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

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.

[Meet the Team] Antoinette Berns: Supporting a Company Culture that Encourages Innovation and Positivity

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 Antoinette Berns, Billing Coordinator and Executive Assistant to Group COO with Creative Virtual USA. She joined the company in August 2015 and quickly became an integral part of the Stamford-based team. Antoinette’s primary role as Billing Coordinator consists of Spend Analysis Reports, projections and allocation tracking. As the company’s grown and her many talents have been revealed, her role has evolved to include Executive Assistant to Group COO which in turn led to aspects of everything from office manager to human resources administrator to event and travel coordinator. She wears so many different hats on any given day, that it would be impossible to find a stand big enough to hold all of them – and she does it all with a smile and a contagious positive attitude. She shared with me why taking her job with Creative Virtual is one of the best decisions she ever made and how being a part of the company’s Queen’s Awards win has her overjoyed.

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

I remember coming for my interview, going through the usual interview questions and by the end of it we were laughing and telling jokes. I was there for two hours and by the time I got home, I already had an email asking me to come in to meet the CEO, it was so exciting. Taking this job is one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s a wonderful environment to work in where people are given a chance to rise up to the challenge and grow with the company. We are encouraged to be unique and use all our individual strengths to bring something new to the table. We foster a welcoming environment of treating everyone with respect and we have a wonderful system of communication so every voice can feel heard. I remember Chris Ezekiel [Founder & CEO] visiting the US office a few months ago and talking about the wonderfully brilliant, quirky people in the company and how everyone brings their own interesting ideas and personalities to the team. I think that sums it up perfectly.

Creative Virtual USAI appreciate how we’re encouraged to keep a healthy work/ life balance, where if we so choose, we have a variety of activities we can join. I personally am a member of the volleyball and kickball teams! What’s wonderful is that there is no pressure to be athletically inclined at all, it’s all about having fun and team building which I love. If sports are not your thing, we also host a monthly game night as a way of bonding and comradery. We’ll spend a couple of hours hanging out and playing different games. This was sparked by our participation in ExtraLife in 2015 and 2016, a 24-hour gaming marathon to raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. We’ve also participated in other charitable activities, such as donating to veterans on Veterans Day.

There are so many other things I enjoy about being a part of the team! I love that in my role I have the unique opportunity to work with everyone in some way. Even if it’s just to a small degree, I get to talk to everyone and get to know all the different personalities and ways of working. The team is like pieces of a puzzle, and we all come together to create a wonderful portrait of Creative Virtual – it’s a beautiful thing! I also love the positive reinforcement and the praise that makes everyone feel valued. It feels like a bubble of positivity where everyone is encouraged and can blossom.

When you’re reviewing applications and conducting interviews, what experiences and qualities do you look for in potential new team members?

To start, I look for consistency on a resume and the types of experiences the person has had. I’m looking for someone showing commitment who will want to grow with the company. The cover letter gives the first clue. It would surprise you the number of people who don’t send a cover letter at all, when our job postings list it as a requirement to applying! The irony in most cases is then they list in their resume a major skill they possess is “attention to detail.”

I have a minor in Psychology and have always had an interest in how people think. When I do interviews I always encourage a good flow of conversation so it will feel more like talking to a friend rather than an interview. This helps the applicants reveal a more authentic version of themselves. I start with asking what they know about the company, what attracted them to apply and why the position is a good fit. I ask about the biggest lesson they learned from their last job and how they approach tasks. I find out about their greatest personal achievements and what types of decisions they find the hardest to make. Along with a variety of questions I typically ask that will give me an idea of how the person deals with mistakes. All of this shows me who they are as a person in a professional realm and whether they would work well in our company.

Of course I find out about their skills, which skills depends on the position they are apply for, and have the typical interview questions about strengths and weaknesses. Just as important as their skills is how they work. At Creative Virtual, we all work as a team but it is built on trust and autonomy, so I need to ensure that will be a good fit for everyone. We’re looking for people who will stick around and grow with us.

