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Showcasing the Perfect CX Power Couple: Humans & AI

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

Move over Beyoncé and Jay-Z, George and Amal, Will and Jada. There’s a new power couple in town: Humans and Artificial Intelligence. While you’re not going to see them on the cover of a celebrity gossip magazine or walking the red carpet at a Hollywood premiere, the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and humans is already making a mark on the world of customer experience (CX).

With the growing emphasis customers are placing on CX when making purchasing decisions and the growing challenge companies are facing when delivering service and support on more contact channels than ever before, this powerful new approach has arrived on the scene at just the right time. Humans and AI make the perfect power couple for meeting CX expectations – they both bring something to the table, learn from each other, support one another and build together.

On Thursday, 6 September Chris Ezekiel, Creative Virtual’s Founder & CEO, will feature the combination of AI and human input during the company’s sixth annual CRMXchange Technology Innovation Showcase webinar. He’ll give an inside look at bringing together humans and AI to provide quality self-service options, improve live chat and contact centre performance, and increase customer satisfaction scores. Through a series of live demonstrations, attendees will learn:

  • Best practices for implementing chatbots, virtual agents, and live chat to provide accurate and seamless omnichannel engagement
  • The benefits of centralising knowledge management and using a single orchestration platform to deliver consistent support across contact channels
  • Ways to leverage a hybrid of machine learning and human curation of content to reduce support costs while improving conversational engagement

Register now for Humans & AI: The Perfect CX Power Couple to see how organisations around the globe are already using the combination of humans and AI to provide successful customer service and how your organisation can leverage this new power couple to deliver a positive CX. Not able to make the live webcast? Don’t worry! A recording of the Tech Showcase will be sent to all registrants after the event.

[Meet the Team] Eileen Stall: Looking Past the Machine Learning Buzz & Chatbot Hype

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 organization 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 Eileen Stall, Knowledgebase Manager with Creative Virtual USA. Having prior management and customer care experience and a degree in art history, Eileen came across a Creative Virtual job posting in 2015 while looking for a new role with a better work-life balance. Now a key member of our operations team, she is responsible for the building and upkeep of virtual agent knowledgebases for a number of large enterprise clients, including Cox, The New York Times and IHG. Eileen works closely with these organizations to enhance their content, utilize analytics to improve answer quality and coordinate new expansions of their virtual agents. She shared with me how the media buzz around machine learning has created industry challenges and why Creative Virtual’s diverse team is key to the company’s success.

What have you found to be major challenges facing the chatbot and virtual agent market today?

Chatbots have gone from being an obscure technology to one that everyone knows about and have likely had experience with. It’s nice that now chatbots have some recognition value when I explain my job! But “machine learning” becoming a buzz word has created a big challenge for the market. Companies don’t understand the huge amount of data that you actually need to implement a solution that only relies on machine learning. The idea that you can just deploy a chatbot and never have to work on it again is simply not possible. I find that a divorcing of technologies from their original contexts has created a lot of misplaced hype in the tech world.

Creative Virtual USANow the market is seeing a number of chatbot pilots which attempted to implement machine learning to inappropriately small datasets ending with some messy results. In several cases, we as Creative Virtual have had to go through a re-education process about the realities of machine learning after potential clients have heard some fantastical pitches from competitors. We’ve opted not to rely solely on machine learning in spite of the buzz. Rather, we leverage human curated content and look at user intents to determine the best responses. This may take a little longer than what’s promised with some other solutions, but that extra time is better than a Twitter bot disaster!

This is what sets us apart from those other vendors. We have a solid understanding of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, not just making technology decisions based on the buzz. Even when the market started going crazy about deploying fully self-learning virtual agents, we stood firm in our combination of machine learning and human curation of content because we knew that was the best approach to accurate and reliable solutions.

Why is it important to work with an experienced chatbot and virtual agent vendor like Creative Virtual?

