[Meet the Team] Maria Ward: From Virtual Agent Customer to Partner to Expert Member of the Creative Virtual Team

Maria Ward

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

Creative Virtual is one of only four companies in London to be recognised by The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise in the category of Innovation in 2017. The company was selected for this honour not only for our innovative technology, but also because of the hard work and dedication of our global team. Creative Virtual’s experienced, expert team is what sets the organisation apart from others in the industry. As part of the five-year celebration of our Queen’s Awards for Enterprise, we’re talking with some members of the Creative Virtual team about the technology, their involvement in the industry and what winning this award means to them.

Today we introduce Maria Ward, Account Manager/ Knowledgebase Engineer with Creative Virtual’s UK team. Maria brings a unique perspective to her work managing, creating and implementing virtual agents, having first encountered the technology as a Creative Virtual customer, then working for a partner company for nine years before officially joining the Creative Virtual team in December 2015. Today she uses her expertise to support both new and long-standing clients with their virtual agents and chatbots, assisting them with the initial deployment as well as on-going development and enhancements. She shared with me the key factors in keeping virtual agent installs successful year-after-year and why saying The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise is amazing just doesn’t do it justice.

What was your first experience working with virtual agent solutions and how has the industry evolved since then?

My very first experience with a virtual agent was when I worked at One Railway and oversaw the project to implement a virtual agent, which was a solution from Creative Virtual! Rachel Freeman [Operations Director] built it for Creative Virtual, and I was fascinated by the technology. It was such a fun and exciting project and I was really keen to try out some NLP [natural language processing]. I managed to convince my contacts at Creative Virtual to let me do a little bit of the NLP work, which I ended up loving. I was disappointed when my higher-ups decided to end the project.

Women in IT Excellence AwardsAfter a franchise change and some internal restructuring, I left that position and joined the Virtual Zone in October 2006. The Virtual Zone was partnering with Creative Virtual and I was excited to hear when I took the job that there was a chance I’d get to work on a new virtual agent. I remember going into my first meeting with NRE [National Rail Enquiries] in January 2007 and being extremely nervous. I believe Chris Ezekiel [Founder & CEO] was there, and I felt a little bit like an imposter talking about virtual agent technology when I felt like I still knew so little. Building the virtual agent for NRE was hard work – they had a huge amount of information and I was still new and learning as I went. I remember putting in long hours and questioning if I was up to the task. While it was pretty stressful, I also found it to be incredibly fulfilling.

The technology has really changed since my first experience with virtual agents. The virtual agent for One Railway was a basic implementation and wasn’t developed further after the initial build, but that’s not the case for solutions we’re delivering today. The ability to integrate with customer databases to provide personalised information directly through the VA [virtual agent] gives huge usability improvements and so does handing over to live chat based on rules decided by the customer. In addition, knowledge management with V-Portal™ was a big step forward for the technology. And now we’re also seeing improvements with things like semantic matching and deep learning. The NLP techniques I use today are very different from the early days. We’re able to take advantage of these changes to be more confident that the virtual agent is giving customers a good experience.

The industry has also seen a big change in the channels customers are using virtual agents on. It used to just be desktop, but now it’s much more mobile. In fact, Siri has made virtual agent technology more popular. It used to be that when I told people what I did for a living, they had no idea what I was talking about. Now they do … mostly!

And, of course, there’s lots of hype about AI [artificial intelligence] in the press these days. It’s a hugely popular topic, and lots of people are panicking about robots. I find it fascinating but realistically know we’re a long way off from AI robots taking over the world. I’m looking forward to continuing to work in the industry and seeing what kind of eye-opening projects I might get to take on in the future.

What are the key factors in keeping virtual agent and chatbot deployments successful over many years?

I’ve been lucky enough to work on both new installs and virtual agents that have been online for many years. The absolute key to a long-standing virtual agent is the relationship we build with the client. They need to be positive and excited about the virtual agent. It’s important that we, as the virtual agent experts, help our customers understand the worth of their solutions and see the potential the technology has to benefit their company and customers – that is a huge factor.

The virtual agents that have been successful for many years are the ones that are treated by our clients as an important part of their customer service strategy. They are kept as up-to-date as the website and viewed as providing important information to customers. They are also strategically used in a way that helps increase engagement.

Continuing to develop the virtual agent is also important. Adding functionality such as seamless handover to live chat and account-specific information that may not have been possible when the virtual agent was first launched help keep it delivering the experience expected by current customers. Creative Virtual’s Tech Team are amazing at helping our clients deliver these types of improvements.

What are a few highlights from your time working with Creative Virtual? What do you enjoy most about being a part of the team?

10k for the RSPCAI’ve worked a long time with the Creative Virtual team! As a client, I really became fascinated with the technology and got a chance to try my hand at some NLP work. The virtual agent was a fun, exciting project to work on. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to develop that interest further when I joined the Virtual Zone. One of the biggest highlights of my time working with Creative Virtual as a partner was attending the Global Partner Meeting in London. I thoroughly enjoyed it and went away enthused about the technology. It was a really good way to rediscover the excitement I had when I worked on my first virtual agent.

I joined Creative Virtual in December 2015, and I love being a part of the team. Each person is such a character – and I mean that in a good way! Everybody is so friendly and supportive, and I like feeling more joined up with the team than I did as a partner. I love our quarterly company calls and having a chance to hear what is going on everywhere around the world, all the new developments and future plans. It was great to have the opportunity to travel to Australia and help the team there. And I also appreciate that I can work from home and still make regular trips to the Canary Wharf office to work in person with the London team. It’s a perfect combination for me.

What does Creative Virtual winning The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise: Innovation 2017 mean to you?

The Queen's Awards for EnterpriseIt’s such an amazing achievement! I haven’t got the words to properly describe it. I felt so proud to have been a part of the Creative Virtual team at the time we won. I told all my family and friends and shared it all over Facebook. Seeing Chris’ [Ezekiel] face and hearing him talk about it, you can just tell how chuffed he is – and rightly so! The Queen’s Award is a BIG DEAL, a big deal for five years. You don’t win an award like this for nothing. The whole team pulls together to bring projects to fruition – it’s a real credit to everyone and the fact that we have so many long-standing customers really says a lot about the team.

Our company celebration was such an amazing night. The atmosphere was wonderful and everyone looked so happy. It was great to see everyone come together and getting to meet Chris’ family was lovely. It was really an uplifting experience.