Virtual Agents

I just read a very interesting article regarding virtual agents replacing customer service reps, “virtual agents” in this case being non-human.  In the article it said, “Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (robots), companies will eliminate call centers with human reps (Business Week, 2010).”  Although it seems to be a rising trend as companies like Apple, IBM and eBay have joined the growing ranks of companies utilizing “virtual agents,” the idea is a little disturbing.  Since when would people prefer to speak with a robot over a human?  For the company, there is a huge cost benefit.  They pay 1/50 of what they would pay a live person.  However, what is the cost of frustrated customers or the many limitations of a robot?  I don’t know about you, but if I am calling customer service because I have an issue, the last thing I want to do is sit on the phone with endless dial options.  I want to speak with a live person and find a solution fast!  In addition, when my line rings I expect to speak with a person.  If the person or company trying to reach me is not willing to speak directly with me, how important can their message really be?

At Intelemark, we have often referred to our agents as virtual as well…though our meaning is quite a bit different from the “virtual” agents above.  We have virtual agents that work for us all over the United States.  This allows us the advantage of selecting the best of the best to call on behalf of our clients, as we are not limited to talent residing in one geographical area.  Furthermore, most of our agents would never work in a call center environment.  They are seasoned professionals that have been gaining experience in their chosen career for a long time.  Our virtual agents are great at having conversations with and qualifying a prospect for our client verses reading a script verbatim and “telemarketing” people. 

Endless studies have shown the importance of human contact.  Sure, technology continues to grow in leaps and bounds… but what are we risking by replacing human interaction with artificial communication?

Reference:

Bloomberg Business Week (2010) “Virtual Agents Will Replace Live Customer Service Reps.” Retrieved online at http://www.businessweek.com/debateroom/archives/2010/07/virtual_agents_will_replace_live_customer_service_reps.html on 7/6/2010.

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