Creative Virtual has what I like to call a concierge approach. We offer a packaged deal of innovative software and years of accumulated experience in the industry. Clients can leverage our experience to create a successful virtual agent. Companies don’t have a “bot division” so the more we can provide a concierge type of experience, the better the result and the less overwhelmed they feel. How can you expect someone with no experience to build out the bot, to know what content to put in, to identify when a user needs to be escalated to live chat? That doesn’t make sense. We don’t burden our customers with requests to provide huge amounts of content or put pressure on their copywriter. We have the experience to guide and assist through the entire process. We can be ghostwriters, creating content in the brand’s voice, but tailored to the chatbot platform, such that all that is needed is the client sign-off.

We customize our virtual agents on a case-by-case basis but have developed expertise in many industries. For example, I’ve worked a lot with telecommunication companies so I’m very familiar with the type of questions their customers are asking most often. The 80/20 rule has definitely applied to deployments in this sector wherein nearly 80% of the inputs are asked about the top 20% of content. Deploying a slimmer knowledgebase with the plan to build out is a great approach for that situation. You start with the most common questions being asked repeatedly – questions about a bill, how to cancel or change service, etc. – and then build the other content organically based on actual user conversations and the customer’s voice. That way the knowledgebase is being driven by what customers are really asking about. The more unnecessary content you have in a chatbot knowledgebase, the harder it is to achieve a high level of accuracy. Of course, the virtual agent won’t be able to answer 100% of questions at first, so it’s important to make sure your secondary support system, such as live chat or a help page, is robust. That way you have a back-up for users and can still provide a good customer experience. This approach is successful when you’re working with an experienced vendor like Creative Virtual because we have the expertise to build out an effective knowledgebase quickly and efficiently.

How has the explosion of new contact channels affected the deployment of virtual agents?

A lot has changed in the world of virtual agents over the past few years. Now companies are coming into new deployments with a plan for their bot. They have a space in their business where they need to provide help and know they don’t need a human to do that. They also know enough about the technology to understand the benefits of working with an experienced vendor who can help them finetune and implement their plan to achieve the best possible results. They have confidence in our expertise and take advantage of our large library of existing integrations and knowledge about rolling out chatbots to additional channels.

Creative Virtual USAIt can be like the wild west with new technologies though, with people and companies suffering from tech hype. There’s a growing confidence in bots and so you don’t need to convince people to use them. However, before rolling out a chatbot to another channel, companies need to keep in mind the context of their customer engagement rather than making a decision simply on that the fact that something is new and creating a lot of buzz.

For example, enterprises might already have some stats and live chat transcripts from a channel like Facebook Messenger that they can use when considering adding their chatbot to that type of channel. Similarly, adding a bot to their app can be informed by what customers are already doing on mobile. When faced with a completely new channel where there is no history of experience with customers there, that’s when it’s hard to determine whether that channel can provide value. Voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home are getting a lot of media coverage now, and they can be a great channel for chatbot deployment for some use cases. This is where context is important to provide a positive customer experience. Does your content lend itself well to a voice conversation? Or do your customers need a visual, such as a diagram or chart, to really benefit from the virtual agent’s answer? That’s another reason to work with an experienced provider like Creative Virtual. We can help guide you through the maze of new contact channels to develop the best experience for your customers.

I love that there’s always something new in this industry, so my work never gets stale! There’s always something to learn and new ways to use these developments to help our clients provide better customer support.

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

Creative Virtual USABeing American, I had never heard of the Queen’s Awards, so when Creative Virtual was announced as a winner I did a little research and was happy to discover that the award went beyond simply recognizing companies for their financial success. The award also recognized the people behind that success who bring together our variety of experiences every day to create and deliver our innovative solutions. This really resonated with me as I’ve always felt that the diversity of our team in the US is what makes us a good vendor and partner. Everyone is coming together from different backgrounds with different perspectives to become experts in the field.

