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Virtual agents: what are they and how to get one?

Last updated 11 April 2024

56% of companies say that conversational AI is driving disruption in their industry. Is your organization taking advantage of virtual agents?

Virtual agents are everywhere, and their popularity has grown exponentially in the past few years. Gartner estimates that 40% of enterprise applications will utilize conversational AI by 2023 – up from the 5% it is estimated at today.

If you are unfamiliar with virtual agents, you’ve come to the right place. At boost.ai, we pride ourselves on being a recognized challenger in the conversational AI space. Pioneering in advanced conversational AI, our platform provides the essential technology and resources required for businesses to implement sophisticated virtual agents and thoroughly understand the intricacies of chatbot deployment.

Chatbots are expected to drive $112 billion in retail revenue alone in 2023. With how quickly virtual agents are taking over online customer service automation, it is important to consider how chatbots can revolutionize customer relations for your business. Keep reading to learn about virtual agents and how their speed and efficiency can positively transform your customer service.

In this article, you will discover:

  • What a virtual agent is, what it is capable of, and why they are transforming customer service automation.
  • How conversational AI gives virtual agents the ability to respond in personalized, human-like ways.
  • How a virtual agent can benefit your organization or business and how to get started.

Virtual agents, conversational AI & chatbots – Oh, my!

Virtual agents go by various names. They are often referred to as chatbots, conversational AI, intelligent assistance, conversational agents, and so forth. Depending on the vendor or solution, these names are interchangeable.

At boost.ai, we prefer the term “virtual agent” since the term “agent” means “a person who acts on behalf of another company or group.” So, the term “virtual agent” covers a wide range of chatbot capabilities, functions, and uses.

What is a virtual agent?

A virtual agent is a software application that employs natural language processing (NLP) to interpret customer intent and search queries. These agents aid human customer service teams by addressing simple questions and executing routine tasks.

By handling less complex customer inquiries, virtual agents enable human representatives to focus on more challenging issues.

How does a virtual agent work

As a digital customer service representative, chatbots respond to customers as though they were a real, live agent working for the company.

They can assist with password recovery, account questions, sales recommendations, and solve a variety of customer problems. Some of the best features of chatbots are their ability to assist 24/7, answer questions instantly and accurately, and provide a positive customer experience due to their efficiency.

Virtual agents are mere digital assistants with one critical additional component – conversational AI. Conversational AI is an essential element that takes a virtual agent from a simple chatbot to a powerful, intelligent tool that helps customers with accuracy, ease, and instant responses.

The power of conversational AI

A good analogy to grasp the relationship between virtual agents and conversational AI is likening them to a smartphone. A basic phone, without the "smart" capabilities, has rudimentary functions like calling and texting. The "smart" aspect of your phone serves as its intelligence, facilitating advanced tasks like internet browsing and gaming.

Virtual agent chatbots, are like regular cellphones. They can perform basic functions and operations. With conversational AI, a virtual agent can do hundreds of advanced functions. Or, in this case, answer and act on thousands of online consumer inquiries.

Conversational AI gives chatbots the ability to scale, learn in real-time, and draw on a wealth of information. In one simultaneous moment, virtual agents powered by conversational AI can review a customer’s past purchases, answer the inquiry that brought them to the site in the first place, and make precise recommendations based on the customer’s history.

These highly sophisticated chatbots can:

  • Interact with customers in a conversational manner.
  • Identify multiple intents in the same request and provide accurate answers to all inquiries.
  • Understand and respond appropriately to customer intents, regardless of the complexity of the request.
  • Understand context to keep interactions focused and to-the-point.
  • Ask clarifying and follow-up questions to gather actionable data.

The complex abilities of a virtual agent help increase consumer loyalty and overall satisfaction. Learn more about conversational AI and its benefits.

Virtual agent modules

If your organization is new to the world of virtual agents, the best place to start for implementation is with virtual agent modules. A module is a pre-made framework that is equipped with content that is specific to an industry. Modules are developed so virtual agents can understand and perform standardized tasks right at implementation.

At boost.ai, our virtual agent modules have been used across banking, insurance, e-commerce, and various other industries. These modules are ready-made to support hundreds, and even thousands, of customer search inquiries and intents.