What are your secrets to keeping the Creative Virtual USA office running smoothly?

This is a hard question – I just do the things that need to be done! When I really stop to think about it, communication is key. Communication, taking notes and being organized. It’s important to have someone to talk to, someone to turn to when things get stressful. Paulo [Barrett], the Group COO, does weekly check-ins with me and so I never feel like I’m swimming without a life jacket. It is truly a privilege to work with someone of Paulo’s caliber, it’s motivating to see him bring out the best in everyone. It’s a pleasure working with him, and it’s great to hear him say, “you’re a star!”.

Creative Virtual USAKey components would be to organize the chaos, identify what’s high priority, medium priority and low priority. The way I conduct my tasks is with the mentality that even when something is deemed low priority, it never means it’s not important. I always let people know that I have their requests and tasks in hand, and keep them updated. It’s important to me to let everyone know they are being heard.

Something I find valuable in all walks of life is: patience. Everyone is so talented and amazing at what they do, but we are all human after all. We all take our turn dealing with frustrating and stressful situations. The key to navigating them is staying calm and taking it one step at a time. Remember you are never alone and help is always at hand, you just need to reach for it.

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

Winning the Queen’s Award means a lot – it’s hard to put it into words! It is always a wonderful moment to see years of dedication and hard work publicly celebrated and acknowledged. Especially with one of the highest official UK awards for British businesses. I’m so proud to be a part of a company that cultivates knowledge, promotes innovation and really cares about every individual in its organization.

Parliament TourChris [Ezekiel] is such an inspiring person. To have someone heading the company who exemplifies those qualities tells you a lot about the type of company Creative Virtual is and what a welcoming, encouraging place it is to work.

Being able to attend the award ceremony in London was AMAZING! I felt elated, overjoyed and honored to be chosen to go. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and it was wonderful to get to meet so many people on the team in person. And going on a tour of Parliament and getting insights from an actual member of Parliament was such an adventure! It was truly a great opportunity.

A Look Back: 2017 in Review

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

The end of 2017 is quickly approaching and so, as has become our tradition, it’s time to take a look back at Creative Virtual’s year. To say this has been an exciting and busy year for us, our customers and our partners would be an understatement! 2017 will go down as one of the most important years in Creative Virtual’s history, so let’s take a look at some of the year’s highlights.

Queens Awards for EnterpriseBy far our biggest company announcement came in April when we were officially recognised as the winner of The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise: Innovation 2017! The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise is the UK’s most prestigious business award for British companies, and we were recognised for innovation for our V-Person™ and V-Portal™ technology. Over the summer, our Founder & CEO, Chris Ezekiel, and CTO, Peter Behrend, attended a Royal Reception at Buckingham Palace for the winners and got to meet Her Majesty the Queen and several other members of the royal family. In September, the company hosted our official award ceremony and celebration, bringing together Creative Virtual team members from around the world, customers, partners and a variety of other guests in London. Mr Leslie Morgan OBE DL, Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London, presented our award on behalf of the Queen, and Jim Fitzpatrick, our local Member of Parliament (MP) for Poplar and Limehouse, also said a few words.

Creative Virtual was recognised by a variety of other awards programmes this year as well, being named ‘Best Customer Service Solutions Provider 2017’, ‘Most Innovative Customer Support Tool: V-Person Live Chat’, and ‘Best Virtual Assistant Solutions Provider 2017’ among others. We were also a proud part of the APPEX Omnichannel Catalyst which took home the Outstanding Performance in the Catalyst Program award at TM Forum Live! 2017.

Two individual members of our UK team were recognised by independent awards programmes this year for their contributions to Creative Virtual. Rachel F Freeman, Operations Director, was a finalist in the Women in IT Excellence Awards in the category of ‘Hero of the Year (SME)’ for demonstrating excellence in her support of others and going beyond the call of duty to achieve a business goal. And I was honoured to be named ‘Best CX Solutions Business Marketer – UK’ in the 2017 Business Woman of the Year Awards for my success in driving brand recognition, thought leadership and lead generation activities. It was certainly a big year for award wins for us as a company and individually!

