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[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.

The Wharf Innovation in Business Awards: Local Boy Makes it Big!

By Chris Ezekiel, Founder & CEO

Back in July we received the exciting news that Creative Virtual had been shortlisted for The Wharf Innovation in Business Awards, a new awards programme celebrating the hard work and ingenuity of companies in Canary Wharf, in the category of Medium-to-Large Business. On my walk back to our offices after my interview with the judges, I was reminiscing about the Wharf, growing up on the Isle of Dogs and starting the company here nearly thirteen years ago. It all made me feel like my own ‘hometown kid does good’ story!

Last week Liam, our Head of Sales in the UK, donned his tux (a little reluctantly!) and joined me for the glittering black tie dinner and awards ceremony at the Radisson Blu Edwardian New Providence Wharf. We were hopeful as we sipped our champagne and snapped a selfie, but not truly expecting to win. I was on the edge of my seat as Levi Roots (of Reggae Raggae Sauce fame) began to announce the winner of our category by first reading the glowing words from the judges and then revealing the company name – We Won!!

“Creative Virtual may be the most successful Canary Wharf company you’ve never heard of. This giant was in the tech business almost before the sector existed but its years of research and development mean it is now superbly placed to take advantage of cutting edge customer expectations and experiences.”

The timing of this awards ceremony and our win is especially meaningful to me. I had just arrived back that morning from a couple of days in New York meeting with some of our US team, and I fly out of London to Australia, which is a hot market for us right now, next week for meetings and a visit with the team there. Growing Creative Virtual into a global company is exciting and a great accomplishment for the all the people who work at Creative Virtual, and there’s no better feeling than coming home to win a local award. I’m extremely proud of keeping the company headquartered here and growing it from our base in Canary Wharf.

The Wharf Innovation in Business AwardsThe market for our smart customer engagement solutions has been exploding as of late, and it’s nice to have this emerging area and technology honoured in this way. It’s important for organisations who are working hard to make their mark while helping to define a new sector to be recognised by with this type of award. I thank the judges for taking the time to understand what it is that we do at Creative Virtual and for being brave enough to recognise our industry-changing technology and its growth potential in the future, despite it being a new area.

But the true hero in this story isn’t the technology, it’s the people. I don’t want to sound too soppy, but Creative Virtual is where it is today because of the hard work and dedication of our team. They are the ones that have put in the years of research and development, built great relationships with our customers and brought innovative ideas to our solutions. While I hope I have provided the guidance to make it all happen, an award like this really underlines the importance of having great people working for your company.

Winning The Wharf Innovation in Business Awards is an amazing achievement for Creative Virtual as well as for me personally. After accepting the award, Liam and I celebrated until the wee hours of the morning – my jetlag and his missed bedtime long forgotten! Liam even commented that he had never seen me that happy before. I was so thrilled with our win that I slept with our award that night and had to pinch myself in the morning to make sure it hadn’t been a dream. It was exciting to share the award with the team in the Canary Wharf office and send photos to those working remotely and in our other offices. I’ve been spending the weekend and this week showing it off to my family and friends! They all know The Wharf newspaper, so I’m sure they are picturing the same headline as me as they admire the award: Local Boy Makes it Big!

My thanks to The Wharf, the judges and all of the award sponsors for honouring us as your Medium-to-Large Business and for putting on a fabulous dinner and ceremony. But more importantly, this East End boy thanks all of Creative Virtual’s employees, customers and partners around the globe. Without you, this win wouldn’t have been possible.

I hope you’ll take a look at our photo album and read our official announcement about Creative Virtual’s big win.

Medium-to-Large Business winner