पोस्ट

[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.

Chatbots are Transforming the Way Mobile Apps are Built and Used

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

“By 2021, more than 50% of enterprises will spend more per annum on bots and chatbot creation than traditional mobile app development.”

As one of Gartner’s top strategic predictions for 2018 and beyond, this projection really drives home the fact that chatbots are more than just a passing fad. Gartner explains that chatbots are becoming the face of artificial intelligence (AI) and transforming the way apps are built. Forward-thinking organisations are staying a step ahead of their competitors by examining their digital strategies and finding ways to incorporate chatbot technology into their customer engagement plans.

Some companies have already made their chatbot available in their customer app. One example is Time Warner Cable who offer customers the option to get instant help from their virtual agent, and even escalate to a live agent when needed, in the MY TWC app – check out the video below to see it in action.

Other organisations are taking advantage of the growing popularity of messaging platforms by deploying their chatbot on apps such as Facebook Messenger and WeChat. These platforms have become key communication channels, and chatbots offer a cost-effective way to provide 24/7 support to customers already using these apps to connect with family and friends. For example, Transport for NSW in Australia uses RITA (Real-time Intelligent Transport Assistant), their Transport Bot, to provide bus, train, ferry and light rail service information on Facebook Messenger.

A survey published earlier this year found that 71% of millennials (ages 18-34) surveyed were interested in trying chatbots from consumer brands. According to that same survey, 67% said they were likely to buy items and services from brands via chatbots. Based on those results, it’s no wonder that enterprises are starting to seriously invest in chatbots to engage with customers. Some may even look to completely replace their traditional mobile app with a chatbot.

branded chatbot survey

It’s not enough for companies to invest in any chatbot, though – they need to invest in the solution that’s right for their needs. There are new vendors popping up every day claiming to provide chatbots and virtual agents for customer support, but smart organisations know it’s essential to work with an experienced provider offering a proven solution. Smart organisations also know that chatbots need to be implemented as an integrated part of their overall customer engagement strategy, not as a stand-alone tool or app. Here are a few resources to get you started:

AI in the Corporate World Today

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has long been the stuff of science fiction, often portrayed as becoming evil and turning against its human creators – from robots rising up to destroy humanity to supercomputers trying to take over human minds. In recent years, however, AI has moved from something seen as a far-off dream of the future to an actual reality in households and workplaces around the world. AI is powering the voice assistants on our phones and in our homes, the self-driving cars appearing on our streets and the chatbots that are popping up on messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger and WeChat.

AI & Robotics THE MAIN EVENT, being held on 14 September in London, will focus on the reality of AI and automated technology in the corporate world today. The conference will cut through the hype and highlight the tangible actions and results of AI and robotics in the business world, including the impact these technologies are having on performance, profitability and workforce efficiency.

Creative Virtual is a Gold Sponsor of this year’s event and will showcase their V-Person™ virtual agents and chatbots as part of the conference’s ‘AI in Action’ sessions. Founder & CEO, Chris Ezekiel will also speak as part of Session 1, ‘Almost Human – How Chatbots Transform Customer Experience and Corporate Life’ starting at 14:30. Drawing on his extensive experience working with organisations around the globe, Chris will explain the realities of AI and machine learning in the world of enterprise chatbots. He’ll also explore the role these technologies will have in the future of customer engagement.

“When it comes to AI, chatbots and virtual agents,” says Chris “Enterprises need to make decisions based on realistic expectations but shouldn’t shy away from incorporating this technology into their customer support strategy.”

We hope you’ll join us at the Victoria Park Plaza on 14 September for a day of interactive discussions, networking and AI in action. A full copy of the AI & Robotics conference programme, as well as ticket information, can be found on the event website.

Can’t attend but interested in learning more and seeing real enterprise chatbots in action? We’d love to schedule a personalised live demo at a time that works for you.

Innovation Showcase: Preparing Your Contact Centre for the Future with AI and Chatbots

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

The contact centre is integral to the customer support and engagement strategies of many organisations, but its role has been changing recently as a growing number of customers seek out digital and self-service options. While chatbots and virtual agents have gotten a reputation as being threats to the contact centre, the reality is that they can have a positive effect on the contact centre and a company’s overall customer experience.