While we enjoyed celebrating – and walking the red carpet! – this year, we were also busy sponsoring and hosting industry events and delivering thought leadership presentations in 11 different countries – India, the United States, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, France, Luxembourg, Singapore, Germany, Australia and Hungary. Our fifth annual Technology Innovation Showcase webinar (Chatbots, Virtual Agents and Your Contact Centre) with CRMXchange had a record-breaking number of registrations, highlighting the huge surge in interest in chatbots, virtual agents and artificial intelligence (AI). You can still watch that webinar on-demand, as well as our most recent webinar AI, Chatbots & Live Chat: Separating Truth from Myth.

While there has been a marked increase in interest in chatbots and virtual agents this year, there’s also a lot of confusion, unrealistic expectations and false promises being perpetuated in the marketplace. We drew on our expertise to share a realistic view of AI and chatbots in the customer space in our whitepaper AI, Chatbots and Virtual Agents: The Threat to Mankind and the Contact Centre. Founder & CEO Chris similarly tackled this topic in a column for CMRXchange, Are Chatbots, Virtual Agents and Artificial Intelligence Threats to Your Contact Centre?. Chris also shared his expertise in interviews with ReadITQuik and The Wharf Newspaper, and Mike Murphy, CEO of Creative Virtual USA, shared his thoughts on the industry in a CRMXchange Executive Interview. Following on the heels of our launch of V-Person Live Chat last year, early in 2017 we created a new video showing how you can combine self-service virtual agents and human-assisted channels to deliver a fully integrated support experience.

This year we welcomed a number of great organisations to our expanding Global Partner Network. Our V-Person Family continued to grow throughout 2017 with new virtual agent and chatbot deployments across the globe in a variety of languages, and our collaborations with current customers resulted in new features and functionality being added to existing installs. This year Motability Operations’ award-winning ‘Ask Mo’ and National Rail Enquiries popular ‘Ask Lisa’ virtual agents both celebrated their 10th birthdays. REST Industry Super’s virtual agent Roger played a part in two award wins for them this year: ‘Best Innovation Super Feature’ in Money Magazine’s Best of the Best Awards and ‘Best Fund: Innovation 2017’ in the Chant West 2017 Super Fund Awards.

As he does every year, Founder & CEO Chris took the award for most travelling as he once again flew around the world visiting with the Creative Virtual team, partners and customers and taking part in a number of different events. In November, he also added a new job title to his CV, taking on the role of monthly technology columnist with The Wharf Newspaper.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to check out our 2017 in Review photo album on the Creative Virtual Facebook page. We’ve compiled shots from our official presentations and events as well as our fun group activities and award celebrations – everything from Founder & CEO Chris meeting to Queen to him taking a pie in the face during our fundraising efforts for the RSPCA. There will still be more photos to come, so be sure to like our Facebook page so you don’t miss any.

[Meet the Team] Rebekah Needham: Deploying Virtual Agents and Chatbots Around the World

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 Rebekah Needham, Senior Knowledgebase Engineer. Rebekah has been a part of the virtual agent industry since the Summer of 2008 when she first worked on a Spanish proof-of-concept for Creative Virtual. She officially joined the London-based team in 2009 and over the years has been involved with virtual agent projects around the world. She’s built chatbots in the UK, trained new hires in the US and supported customers and partners in Asia Pacific. She shared with me her insights on how culture is driving virtual agent implementation in different parts of the world and why she wasn’t surprised to hear Creative Virtual was being recognised for innovation by the Queen.

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

Reading through Jeff’s interview [read the interview with Jeff Clifford here] made me chuckle and think back to being trained by Jeff myself. At the time, I was living in the US and he was in the London office. I had a two-hour NLP [natural language processing] training session and was expected to start working on a Spanish proof-of-concept. I remember thinking, “What have I got myself into?!” Later Jeff told me he was impressed that I “got it”; I had to laugh and tell him I was glad he thought I “got it”!

