Christiane Manow-Le Ruyet: What exactly is conversational AI? To what extent can a virtual agent be used in the eCommerce sector today?
Andreas J. Weick: Conversational Artificial Intelligence (Conversational AI) is an automated dialogue system that is supported by artificial intelligence. In contrast to simple chatbots or earlier speech recognition systems, Conversational AI can understand more complex expressions in natural language and process freely formulated texts. As a result, it enables a dialogue between man and machine that roughly corresponds to a conversation with a real person, since the Conversational AI is constantly learning and processing new expressions and terms.
This property makes the Conversational AI an attractive tool for the eCommerce sector. There are numerous options for using a virtual assistant – either via a chat window or a so-called voice gateway. For example, he can act as a concierge. In doing so, he takes up a request from a customer presented in natural language. He then decides to which department he will forward it. It is also possible to act as a consultant who answers questions about products or ongoing processes such as the delivery status. A more complex bot can even navigate the customer through the entire ordering process. For this purpose, he asks for all the necessary data and initiates the necessary background activities in parallel. In this way, the entire process, from ordering to delivery, can be fully automated.
Conversational AI: Virtual assistant must reflect brand image
What qualities should a virtual agent have to add value to an eCommerce company?
The overall design and the development of the dialogue are the most important factors that determine the success of a conversational AI. The following applies here: As with real, human relationships, the agent must match the target group. His personality and his appearance, his language and tonality, as well as his visual appearance must correspond to the brand image. Above all, those specific customer segments who actually use the virtual assistant should be taken into account. All in all, a virtual assistant must above all help to ensure that users’ concerns – be they customers or employees – are dealt with faster and more conveniently than through human intervention.
How does conversational AI influence the customer journey?
Thanks to the use of Conversational AI, the customer has the opportunity to process his inquiries, orders or information procurement conveniently in dialogue, instead of filling out a mostly unpopular form. Current findings also show that users react particularly quickly and frequently to messages via messenger or chat. This is another point that speaks in favor of using Conversational AI. During the interaction, the conversational AI reacts more directly to the customer. In this way, a company can design the customer journey in a more situational way and create a pleasant experience for the customer along the touchpoints and, at best, even inspire them.
From the payment process to the complaint
Which services will soon be possible via the chat with the virtual agent that were previously only possible via the classic route, i.e. via the web portal (e.g. updating customer data)?
Basically, a well-established conversational AI can take over all services that the customer is currently doing personally via the web portal. This starts with a simple change in customer data and continues through to the complete takeover of more complex purchasing processes. For example, it would be possible to book a complete business trip – including flight and train connections, available hotels or rental cars – according to company guidelines set in advance. A conversational AI could also independently select products, report damage or a complaint, and conclude a contract with a mobile phone provider, insurer or electricity supplier.
In the future, it will also be possible for customers to carry out a payment process directly in the chat, i.e. in exchange with the virtual agent. How can you imagine that exactly?
Paying during a chat works exactly like on the web portal – namely via a plugin. This means that a complete purchase, including the payment process, can be made in dialogue without the customer having to switch to another website or landing page. Instead, he shows him the available payment methods in the chat. After completing the purchase, the virtual agent receives a response from the payment service provider and thus automatically completes the process. In parallel to the entire payment process, discussions with the customer are continued seamlessly and other issues are dealt with.
Conversational AI in the future: virtual agent with augmented reality
The future use of augmented reality is already being discussed in eCommerce. In this way, a virtual agent could also present products directly in the chat. A dream of the future or a reality soon?
Technically, it’s not a dream of the future. Both technologies are available and already in use. Much is still being tested, but some companies are already using Augmented Reality (AR) in sales or customer service. If customers accept this, the technologies continue to mature and the costs drop, we will see more and more such offers.
Can a virtual agent also be used for cross-selling and upselling processes in this regard?
Yes, a virtual agent can also be used for this. However, the technology still lacks the certain flair of a good salesperson. He is able to read his counterpart and spontaneously trigger exactly the right impulses. Therefore, a well-thought-out “script” and a careful selection of the occasions on which a cross-selling or upselling can take place by a virtual agent is required. If this succeeds, there are good opportunities along the customer journey.
What other trends do you see for the coming years in the area of conversational AI?
In general, the use of intelligent automation will increase significantly. This is also confirmed by our annual CGI customer survey. A new addition is that Conversational AI is used for internal training purposes. For example, virtual customers can be designed for training purposes, with which employees practice lifelike sales and service conversations. In the future, however, the voice interface will also become more and more important in a business context. Customers will be able to make purchases, book appointments or submit applications at any time via their smartphone, without the hassle of typing.
“A virtual assistant cannot and will not completely replace humans”
Can a virtual agent also assess emotional states or read facial expressions in the future?
Yes, it will be possible in the future. The technologies here are already very advanced and are continuously being further developed. Conversational AI is being enriched with more and more data and skills in order to recognize faces and to capture the emotional state of the customer from facial expressions or speech. CGI has been successfully implementing such solutions for several years. In Finland, for example, it is used to evaluate the mood at concerts.
In which situations will a virtual agent reach its limits in the future and have to resort to the intervention of a human contact person?
We will not be able to give an artificial intelligence our human “gut feeling” anytime soon – it is still questionable whether this will ever be possible. In addition, reservations will remain about placing decisions entirely in the hands of an AI. And there will continue to be customers who prefer to speak to a real person or who completely reject virtual agents. After all, it’s about relationships and emotions. A virtual assistant cannot and will not completely replace people, but they will always provide better support.
Also read: Conversational Commerce – How online retailers make the most of the new trend.
Andreas J. Weick is Director Intelligent Process Automation at CGI.