Learn more on Thursday, 7th September at 4:00 pm UK time/ 11:00 am ET as Creative Virtual takes part in CRMXchange’s Technology Innovation Showcase webcast series for a fifth consecutive year. This year’s live webinar, presented by Founder & CEO, Chris Ezekiel, will take a realistic look at artificial intelligence (AI), virtual agents and chatbots in the customer experience space. Chris will also share a series of live demos showcasing how forward-thinking organisations are already using this technology to improve the customer experience, increase sales, build brand loyalty and reduce support costs. Attendees will get an inside look at:

  • The impact chatbots and virtual agents can have on the contact centre, including lower costs, reduced staff turnover and more engaged, skilled and happier agents
  • Why chatbots should use a combination of self-learning and human input to create consistent and reliable support experiences
  • How humans and machines can work in harmony to provide perfect customer service
  • Leveraging AI and chatbots to prepare your contact centre for the future

Register now for ‘Chatbots, Virtual Agents and Your Contact Centre’ for an inside look at how to incorporate chatbots and virtual agents into your customer support strategy and help your contact centre meet the expectations of digital customers. A recording of the Technology Innovation Showcase will be provided for registrations unable to attend the live webinar.

Infographic: Are Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence Threats to Your Contact Centre?

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

Some academics and experts are warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) – predicting everything from a huge loss of jobs to the end of the human race. At the same time, industry analysts are predicting significant increases in chatbots and virtual agents in the customer service space. So what does this mean for your contact centre? Should you approach chatbots and virtual agents as threats? Are contact centres about to become completely automated?

Check out the new infographic below for a realistic overview of the impact AI, chatbots and virtual agents are having on the contact centre. And then download the whitepaper AI, Chatbots and Virtual Agents: The Threat to Mankind and the Contact Centre to learn more.

AI Chatbot Threat to Contact Centres

 

 

“Keeping it real with chatbots” – Impressions from the Chatbot Summit

By Björn Gülsdorff, Head of Business Development

“Your talk was the most down to earth”, an attendee wrote me via the event’s messaging app after I had delivered my keynote “A Hybrid Approach to Machine Learning” at the Chatbot Summit in Berlin.

Now, is that good or bad for a keynote? Shouldn’t I have been breath-taking or ground-breaking or both – instead of down to earth?

Gaging by the talks we had later at our booth, it was a compliment. Creators of chatbots, as well as potential buyers, were happy to see a way out of the current AI craze where unsupervised machine learning seems to be the one and only solution and the power of the human brain is overlooked – and which requires enormous amounts of groomed, relevant data.

Enterprise ChatbotsIn fact, the chatbot community struggles to add learning, conversation and personalisation to their systems, which are very often highly scripted things. I spoke to a chatbot builder who was forced to use algorithms to create training data. Puts a new spin on the “artificial” in Artificial Intelligence.

There was also a lot of uncertainty about how to move chatbots into the enterprise world. A world of timelines, budget, ROI and predictability. Again, what it takes is a robust, proven, down to earth approach to each project, combining the virtual (artificial) intelligence with the real and unlocking existing silos of information. Not everyone from the chatbot crowd was happy to hear that though.

Nonetheless, it was a fantastic, energising event! I was pleased to join this buzzing chatbot community (we had our first discussions with other attendees while setting up our booth; it wasn’t even 8am!) and to learn that the number of bots is currently growing faster than the number of apps grew when the age of the apps began (and it is in decline again already). It is even fair to say I was touched to see a technology lift off that Creative Virtual has fostered and helped grow for over a decade – in fact, some of our senior management team started this in the last millennium.

The Era of Intelligent Assistants is Here

By Laura Ludmany, Knowledgebase Engineer

As an introduction of the Intelligent Assistants Conference held in London on the 4th and 5th of May, Dan Miller and Derek Top of Opus Research agreed that the era of intelligent assistants, chatbots, and AI has arrived. The biggest catalyst of this was Facebook, when its Messenger platform was opened to chatbots and virtual assistants in 2016. Since then, millions of chatbots can be found on that platform.

In the professional field – in which we tend to use the terms intelligent assistants and virtual agents – machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) are basics. Benefits of virtual assistants (VAs) are well proven – they bring fast changes and results to business, they reduce costs, increase customer satisfaction and engagement. Though, if we want to create an outstanding, reliable experience, assisted service is also needed.