Obviously, I had more thorough training when I officially joined the team and now I’m the one training new people. I’ve trained some of the guys in the US office and am now training in Asia Pacific, sometimes in languages I don’t speak. I find it’s a good test of my knowledge as I need to explain things in a way that the person I’m training can take information and apply it in another language. I also need to ensure a trainee understands well enough to train other people on his or her team.

Creative Virtual teamHaving opportunities to rise to a challenge is one of the things I enjoy most about being part of the Creative Virtual team. Taking on challenges is something we do regularly as a company; we’re always pushing ourselves to do more and be better. Whatever country you’re in or projects you’re working on, the whole team works together to find solutions and help our customers.

I find myself travelling a lot, but I know I always have access to the teams in the UK, US, India, Europe, and Asia Pacific no matter where I may be. We reach out to each other for support, and people don’t hesitate to have calls or help troubleshoot something important at odd hours to accommodate different time zones. Despite the challenges, we can always talk, laugh and have a good time together. I’ve been friends with several people on the team for a long time, and I appreciate having a company culture that encourages us to build those strong relationships.

What differences do you see in the way virtual agents and chatbots are used in different parts of the world?

It’s interesting to look at the ways virtual agent implementations are driven by demands for technology in different countries. In the US, for example, we typically see large enterprises deploying focused solutions that have a very streamlined template. Whereas in Asia Pacific, we are often working with smaller organisations who are looking for a conversational style virtual agent utilising templates that feature an avatar and FAQs. The virtual agents really are a reflection of what’s going on in that part of the world, both culturally and technologically.

Creative Virtual teamI feel that Creative Virtual’s global expansion has really helped drive our innovation forward. Each new region has their own set of demands and requirements for our virtual agents to be successful. As a company, we are perceptive to these challenges and flexible enough to deliver quickly for our customers – a definite advantage we have over larger competitors. Rich [Mason] is a magical being! As our Head of Innovations, he has been key in helping us address regional differences. The entire company then benefits from these developments regardless of the region that first inspired them.

What are some challenges that organisations face when implementing a chatbot in multiple languages?

When it comes to implementing virtual agents in different languages, NLP works relatively the same way but we’re conscious of the fact that languages are written in different ways – whether that be Chinese which uses symbols instead of letters or Thai which doesn’t use spaces between words, for example. The engine needs to be able to parse each language correctly, and this is a challenge that Creative Virtual has overcome beautifully.

I find that we often act as consultants for organisations looking to deploy virtual agents in multiple languages, guiding them on how to best deliver these solutions. They appreciate how exceptionally flexible we are, both as a company and in the ways our technology can be implemented. At the moment, we have some virtual agents with 5 or 6 different languages in one knowledgebase while others are set up with a separate knowledgebase for each language. As we continue to innovate in this area, there will be an evolution of how multiple languages are managed and how we implement best practices.

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

Creative Virtual teamWhen I heard the news that we won a Queen’s Award, my initial reaction was “Wow, that is so cool!” And then I thought, “Of course we won.” I take great pride in the work we do at Creative Virtual and know we are doing a great job, so I wasn’t surprised that we won such a prestigious award. It really is confirmation that we are at the forefront of the virtual agent field. Both as a group and individually, we are always driving towards excellence, and the award reaffirms for us that we are delivering a high level of expertise and quality to our customers and partners every day.

[Meet the Team] Jeff Clifford: Over Ten Years of Building and Implementing Natural Language Virtual Agents

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 Jeff Clifford, Lead Knowledgebase Engineer/ Account Manager with Creative Virtual’s UK team. For over ten years, Jeff has tirelessly worked to build, implement, manage and improve Creative Virtual’s virtual agents. He’s established great collaborations with organisations of all sizes and across all industries – from small local government councils to large international financial institutions – to help improve their customer and employee support with virtual agents and chatbots. For many members of the UK Operations Team, and quite a few team members in other locations, Jeff provided their first experience with building natural language virtual agents in his role as Creative Virtual’s go-to trainer. He shared with me why winning the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise feels like a personal victory for him and how virtual agent technology has evolved over the past ten years.