Businesses get an immediate head start with their chatbot implementation when they use pre-made modules. Your business can focus on deploying and scaling conversational AI without having to start from scratch.

The Rise of the AI Trainer

A virtual agent is only as intelligent and capable as the humans behind it. Without human teams to power virtual agents, virtual agents cannot live up to their full potential.

Since their implementation, virtual agents haven’t taken jobs away from workers. Quite the opposite. While making it easier for customer service departments to manage heavy load inquiries, they have also created jobs within companies.

One of the new jobs to come out of chatbot technology is what we call an AI trainer. AI trainers are responsible for managing and maintaining the company's virtual agent. This essential position makes it possible for virtual agents and human agents to work together efficiently.

Learn more about AI trainers and their role.

How to get a virtual agent?

The presence of robots in the workplace has been on a consistent upward trajectory since the inception of the industrial revolution. Meanwhile, virtual agents represent a fresh emergence in the labor force. What exactly are these agents, how does one acquire them, and what potential drawbacks might there be?

Traditionally, to secure the best match for a job, recruitment teams scrutinize a candidate's qualifications, experience, and references. This approach is time-honored and extensively practiced, particularly when the job applicant is human.

Expensive experimentation

We have found that when “recruiting” a machine, many organisations tend to make the mistake of simply choosing a platform without thorough research. This is usually because the organisation is keen to independently learn about, and experiment with, artificial intelligence, chatbots and virtual agents. But making the wrong decision to try and gain this insight quickly is a costly experiment - unless you’re one of the few lucky companies that hit the jackpot first time.

Before implementing a chatbot or virtual agent, it is crucial to carefully evaluate whether the solution will deliver tangible benefits to the organization, rather than succumbing to the hype that chatbots and virtual agents were deemed as the ultimate "must-have" applications in 2018. Just as you wouldn't recklessly hire the first person who walks through the door just because of hype, similarly, it's inadequate to base the decision solely on whether the chatbot or virtual agent uses all the right words during the interview. A thoughtful and measured approach is essential to ensure the successful integration of these technologies into your organization.

In an up-and-coming industry, predicted to grow into a multi-billion dollar ecosystem over the next couple of years without any reference points or regulatory institutions, there will always be players that promise more than they can deliver.

Chatbot or virtual agent?

The vast majority of suppliers use one of two terms when describing their solution; chatbot or virtual agent. But is there any difference, other than wording? According to Gartner, one of the world’s leading consultancy firms on emerging technology, the distinction is quite clear.

Chatbots answer simple questions - like an FAQ - and can guide the user to the right page on a website, while a virtual agent is able to answer the same questions, in addition to acting on the users behalf, such as transferring funds between accounts or buying products.

However, when employing a virtual agent, a “chatbot phase” is common. This is a natural starting point in the implementation phase of the project, and ensures that the virtual agent has a basic understanding of the domain before expanding its capabilities. It is also far easier to implement a virtual agent without the need to integrate with advanced back-end systems, such as user authentication, in the early phases of the project. More on that later.

25% enquiry coverage

Our experience, gained through implementing hundreds of virtual agents, is that you can cover approximately 25% of incoming end user traffic by answering questions that don’t require APIs. That is roughly similar to the best FAQs that are available. The rest of the traffic has to be handled by a virtual agent that can act on the user’s behalf.

And just how many questions should a digital employee be expected to answer? We’re seeing that both the chatbots and virtual agents which are being deployed need a lot of time to absorb the required knowledge to successfully represent the organisation externally. How much time this takes depends on the architecture of the solution and how scalable it is for large, enterprise-scale organisations.

Is it enough for your organisation that your new digital employee is only able to answer 20 to 50 questions? That is usually not enough to handle anything more than a very small and specific part of an organisation. Many chatbots have limits to what they can handle. We always recommend researching suppliers that have experience with other organisations in your specific industry, so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Security and privacy

Security is an essential consideration, particularly for businesses catering to a vast clientele. In today's digital era, where personal information is deemed the "new oil," safeguarding user data is crucial. Boost.ai stands at the forefront in addressing security concerns for the benefit of both our clients and their end users.

Unlike many competitors in this burgeoning field, we have elected to focus intently on security during the development of our solution. Our attainment of ISO/IEC 27001 and 27701 certifications underscores our dedication to maintaining high standards of security and data privacy.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) informs every organisation that processes user data. We ensure that data processed on behalf of our clients through our platform is performed in accordance with all current data regulations, including GDPR. Our solution can anonymise data, in addition to facilitating requests from end users for their chat log to be deleted.

