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The paradox of 21st century web customer self-service

Customer service should be a 24/7, always on, efficient experience to adhere to the demands of consumers. New research, gathered through a November 2013 survey, sheds light on the overarching reasons why internet users prefer a web virtual assistant over traditional web content. Additional findings include insight into these motivations and the human connection desired from internet users. The findings support Nuance’s vision of creating intelligent conversational virtual agents that provide top-notch customer service. Coinciding with these results, Jetstar has announced the launch of Ask Jess, a Nina Web deployment that provides web virtual assistant capabilities for the airline.

Back in August I shared study results that highlighted how people enjoy the virtual assistant experience on their SmartPhone, especially amongst younger generations such as Gen Z and Millenials. With all of the hype around virtual assistants on smartphones, it can be easy to overlook that virtual assistants are transforming how we interact with organizations on the web as well. It turns out that 71% of people visiting Web sites would prefer the human-like interaction that virtual assistants deliver over the static web pages that we’ve become accustomed to, according to a survey conducted by Research Now in November of 2013. (For more information on the survey, click here.)

After seeing these numbers, I wanted to better understand why. Why do people prefer a web virtual assistant over traditional web content? The survey provided a few hints. Nearly 50% of people that are trying to resolve an issue on the web give up, after spending between 10 to more than 30 minutes trying to do so, and resort to reaching out to a live support agent for help, either through a live chat, e-mail or a phone call. As with anything, people hate to fail, and current web sites fail about half of web site visitors, despite their years of optimizing static web pages to achieve better results. I suspected however, based on the research that I shared regarding mobile virtual assistants, that the preference for web virtual assistants over an FAQ for example, was not only efficiency based. Yes virtual assistants on the web are more efficient and successful at answering questions and providing support for issues, but was there something about the experience itself that people inherently preferred? To find out, we engaged with a third party research firm, Interaction Experience, to uncover the reasons behind this preference for web VAs.

The results uncovered what I consider the great paradox of 21st century customer self-service. Although a majority of individuals want to perform tasks through self-service (see infographic), there is a clear desire for self-service to be human-like.  In other words, people may want to try to avoid a phone call with an customer service agent, but in the end they really do want to feel like they are having a conversation with a human. See the following quotes from research participants that showcase this sentiment when describing their preference for a virtual assistant:

“You have a human connection. You feel like your concerns are important.”

“It’s like, oh good, someone’s there to help me, you’re not alone. Makes it more personal.”

“Because it makes you feel like you’re not alone in troubleshooting this. Maybe that’s just me, but I like that, to know there’s somebody there. Even though I know it’s a computer. I know it’s crazy.”

On the one hand, I find these results to be incredibly encouraging, as they support Nuance’s vision of creating intelligent conversational virtual agents, such as Nina, that are designed to interact with people in a human-like fashion, mimicking as closely as possible the interaction that one would have with a human representative within an enterprise, while delivering the 24/7, always-on, immediate and efficient experience made possible by self-service. On the other hand, it highlights that current web site designs are missing the mark on this consumer preference, and that enterprises need to rethink their approach to web customer care. The question that I would challenge those that are responsible for web strategies within enterprises to ask, is: “Does our current web site create a human connection? Does it make web visitors feel like there is someone there to guide and help them?”

There is another key finding from the research conducted by Interaction Experience that I believe is profound. The web virtual assistant has a significant impact on brand perception. Since consumers attribute human-like characteristics to the virtual assistant, this interaction is more akin to a consumer interaction with a human representative of your firm than traditional self-service systems. This, in my view, represents an immense opportunity for enterprises to strengthen brand loyalty and improve brand perception through the virtual assistant. After all, as consumers increasingly engage in virtual-only relationships with organizations, the old paradigm of establishing loyalty through employees that deliver outstanding customer experiences is fading. Today’s banking or telco customer may never interact with one of your employees, as they can increasingly open new accounts, sign-up for new services and perform transactions through the web or a mobile app. If your web site is a modern version of an ATM, you have little opportunity to establish loyalty or to attract new customers. However, if your web site simulates a human experience, the opportunity to establish a relationship with your customers flourishes.

Experience for yourself a web virtual experience on the Jetstar website, where Nina Web guides consumers through new bookings and answers customer questions regarding existing bookings, baggage and seating.

For a more detailed analysis of the research results presented in this post, download the following white paper: Impacts to Brand Perception of a Human-like Self-service Experience. (Once on the page, click on the Resources link, and then click on the Access whitepapers button)

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Brett Beranek

About Brett Beranek

Like you, CX and biometrics expert Brett Beranek – Director Product Strategy, Enterprise – is fascinated by transformative technologies that have a real impact on our lives. With over fifteen years of experience in the customer experience and biometrics space, Brett brings strategic and tactical insights to organizations wishing to deliver a better experience to their customers via innovative security technologies. Prior to joining Nuance, Brett a technologist and entrepreneur by education and passion, successfully introduced several disruptive technologies to the health-care, IT and security markets, including as a partner of facial recognition firm Viion Systems and member of Genetec’s management team, a security firm that transformed the video surveillance market. Brett also currently serves on the advisory board of high-tech healthcare startup GaitTronics. Brett earned a Bachelor of Commerce, Information Systems Major, from McGill University as well as an Executive Marketing certificate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. Brett loves travelling the globe and discovering new cultures with his three kids, Layla, Rayan and Nora and his wife, Tania.