Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I'm an Avatar: Can I Help You?

Yes, perhaps they can. Since the early days of the Internet artificial intelligence experts have been touting the potential of “virtual people” to provide customer information, service and support. I’ve been writing about them for most of that time and run into the same problem each time; the firms whose products I used as examples before are no longer around. This has been a really difficult market in which to get sufficient traction to survive.

That’s why a post on Dave Jackson’s Weekly Web Tools blog a couple of weeks ago caught my eye. He focuses on small businesses and really cares about customer service, so his evaluation of some of the current services was thought-provoking.

SitePal essentially allows you to create “talking FAQs” using their avatars or customer avatars from a photo you supply. All their services are based on a one-time fee. They have 3 service packages ranging in price from $9.95 to $39.95 per month based on usage and number of avatars. Check it out for yourself, but turn the volume down; all their pages open with an audio message—that’s what they do, after all.

Live Face on Web (also opens with audio) produces those little people who walk onto your screen and start talking to you. These are essentially videos, so they have a different business model—a one-time fee for production. Prices range from $259.95 for a 15-second/50 word video to $3,281.95 for a 300 second/1,000 word video.

The difference between these live avatars (is that an oxymoron? I don’t know!) and the earlier chatterbots is that these deliver audio, either automatically or on request by the visitor. Earlier versions were chat or SMS-based. They are the “chat with a live agent” functions that you see on many ecommerce sites, just using the bot to put a face on the chat. The Marketing & Innovation Blog reviewed several of these back in March. The VirtuOz site, for example, offers several agents, each to perform a specific task, from customer service to lead generation and conversion, on your site.

MicroSoft Live Agent also offers chat-based agents. You can take them for a trial run on their site and they have a good gallery. They offer APIs so developers can customize applications for their own sites.

There are lots of solutions out there. Hopefully some of these will survive, because the possibilities of improving customer service and support in a cost-effective way are real. The early developers loved to say that these agents don’t take coffee breaks or vacations. True, and the opportunity for consistent service 365/24/7 is important. Marketers have to remember, though, that good customer service requires access to a human agent if the automated services don’t satisfy the need. The trick is getting people to use the automated services before they pick up the phone or fire up their email program.

These autoplay video avatars are intrusive and annoying to some of us (not to mention the person in the next cubicle!). However, they may be what’s needed to say, “Use the cost-effective automated support service first.” How you say “then you can access life help if you need to” without encouraging people to go directly there is a problem. I’d suggest that you probably don’t make the offer until the automated service is finished. What’s for sure is that a good plan for customer service escalation is required to keep customers happy and costs low!

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