The solution also comes equipped with the ability to ask for consent from the user to process their data before the chat window is initialised, if that is something a client requires. We view this as something that enhances our clients’ ability to demonstrate compliance with GDPR, in addition to respecting individual users’ rights when collecting and processing personal data.

One final data-related consideration is that our platform has not been built on the need to store large amounts of data in order to improve the intelligence of the virtual agent. Several other virtual agent platforms are very dependent on that specific capability. We therefore strongly recommend that you ensure that your digital employee has the right prerequisites to be able to represent your organisation in the appropriate way - especially concerning the ever-increasing demands for safety and privacy.

User authentication - the future is now

Now that we’ve covered the basics of your new digital employee, we can start focusing on the fun stuff; going beyond chatbots. To be able to do this, your virtual agent needs to identify and authenticate the user. At Sparebank 1 SR-Bank, a large Norwegian bank, we use the BankID authentication software to achieve this. We are actually one of a very select few suppliers that can deliver this capability through a virtual agent.

Once the end user’s identity has been confirmed, the virtual agent is authorised to act on their behalf. SR-Bank’s virtual agent, “Banki”, can now block cards and provide account balances - directly in the chat window. This is possible through the most secure methods of user authentication, such as BankID, but we can also provide solutions for lighter authentication requirements that “only” need a username and password.

Below are two examples of how a end user’s enquiry might look if they need to block a lost or stolen credit card, with and without user authentication enabled.

As you can see in the example above, there are significant differences in what can be achieved with a virtual agent compared to a chatbot, and the level of service they are able to offer. One such example is our client Sparebank 1 SR-Bank who is currently working towards making their virtual agent, Banki, a certified digital financial advisor, and they have already taken a major leap towards that goal by enabling user authentication.

A checklist of necessities

So where are you now in the hunt for a digital coworker? An employment process is often more extensive than we imagine when making the decision to recruit. Here is a very simplified checklist of what you should consider in your potential digital candidates:

  • The ability to understand the end user - no matter how they communicate
  • Scalability - what does the future volume of end user traffic look like?
  • User authentication
  • Security
  • GDPR readiness and compliance with existing regulations
  • Experience - is your prospective solution widely used?
  • Compatibility with existing internal software solutions

When you’re certain that the candidate has all the right qualifications for the job, only one thing remains: taking their references. Contact someone else that uses the solution and hear what they think of the software. If you can, try the chatbot or virtual agent out for yourself on their website, before comparing it to similar solutions from other suppliers. This is probably the least comprehensive step but it might be one of the most important - and it won’t take long. A mistake here could cost your organisation dearly in terms of both funds and resources.

Consider using recruitment experts

If you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of deploying virtual agents and chatbots and are concerned about not having the requisite expertise and experience to manage it proficiently, we highly recommend exploring the services of a reputable system integrator. Partnering with an experienced system integrator can prove immensely beneficial in assessing diverse solutions and shepherding you through the implementation journey. Leveraging their extensive knowledge in this domain, they can methodically evaluate various options and assist you in arriving at the optimal choice for your organization in the realm of virtual agents and chatbots.

With the benefit of the aforementioned experience the system integrator could also make the process of implementation more effective, in addition to helping you establish strong foundations prior to your own personnel taking over operations.

With the benefit of sound research, careful planning, and possibly even support from a good system integrator with the right skills, resources and methods , the appointment of your new digital employee can be a thoroughly satisfying experience, providing tangible benefits for your organisation well into the future.

Ready to hire a virtual agent? Boost.ai is here to help!

A virtual agent transforms customer service processes and helps improve customer experience and satisfaction ratings. As consumers are increasingly going online to spend and shop, virtual agents easily manage upticks in traffic and effortlessly assist consumers without hesitation or fatigue.

Chatbots work for any industry, including banks, telecommunications, insurance, e-commerce, and more. Boost.ai helps businesses implement virtual agents that give consumers personalized, instant, and 24/7 support.

Our virtual agents and chatbot use cases speak for themselves. Have a look at them!

Further reading

Before you go, check out these other great resources:

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