What do you remember most about your early days working with virtual agents and the company?

I remember walking out of the Canary Wharf office after my first day and thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’. It was my first time working with NLP [natural language processing], and I didn’t understand it. I had studied a few programming languages at university, however this was something else. I remember spending a day trying to perfect the simplest of decision trees.

The company was so small at the time that within two weeks I was assigned to build a new virtual agent for a well-known financial services company. I had to learn quick and one of the best ways I learned about the technology was when I broke something and then frantically tried to fix it before the Tech Team found out. I felt like I was in over my head, and never imagined that ten years later I would be a specialist in the field!

I remember the early R&D meetings, discussions over beer and pizza on Friday evenings, that lead to our development of V-Person™ and V-Portal™. I also remember being constantly impressed that we had so many big clients when we were so small. I loved reading the adverts on the London Underground and counting how many of the companies were Creative Virtual customers. I remember the days when Chris our CEO would walk into the office very excited and mention we got another client. That hasn’t changed!

It’s been amazing to me to see how the company has grown. Someone said to me once when I was new that ‘one day people will be joining and you won’t know who they are’, which seemed strange to think of at the time – everyone knew everyone else and we immediately got to know the new people. But that’s exactly what has happened.

In the over 10 years you’ve worked in the virtual agent and chatbot field, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the technology and how the solutions are implemented?

When I first started in this industry in 2007, a virtual agent was a very niche thing. When people asked me what I did for a living, it never felt like an easy answer. I found it was often difficult to explain what I did, especially in social situations. Now a majority of the people I speak to know about virtual agents and chatbots because of the growth of the industry. Most folks I chat to have actually used a Creative Virtual virtual agent so understand from their personal experience with the technology.

Competitors have also changed in magnitude and volume, which is indicative of the industry growth and how far we have come. It’s impressive to think about the list of big, well-known companies, like IBM, that we’re competitive against now.

Virtual agents have also become an integral part of the self-service areas within websites instead of just being a cool novelty or add-on. Customers really want to be able to help themselves, and companies are now understanding that these solutions are so much better than a traditional site search or list of FAQs. Integration is limitless, especially the account integration work we do behind secure areas. We can answer personal queries about a user’s account and this is really where the virtual agent becomes more of a digital personal assistant

What are the biggest challenges you find organisations face today when deploying virtual agents?

One challenge is understanding that the virtual agent needs to ‘learn’ and that the system learns best by talking to real people. This is an area where our clients really benefit from our expertise. We know how to best leverage those real conversations to improve the virtual agent and can help companies with this process, both during development and after launch, and with setting realistic expectations.

Over the years I have also noticed that the collaborative partnerships we have with our clients is key to the success of a virtual agent. The virtual agent is able to provide our clients with valuable insight into the wants and needs of their customers, which in turn can be used to provide a better service and user experience.

Another age-old issue that’s common is users thinking they are chatting to a real person. I’m not sure we’ll ever stop running into that challenge!

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

2016 RunTenFor me the biggest highlight has been watching how big the company has grown and being a part of that development. I have an invested interest in Creative Virtual growing and being successful. I was lucky enough to be chosen to train the first few members of the Stamford-based team for the US office, and it’s been exciting to see that office grow. Like any company, we’ve been through our trials and tribulations, and I’m proud that we’ve become stronger because of the tough times.