This could be the motto of the first day of the conference – almost every presenter mentioned and Opus Team member emphasised that, with the big expansion of virtual agents, we have the technology and what companies need is creativity to ensure the added value. Hence human support and background are always needed and Intelligent Assistance (IA) needs to be managed with a combined approach. In this way, instead of seeing human versus AI/technology we rather are looking for a collaboration where we can maximize the benefits of this synergy.

virtual agent Ask MoThe leading adopters of VAs are the banking and retail sectors and, per Dan Miller, these sectors want to reduce local presence and increase online availability. For example, several big retail chains are reducing their stock in store in favour of online retail platforms. At the same time, internal VAs also play a crucial part in this process. As one of our clients’ representative – Llaura Hughes from Motability Operations – described in her case study, their internal VA called ‘Ask Mo’ made a huge impact on their organisation’s workflow, making things simpler, more transparent and took the pressure off the live agents. Also their VA ensures continuous monitoring activity and helps to improve their database set (knowledgebase) day by day. The best thing is that the live agents can give instant feedback and they become engaged in this AI technology – as said at the beginning of the day: a brilliant example of human and machine collaboration.

IAC LondonAll this sounds good, but how should a company step up to conversational commerce? Our Head of Operations, Rachel Freeman explained that the more departments that get involved in the VA project, the better it is. A good VA needs to be cross functional (helpdesk, marketing, sales) and every department has its own view which can give an extra feature/benefit to the VA and ensure they make the most out of it. Rachel again emphasized that the technology is a given, so it is rather what the organisation wants to be represented in their VA. Marketing and brand are vital today and a VA is just another platform to build this brand image, so again the creativity of the VA provider is what makes the deployments outstanding – just as Opus Research mentioned at the beginning of the day. On the other hand – these things take time and as Rachel described, building, maintaining and improving a VA should be approached as a journey which has no end, because to maintain a high level of performance and up-to-date content we need to have that above mentioned human assistance. Through regular monitoring and testing, an organisation can understand what customers want and even learn about customer habits.

There were some more thought provoking sessions at the conference, one of them was Wally Brill (Senior Persona Designer for Adecco at Google) discussing if we need to “be friends” with robots. He mentioned the interesting expression “uncanny valley” which, in short, means that too human-like bots are found to be scary and raise feelings of eeriness and revulsion. As we can see, the revolution of AI is rather an era of IA when intelligent assistants help, support and make the life of humans (live chat agents, analysts, sales persons, customers, etc.) easier. The future is those who focus on hybrid methods, as we cannot just rely on a black box of AI, but we want to know what’s going on in the background.

It was a great day of innovation and inspiration and I was glad to be able to participate in this conference where I could learn about the latest trends on the VA field. Thanks to Opus Research for hosting the Intelligent Assistants Conference in London again this year! 

Be sure to check out our IAC London 2017 photo album on the Creative Virtual Facebook page.

IAC London 2017: Real use cases and best practices for natural language intelligent assistants

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

Chatbots continue to be a hot topic for customer service and marketing with more and more organisations beginning to realise the potential benefits of automated conversational systems. The best way to learn about this technology, how it can be implemented and its place in the future of customer experience is to engage with companies already using it and industry experts. Opus Research’s Intelligent Assistants Conference (IAC), returning to London for a second year, offers the opportunity to do just that. The conference will feature a series of keynote addresses, expert panel discussions, case studies and networking opportunities.

Creative Virtual will once again be sponsoring IAC London and lending our expertise to the conference agenda. Rachel Freeman, Head of Operations, will be a part of the ‘Stepping up to Conversational Commerce’ panel on Day 1. Peter Behrend, CTO, will help Opus Research end the event as a panellist on the closing panel, ‘Future of Intelligent Assistance’.

On Day 1 of the conference, Motability Operations will also present a case study of their virtual assistant ‘Ask Mo’ which they’ve partnered with Creative Virtual since 2007 to deploy. Llaura Hughes, Training & Communications Manager at Motability Operations, will showcase how the organisation uses a blended approach of a virtual agent and interactive process maps to meet their key initiatives and achieve top-ranking customer and employee satisfaction scores in their contact centre. Motability Operations was the winner of the ‘Innovation Award for Sustainable Culture’ award as part of the 2015 Customer Contact Innovation Awards for this approach to knowledge management.

