of customer interactions, and an increasing percentage of customers are adopting the mobile channel. This combination presents a significant opportunity for automation, but it is also a threat to businesses that fall behind on the mobile channel. Not only will those companies deliver an inferior experience, they also will weaken their competitiveness due to higher service costs.

Just as important is that a decrease doesn’t require tradeoffs in the quality of care. For example, not all inquiries can be addressed via self-service, so the remaining live agents now have more time to devote to those customers, as well as those who simply prefer speaking with a human. Furthermore, agents start these interactions with the complete context of what the customer is trying to accomplish, so each interaction is shorter and more personalized.

What Makes the Ideal Personal Mobile Assistant? Speech-enabled personal assistants let customers simply speak their question or request, and the application is able to understand the intent of the user and execute the specific task required to meet their needs. The first important use of speech technology in delivering a highly usable mobile experience is the use of vocal password capabilities to provide secure access to applications. Voice biometric technology allows user authentication with voice to avoid having to remember and key-in user IDs, passwords, pins, or knowledge questions. A recent Nuance study found that approximately two-thirds of customers are forced to reset their PIN/password every month. Voice biometrics saves money and drives loyalty by removing the single biggest obstacle to increased customer adoption.

The ideal mobile personal assistant enables the use of speech, typing, or tapping to input information. The applications should then use advanced natural language understanding (NLU) to comprehend not only the words that the customer uses, but also the true intent behind those words. Natural language driven assistants allow customers to use their own words to express themselves, without requiring them to use specific industry or company-specific terms.

For example, an airline’s personal assistant must differentiate between “How many bags can I check?” and “I want to check my bags.” This highlights how strong NLU capabilities provide an easy and frustration-free user experience, getting customers the right results, right away.

The crispness in recognition of meaning minimizes the back and forth between users and systems. If the system is confident of the meaning and intent of the user, it will complete the transaction in a small number of steps. If the meaning isn’t clear, additional questions are required to confirm the intent and gather the required information. Mature virtual assistant technology responds to complete sentences, derives intent, and recognizes key data conveyed regardless of how it’s said. This is critical to delivering the right experience.

Reducing Customer Cancellations: Research shows that each additional step required of the user results in approximately 3 percent loss of callers. When that loss is in the form of a customer requesting a live agent, costs quickly add up. For example, at a retail bank, 1 percent of callers that abandon the IVR results in $2 million and $3 million more in costs annually. The same NLU that enables IVRs to minimize frustration is driving these new personal assistant interactions in mobile apps, but with the added benefit that these interactions are multi-modal. With a screen and the ability to input data in multiple ways, the potential for automation and delivering the immediacy consumers crave is even greater.

NLU enables mobile personal assistants to adapt to each customer’s needs, wants, and ways of speaking, instead of forcing them to adapt to and make do with the limitations of mobile apps. This ease of use, along with the ability to provide the right answer right away, increases the likelihood that customers will choose a mobile personal assistant instead of a more expensive option.

For global organizations, the ideal personal assistant supports a wide variety of languages, delivers immediate results for consumers, reduces live agent calls, and is present for consumers in every channel and on any device. Delivering on the promise of virtual assistants is differentiating brands and making consumers like customer service.

Dan Nordale is the VP of the marketing enterprise division at Nuance Communications.

[From Connection Magazine April 2013]

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