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Happy Sweet Sixteen, Creative Virtual!

By Chris Ezekiel, Founder & CEO

“Tra la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la, Happy birthday sweet sixteen,” sings Neil Sedaka in his hit song. Those lyrics popped into my head as I contemplated the sixteen years I’ve spent growing Creative Virtual since founding the company in London’s East End. I’m most proud of building a successful, world-leading company over a sustained period of time with an amazing group of people and keeping our independence along the way. Not an easy feat!

In November, I participated in an executive interview – you can read the full interview here – which happened to coincide with the 16th anniversary of the founding of Creative Virtual. One of the questions was about where I grew up and how my upbringing influenced my career. I talked about growing up on the Isle of Dogs in East London and learning at an early age that there is no substitute for hard work when you want to achieve something. Resilience, mental toughness, and showing and earning respect are all characteristics that have served me well as I’ve grown the company, helping me navigate the inevitable bumps along the way.

Likewise, the culture and values that are instilled in the fabric of a new company in the early days can have a lasting impact on the company as it grows and evolves. For Creative Virtual, it was important to me that the company maintain a culture of ownership, innovation and collaboration. Relationships are at the core of what the company is all about. I’m very proud to say that our first enterprise customer, Lloyds Banking Group, who we first worked with in 2004, are still a customer today. I’ve built Creative Virtual based on long term relationships, and we see all of our customers and resellers as partners in our journey to deliver the best possible customer experience tools.

Being recognised for our innovation and thought leadership in the extremely fast-paced chatbot, virtual agent and live chat market is also important for the company. There are new competitors – both large and small – springing up almost daily in our space. This validates the market of course, but also creates a lot of confusion and makes it more difficult to cut through all the noise. Receiving the five-year Queens Awards for Enterprise: Innovation in 2017 (and getting to meet Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace!) has helped set us apart from our competition. Last year we had further external recognition from analyst group Frost & Sullivan when they named us the AI-Enhanced Customer Self-Service Product Leader – another impressive accomplishment!

Perhaps the only thing that tops those amazing awards is the validation from our customers and partners that we are helping them meet their customer and employee engagement goals. It’s one thing to say that as a company we pride ourselves on continuous innovation, but we know that means nothing if we aren’t able to use those innovations to improve real customer and employee experiences. During 2019, a number of our customers have published verified reviews of our company and technology on the Gartner Peer Insights* website. I am very proud of the positive feedback and five-star reviews!

A common theme in these reviews is the positive experience our customer organisations have working with the Creative Virtual team, describing us as responsive, flexible, supportive, professional, adaptive, collaborative and highly skilled. The experience and expertise we are able to deliver alongside our innovative technology is one of our biggest differentiators in the marketplace. Getting to know each of our customer’s goals and challenges not only allows us to better guide them in the development, implementation and expansion of their individual solutions, but also informs our R&D roadmap so we can focus on what new developments will be the most beneficial in real scenarios and engagement strategies.

As we celebrate our Sweet Sixteen, we are continuing our mission of spreading a realistic view of artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots through our ongoing thought leadership and consulting work. Creative Virtual has been in this space for a long time – since the infancy of virtual agent and chatbot technology – so has a unique understanding of the past, present and future of these solutions. We know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to using the technology and are keenly aware that there are a variety of reasons why chatbot projects fail. Our experience and expertise mean we can guide organisations in developing and implementing their chatbot, virtual agent and live chat roadmaps. We are also assisting companies in saving investments already made in failing and poor performing chatbot projects through our Chatbot Rescue Mission.

In November’s executive interview I was asked what was next in my career, and that answer was easy: To keep innovating and growing the business globally, and make sure we continue to stay on top of our game and be recognised independently for being the best at what we do. That will take hard work and dedication, but I’m excited to see what the next 16 years will bring!

Thank you to Creative Virtual’s team, customers and partners for helping the company reach this important anniversary. Happy Sweet Sixteen!

 

*Gartner Peer Insights reviews constitute the subjective opinions of individual end users based on their own experiences, and do not represent the views of Gartner or its affiliates.