Creative Virtual will also have a stand in the vendor exhibition area where members of our team will be on hand to give live demos of our innovative virtual assistant solutions and explain more about how organisations around the world are currently using our technology to improve both customer and employee experiences. The team will also be happy to discuss the company’s recent win of the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise: Innovation 2017. This award was presented for V-Person™ (our virtual agent technology) and V-Portal™ (our knowledge management platform), and the commercial success we’ve achieved with these customer engagement technologies. The award is not only a great achievement for Creative Virtual, but also for the industry. This recognition brings attention to the technology along with the positive results forward-thinking organisations are already achieving with Creative Virtual’s solutions. Opus Research’s Amy Stapleton discusses this more in her recent article, Creative Virtual’s Prestigious Queen’s Award Reflects Growth of Intelligent Assistance.

IAC London 2017 will be held 4-5 May 2017 at Claridge’s Hotel. More information and the full agenda can be found on the conference website. Also, check out these materials from last year’s event:

You can also download our educational whitepaper Virtual Agents and Chatbots and Avatars – confusing or what! to learn more about intelligent assistants and request your own personalised demo to see the technology in action.

Evolving Customer Expectations and the Contact Centre

By Chris Ezekiel, Founder & CEO

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the contact centre in its current form is finished. The traditional model for call centres and contact centres is no longer providing the service experience that customers want. This was one of the key themes of CRMXchange’s recent Tech Tank Roundtable, Customer Delight: Live Demonstrations of Breakthrough Innovations. I had the pleasure of joining other industry experts from Aspect and inContact to share new customer experience solutions that are impacting the contact centre.

So, what do today’s customers want? First, they want organisations to offer support on digital channels. The survey results shared in Microsoft’s 2016 State of Global Customer Service Report show that 55% of global respondents say their customer service interactions typically begin online rather than on the phone or in person. That survey also found that 72% of the consumers surveyed expect agents to know their contact information, product information and service history. That highlights the fact that customers also are coming to expect personalised and seamless engagement from brands.

While customer expectations have been evolving, so has the customer service marketplace. During the webinar, I talked about the live chat vs. virtual agents debate that polarised the marketplace for many years. That view is now changing as it becomes clear that a combination of these solutions can help organisations meet customer service expectations. Even though customers are increasingly starting their support journeys online and leveraging self-service options like virtual agents and chatbots, the need for live agents won’t disappear. The key to providing personalised and seamless support for customers lies in the right combination of virtual and real support.

At Creative Virtual, we are delivering a combination of virtual agents and live chat that is defining industry best practice through a single knowledgebase for both virtual and real agents and a unique feedback loop. Our newest video explains how this works:

My thanks to Sheri Greenhaus and CRMXchange for hosting another great Tech Tank webcast – my third one! – and to all of you who joined us for the live event. If you missed it, you can request a copy of the recording here. You can also view my presentation slides here and then request your own live demo to learn more.

Breakthrough CX Innovations that Create Customer Delight

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

“Customers are increasingly starting their support journeys online and leveraging self-service options, but that doesn’t mean that the need for live agents will disappear. Instead organisations need to implement the right combination of virtual and real support and integrate those channels properly in order to provide personalised and seamless support for customers.”

– Chris Ezekiel, Founder & CEO, Creative Virtual

On Thursday, 6th April 2017 at 7:00 pm UK/ 2:00 pm ET CRMXchange will host a Tech Tank Roundtable webinar titled Customer Delight: Live Demonstrations of Breakthrough Innovations. The live webcast will feature a panel of industry experts, including Creative Virtual’s Chris Ezekiel, showcasing emerging customer experience solutions that are beginning to impact the contact centre.

The contact centre industry needs to be constantly evolving in order to meet changing customer demands. As customers increasingly come to expect seamless and personalised omnichannel engagement, contact centres must turn to a combination of virtual and real support. During the webinar, Chis will address this change and give an inside look at Creative Virtual’s deep integration of virtual agents and live chat. This combined solution is defining industry best practice through a single knowledgebase for both virtual and real agents and a unique feedback loop combined with customisable workflow functionality.

The bringing together of live chat and virtual agents is a departure from the common belief that, until recently, prevailed in the contact centre industry that organisations needed to choose between the solutions. Forward-thinking organisations are now coming to understand that these two tools are complementary solutions that can play a key part in delivering quality digital support experiences for their customers. Gone are the days of the live chat vs. virtual agent debate as this shift in mindset begins to permeate the customer service industry.

Register for the Tech Tank now to learn more and see live demonstrations from Chris and other industry experts from inContact and Aspect. Not able to make the live webcast? Don’t worry! A recording of the Roundtable will be sent to all registrants after the event.