I really enjoy the team camaraderie and being a part of a group of people who are willing to share their expertise and work together to best serve our customers. When I’m interviewing potential new hires, I always pay attention to their attitude as much as their experience and skill set. If that doesn’t fit with the company ethos, they aren’t going to be a good addition to our team. I love watching my trainees go from being overwhelmed on their first few days of training to flourishing in their new roles. The company has grown because of our culture of team work and people being willing to learn from each other. I’ve personally learned a lot over the years. I’m obviously much more experienced in NLP and building virtual agents than I was back in those first few months! I’ve also learned a lot about account management, dealing with clients and managing a team.Creative Virtual team

I also appreciate how agile we are as a company and the flexibility we have to turn around requests and updates from our customers so quickly. Many of our big competitors can’t do that. That’s one reason why we are able to build such great relationships with our clients. They really appreciate our expertise and dedication to making their projects successful. One of my client contacts from many years ago recently reached out to me to ask if I was still with Creative Virtual and to say she’d like to work with us again in her new role with a different organisation.

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

Winning the Queen’s Award means as much to me as it does to Chris [Creative Virtual’s Founder & CEO]. Just as he said he couldn’t be prouder to be leading this company, I am super proud to be a part of his company. I’ve been telling everyone, all my family and friends, that we’ve won and that Chris got to meet the Queen. When your boss gets to meet the Queen because of the work you and your colleagues did, that’s an amazing thing to be a part of and something you want to tell everyone. We’ve won many awards, but the Queen’s Award feels like a lifetime achievement award for me.

An Invitation for Two to Buckingham Palace

By Peter Behrend, CTO

In the highly-charged, fast-moving blur of life in bustling Canary Wharf, some blips on life’s radar may reasonably be expected to escape immediate attention. So I offer no apology for my immediate reaction when told that we have been awarded the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise: Innovation 2017; Meah – another well-merited award pulled wearily from a thickly pregnant envelope; another trophy for the sagging shelves of the new Technology Suite, jostling for primacy against the Stevies, the TIAs, the IBAs, and the dazzling crystal of The Wharf Innovation in Business Award.

This treasonable apathy lasted for a couple of days until the truth began to dawn and the reality of an award from Her Majesty came into focus. This was not just recognition; this was Royal Recognition, postage stamp recognition, coin of the realm recognition, twenty pound note recognition. More importantly (in that moment), it was an invitation for two to Buckingham Palace.

After a brief shared frisson of pleasure, bolstered by collegiate congratulation and back-slapping, internecine warfare rapidly erupted. Proudly bearing the standard of employee enrolment number 3 (after Founder & CEO Chris Ezekiel and someone else) history was on my side, and as the Head of Innovations (that ‘someone else’) sits on the other side of the world (and below me on the Org Chart), victory was finally mine. I humbly accepted the invitation to represent the Creative Virtual team alongside Chris and set about preparing myself as best as one can to be received at the Palace by the Queen.

Chris Ezekiel & the QueenOn the evening itself, after weeks of hot, dry anger, the skies at last cried out their envy. It fairly threw it down. No clouds or rain could dampen the atmosphere of that night, however. Our barometers ran high, and with good reason. A party comprising 300 people all got up regardless, enjoying the time of their lives, and fully immersed in one common and incoherently ebullient mood is hardly likely to fail.

Throw in a few professional mixers in the form of improbably knowledgeable crown estate employees, and the brew quickly becomes heady.

Liberally diluted with Champagne, the atmosphere maintained a steady level of intoxication until finally, stiffened with a heavily fortified syrup of royalty, the company distilled into an evening of unalloyed conviviality, hushed awe, relaxed conversation, and catching of breath.

In short, this was a glorious night which will live long in the memory, not least for offering the sight of our very own East End boy enjoying the rich rewards of having nurtured a fledgling company into a soar away success. And I had the honour of being there.
Peter Behrend at Buckingham PalaceThe Queen's Awards for Enterprise: Innovation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise: Innovation 2017

 

By Chris Ezekiel, Founder & CEO

Today, on the Queen’s birthday, I’m thrilled to share the news with the world that Creative Virtual is the winner of The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise: Innovation 2017! Receiving the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise is an incredible and humbling honour for the entire Creative Virtual team as well as a wonderful recognition of the innovation we deliver to our customers every day.