A Look Back: 2019 in Review

By Mandy Reed, Global Head of Marketing

The new year is just around the corner, which means it is once again time for our annual look back over the past 12 months. 2019 was another busy and exciting year for Creative Virtual and the chatbot, virtual agent and live chat industry. It’s always difficult to condense a whole year into one blog post, so here are just a few of the highlights.

We continued our five-year-long celebration of our Queen’s Awards for Enterprise: Innovation 2017 as we also celebrated the 15th anniversary of Creative Virtual. Chris Ezekiel, Founder & CEO, took a look back at the changes in the company and the industry since he started Creative Virtual in London’s East End in his blog post, Fifteen Years & Counting: Navigating the chatbot, virtual agent and AI revolution. During the year Chris also participated in industry interviews, including one with the AI Time Journal as part of their Conversational AI Initiative and one for the Executive Interviews website, where he shared more insights into the myths and realities of chatbots and artificial intelligence (AI).

This year we have also been celebrating another impressive recognition for the company: Frost & Sullivan’s 2019 AI-Enhanced Customer Self-Service Product Leadership Award! In selecting us for this award, the analysts at Frost & Sullivan evaluated chatbot and virtual agent vendors across two key factors, each with five benchmarking criteria. Creative Virtual was rated as ‘Excellent’ across these categories. You can download a copy of their full independent report here. I had the honour of joining Andy Madge (Head of Technical Services) and Liam Ryan (Sales Director) at the Awards Dinner in London to accept our plaque and meet other Best Practice Award winners from all over Europe.

Special congratulations also go out to Maria Ward, Account Manager/Knowledgebase Engineer, for being shortlisted for the 2019 Women in IT Excellence Awards in the category of ‘Role Model of the Year (SME) – Tech Industry’! You can read more about Maria’s journey from Creative Virtual customer to partner to team member in her Meet the Team interview. Maria was also one of our Team Animal runners in our charity runs for the RSPCA this year, joined by Laura Ludmany, Rachel Freeman, Björn Gülsdorff and Chris Ezekiel. Instead of all meeting up to run a group race together, each runner registered for a local race instead and took part in runs in Hamburg, London, Ipswich and Dublin. This was the fifth year we fundraised for the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), a cause we feel passionately about as a company of animal lovers.

The team was also involved with our annual blog celebration of CX Day (1 October) and Customer Service Week (7-11 October), making this year the best one yet. Authors based in four different countries covered topics ranging from customer expectations to chatbot creation to managing stress for better customer relationships. If you missed any, be sure to check them out:

We were also excited to be featured in the Wharf Life Newspaper during Customer Service Week. You can read the full article here.

While 2019 saw an increase in the adoption of chatbot and virtual agent technology, we also saw more companies struggling with poor performing tools or projects that never came to fruition. Founder & CEO Chris explored some reasons for this in an article for the AI Time Journal, “Virtual Moron-Idiot!”: Why Chatbots Fail and the #ChatbotRescue Mission Saving Them. As a successful pioneer in the chatbot and virtual agent space, Creative Virtual is in a unique position to help these companies save their investments. That’s why we launched our Chatbot Rescue Mission, offering organisations a no cost consultation workshop and initial chatbot upgrade to get their projects back on track.

This year we sponsored, attended and joined our partners at a variety of industry events around the world, including ones in the United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore, India, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and Thailand. Team members presented, participated in panels and gave demos at many of these events, including several keynote addresses. We also welcomed some new organisations to our growing Global Partner Network and expanded our V-Person™ Family with new deployments around the world.

Our Founder & CEO, Chris Ezekiel continued his monthly Virtual Viewpoint column for the Wharf Life Newspaper this year. You can find all of his past columns here. He also saw his name in print in the 6 October edition of The Sunday Times where he was quoted in an article about British entrepreneurs and their tech giant competitors. Subscribers to The Times can read the article online here – and we also have a copy available here.

As we head into 2020, Creative Virtual is preparing to celebrate the company’s Sweet Sixteen – 16 years of helping enterprises deliver better customer and employee support and of bringing new innovations to the virtual agent, chatbot and live chat market. We’re looking forward to seeing what the next year will bring!

Be sure to check out our 2019 in Review photo album on the Creative Virtual Facebook page. As we do every year, we’ve compiled photos from industry events, company celebrations, fundraising runs and group activities. There will be more photos added over the next couple of weeks, so make sure you’re following us so you don’t miss any.

Setting Realistic Expectations for AI-Enhanced CX Technologies

By Maria Ward, Account Manager/Knowledgebase Engineer

On 31 October I joined my colleague Liam Ryan at the 2019 CXtech Conference & Technology Showcase, which was co-located with the AI & Robotics Conference, in London.  Even though it was the fourth year Creative Virtual sponsored the joint events, it was my first opportunity to represent the company, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Liam and I chatted about what the day held in store while attendees started to arrive. The day was packed with presentations from experts in the artificial intelligence (AI) industry, aimed at advising participants who were looking to find out more about this ever-growing technology. Liam was due to present at 10 am on the “Evolution of Customer Experience”. I could tell how much he was looking forward to it!

I was manning the Creative Virtual stand for most of the time so didn’t get to see many of the presentations, but I did join the audience for Liam’s presentation.

He reminisced for a short time about the olden days when phones were smart if you could send a text and computers couldn’t be popped in a bag to take to work, before talking about the high expectations of customers of today. He outlined Creative Virtual’s top tips for implementing chatbot, virtual agent and live chat technology. He went on to talk about how Creative Virtual are combining the technological advances in deep learning and artificial intelligence with the human touch to create customer experience solutions that deliver on the promises made.

After Liam’s presentation came a Q&A session and I was happily sitting as an anonymous participant, when Liam kindly put me on the spot to answer a question about how the deep learning works. That moment seems like a bit of a blur now, and I hope my reply was coherent! I explained how the deep learning, (based on a rather complicated algorithm!), works alongside customer intent, which is ultimately being overseen by a human to ensure a controlled evolution.

This was quite apt as it’s apparent that many companies are being given unrealistic expectations about what AI can achieve for them. In fact, we are finding that many companies either have struggled or are currently struggling with unsuccessful, and often very expensive, chatbot projects – some which have gone live, only to disappoint and others that never got off the ground. (Did you know that Creative Virtual is offering a free workshop to help companies who find themselves in this position?)

I spent the remainder my time at the conference talking to people who had been impressed with Liam’s presentation, and who’d come to find out more about what we do at Creative Virtual. It was interesting to see the varied reasons people were exploring the world of AI and what questions they had. These discussions made it obvious that companies are approaching chatbot and virtual agent technology as a must-have for their customer experience and employee engagement strategies. However, often they are being cautious because there are so many options in the marketplace that can’t deliver positive results.

The day made me feel quite privileged to work in such a fast-moving and exciting arena. Thanks to everyone who stopped by our stand to learn more and to the event organisers for putting together an insight day for both the sponsors and attendees.

If you missed the event or Liam’s keynote session, be sure to download our Top Tips for Implementing a Chatbot or Virtual Agent.

CXtech

“Virtual Moron-Idiot!”: Why Chatbots Fail and the #ChatbotRescue Mission Saving Them

This post originally appeared on AI Time Journal as part of their Conversational AI Initiative.

By Chris Ezekiel, Founder & CEO

It’s hard to find anyone involved with the chatbot and virtual agent industry who hasn’t heard the cautionary tale of Microsoft’s AI chatbot Tay. In less than 24 hours, Twitter users trained Tay to give offensive, racist and inappropriate responses which resulted in Microsoft taking Tay offline. Described as a ‘machine learning project designed for human engagement,’ Tay ended up becoming an often-cited example of an AI chatbot gone wrong.

As someone who has been working with virtual agent technology for nearly 20 years, Tay reinforced for me that pure AI is not the right answer for customer service and employee support virtual agents and chatbots. Yet, when Facebook announced the launch of chatbots on their Messenger platform and the media frenzy around AI and chatbots took hold, some conversational AI vendors jumped on the AI bandwagon. The industry suddenly became saturated with both false promises about the capabilities of the technology and a plethora of new start-ups claiming to have AI-powered customer service bots.