The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise is the UK’s most prestigious business award for British companies. It recognises UK businesses for outstanding commercial success in four categories, including Innovation. The Innovation Award has been made to Creative Virtual for V-Person™, our virtual agent technology, and V-Portal™, our knowledge management platform. We will be presented with a crystal bowl and Grant of Appointment by a Royal representative during an upcoming award ceremony, and have been invited to send two representatives from the company to a reception hosted by Her Majesty The Queen at Buckingham Palace later in the year.

When I first founded Creative Virtual in London’s East End over 13 years ago, we were very much a pioneer in our field, and I could only dream of one day leading a successful, innovative and global company being recognised in such a prestigious way. I am very proud and humbled to be leading an organisation that is receiving the most important award for a UK company.

Growing a company is a journey full of highs and lows, a path with points of celebrations (new customers, company accolades, signing partnerships) and points of difficult challenges, set-backs and hard decisions. You have your head down, busy bringing the right people into your team, building positive partnerships and striving to provide the very best product and service. It can be hard to take a step back and appreciate how far you’ve come and what you have accomplished.

Winning the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise is one of those incredible points on our path when the entire company stops to say ‘WOW’ and reflect on what we have achieved together. This is an amazing accomplishment and what it’s all about – our innovative technology is defining the industry and the Queen is recognising us for it!

This is a win not only for Creative Virtual but for all our customers and partners as well. Our collaborations with them have helped shape our technology and given us the opportunities to implement solutions in new, innovative and ground-breaking ways. My thanks to them for being on this path with us.

On a personal note, I have to admit that not even in my wildest dreams did I ever expect my company to be in a position to be honoured in this way – and I certainly never imagined that I’d be off to the Palace to meet the Queen! I am grateful to the Queen for acknowledging Creative Virtual’s innovation and the amazing work she does to inspire British entrepreneurs like myself to take our companies global. Her Majesty has always been, and continues to be, a great ambassador and strong advocate for British companies.

I feel incredibly humbled and have been reflecting on Creative Virtual’s path over the years since we first received news of our win. My reminiscing took me back to those very early days of starting the company with very little financial resources and then being fortunate enough to land one of the UK’s largest banks as our very first customer – and they are still a customer today! After distributing another virtual agent product for the first several years the company traded, we made the bold decision to begin development of our own natural language virtual agent technology, V-Person, in 2007. Even during the early phases of development, we knew we wanted to do more than build our own version of the product we had been distributing. Through the combination of the experiences of our own team, input and feedback from our customers and partners, and our predictions for the future of the industry, we outlined the specifications for a truly unique and innovative tool. We officially introduced V-Portal to the market in October 2012. During this time we also embarked on the beginning of our global expansion, and we’re still adding new offices and partners around the world today. We have grown the company organically without any external funding and have also self-funded all of the development work as well as built up our own R&D team over time. This has helped create a company culture based on innovation, teamwork and ownership of which we are very proud. This has given us the control to plan for the long term – and deliver our vision – without the short-term financial pressures external funding inevitably brings.

The Queen's Awards for EnterpriseIt’s a real honour to lead a company that is truly defining a new technology space; and this is made possible through the quirky, fun and dedicated people that make up the Creative Virtual team. Congratulations to every member of our team and thank you for the role each of you have played in getting Creative Virtual to where we are today! This award is an important milestone that is going to help shape the company’s future, and certainly calls for a global celebration! I look forward to celebrating with you throughout the British Summertime and over the coming years. Drinks on me! (Well, maybe just for the three days of summer we get here in the UK. . .!). My celebrations will have to be a bit limited over the next couple of days as I’m running in the London Marathon on Sunday!

I’m also taking the liberty of getting a bit sentimental and saying a big thank you to my family and friends: without their support over the years none of this would have been possible. Thank you so much! 

Check out our official press release to learn more about the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise and why Creative Virtual was selected to receive this humbling honour.