Fast forward a few years, and the chatbot and virtual agent landscape is now littered with poor-performing implementations and failed projects. In some cases, these failing projects have garnered negative press for companies. Telecommunications company Telstra was in the news when their virtual agent Codi was branded a ‘virtual moron-idiot’ by customers for failing to answer even basic questions. The National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), a government agency in Australia, was criticised for spending more than $3.5 million AUD on a chatbot project that never even reached the testing stage. In other cases, enterprises are struggling behind the scenes with internal chatbot projects. It’s not unusual to find companies with more than 10 projects in progress, but none of them delivering on their potential.

This is a common theme in organisations around the world. Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom for the industry. While there are many chatbot and virtual agent projects failing or never coming to fruition, there are also lots of highly successful implementations that have been in place for years. For example, at Creative Virtual our very first enterprise customer is still a customer today – that’s over 15 years of consistently delivering successful virtual agent solutions for them. So why do some chatbot projects fail while others achieve long-term success? There are two main pieces to the puzzle – the technology and the people.

As with any other product or technology, not all chatbot and virtual agent solutions are created equal. Here are just a few of the common problems enterprises are encountering because they don’t have the right virtual agent technology in place:

  • Channel-specific solutions – While providing 24/7 self-service on one channel can be a great way to get started with a chatbot, organisations are discovering that technology designed only for one channel is now creating a disjointed experience for customers because the tool can’t be linked up with any other channels. These companies are struggling with the challenge of having yet another siloed tool to maintain that makes it harder to deliver a seamless, omnichannel customer experience.
  • ‘Dumb’ solutions – Basic chatbot solutions are designed to do just that – have basic interactions. Organisations using these platforms are struggling to create unstructured conversation flows and deliver intelligent self-service that can help users solve issues using natural language. Without options to integrate with existing content sources, other support options and account information, simple chatbot solutions don’t allow for the easy, personalised experience users want. They also don’t have the right combination of machine learning and human input on the backend to help them continually improve in a reliable way.
  • Tough-to-grow solutions – Some enterprises thought their chatbot was on-track until they tried to grow their solution. Not all platforms give organisations the ability to scale their chatbot to other touchpoints, to support millions of users, to expand into other business areas, to link the contact centre to digital channels, to meet specific security and hosting requirements, to control the amount of machine learning and human input used – the list goes on and on. A self-service tool that can’t grow with the company won’t deliver long-term success.
  • DIY solutions – Lots of companies jumped at the chance to build their own chatbot only to discover that they don’t have the experience, know-how and data to create a tool that will meet their customer and/or employee engagement goals.

That last issue is just part of the reason why people are the other main ingredient for a successful chatbot implementation. As I mentioned in my Conversational AI interview, I truly believe that the key to a successful chatbot/virtual agent/conversational AI strategy is to work with an experienced team of people. There are lots of confusing options and challenges in the industry today, and enterprises need to be smart about the choices they make. Organisations need to work with an experienced partner that can help guide them in creating and implementing a chatbot strategy that will work today and also set them up for future innovation and expansion.

Often chatbot projects fail because the organisation isn’t working with a vendor that can provide consultation experience as well as the right technology. It’s important to work with a team that will collaborate closely to design a customised solution and provide guidance on both sector-specific and general industry best practices. This expertise needs to go beyond the initial implementation process to include experience in ongoing development and optimisation. New start-ups typically can’t provide that type of insight and support, and most organisations don’t have that expertise internally.

The good news for enterprises struggling with poor performing chatbots and projects that never got off the ground is that there are options for getting their projects back on track. Instead of abandoning these projects, they can save their investments by leveraging what they already have and building on that to create a successful chatbot by upgrading to the right platform. As someone who has been involved with this technology since its infancy, I’m passionate about helping these organisations save their investments. The expert team at Creative Virtual and I know intimately how well this technology can work for enterprises and don’t want them to continue to miss out on those benefits.

If your organisation is struggling with a chatbot or virtual agent project, I encourage you to reach out to learn more about Creative Virtual’s Chatbot Rescue Mission.

If your organisation hasn’t started out on your conversational AI journey yet but is worried about selecting, deploying and maintaining a successful solution, I recommend downloading these Top Tips for Implementing a Chatbot or Virtual Agent in 2019.