This award is fitting because on top of delivering innovation to our customers, we also prioritize developing our staff. Cultivating positive interpersonal relationships in the office and across customer and partner companies is an important part of the Creative Virtual culture. Our diversity has been key to our success, particularly on difficult projects. We’re not your stereotypical bunch of old white men sitting in a boardroom; we’re a diverse group of people combining our unique outlooks and experiences to deliver the best solutions possible to our customers.

[Meet the Team] Tracey Biela: Crazy About Virtual Agent Technology Since 1999

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 Tracey Biela, Senior Knowledgebase Engineer with Creative Virtual’s UK team. Tracey started in the virtual agent field in 1999 with a company in Hamburg, Germany and fell in love with the technology. After leaving that role in 2005 and then moving away from Hamburg, she feared she would never get to work in the industry again. Thankfully for Creative Virtual, that was not to be the end of Tracey’s virtual agent journey! In 2011 she joined the Creative Virtual team and is now involved with defect management, testing, training and supporting partner implementations. She shared with me why she is crazy about chatbots and virtual agents and how she still looks for a way to slip the company’s Queen’s Awards win into conversations.

How has your early work with virtual agent technology influenced your current role with Creative Virtual?

That was when I first started to love virtual agents. I’m crazy about the technology! I started working with virtual agents when I lived in Hamburg. It was at that company where I first met and worked with Chris [Ezekiel] before he founded Creative Virtual, and also worked with several others who would eventually be a part of the Creative Virtual team. I was interviewed for that first job by Olaf Voβ [Lead Application Designer] and trained by Björn Gülsdorff [Chief Business Development Officer]. I also worked with Rachel Freeman [Operations Director] and Katrin Zieren [Business Development Consultant].

Tracey Biela Creative VirtualAfter having my kids and relocating again, I thought to myself, “What have I done?!” I thought I would never get to work in the business again. It was only after I reconnected with Chris and Rachel that I realised there might be a possibility of joining Creative Virtual. I’m so happy to be back again and working for Chris. We share a similar philosophy on things, so I knew it would be good to work for him.

The very first VA [virtual agent] I worked on was named Mark and was built to sell virtual reality glasses and talk about science fiction in German and English. I worked on the English version and Björn did the German. At that time I never thought that eighteen years later I’d find myself working on virtual agents that are helping large organisations deal successfully with a very high amount of traffic.

During my time at my first virtual agent job, I was involved with developing the basic knowledgebase and still see some of that early work reflected the VAs I work on today.  I also had the opportunity to be involved with the servers, UI [user interface] and backend aspects of the technology which has been an advantage when supporting partners in my current role.

What makes Creative Virtual stand out in the virtual agent industry?

V-Portal™ is the fifth system I’ve used during my career for building virtual agents, and it is by far the best. V-Portal is amazing! Our clients really appreciate that we provide a suite of products. In particular, that V-Portal works hand-in-hand with our Live Chat and virtual agents. No one else does that.

I have a background in linguistics, with a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics, so the language aspect of VAs is something else I love. Creative Virtual has built our technology to work with any language which is incredibly important. V-Portal’s multi-lingual capabilities allow our VAs to maintain accuracy across all languages.

Creative Virtual’s hybrid approach of human input and self-learning also makes our solution the best out there. The world has seen what happens when you let users completely train your chatbot, and that doesn’t work.

What do you enjoy most about your role and being a part of the Creative Virtual team?

I always feel like I am part of such an excellent team! The company is really flexible and understanding of family obligations, which also takes up a lot my day. In between juggling family life and work, I love it when I get to train clients or colleagues, especially when I’m working with a really engaged group. I enjoy meeting different people and learning as much from our customers and partners as they are learning from me.

Tracey Biela Creative VirtualMy current role really brings together my skills and interests. My linguistics background and interest in languages has been really helpful when working with VAs in Turkish, Swedish, Danish and other languages. This is a fascinating way to play with languages and be able to help our clients to help their customers. I sometimes see myself in a communicator role, helping to translate from technical terms and jargon into ‘normal’ language to explain things to clients and partners in a way they can easily understand. I also find myself really enjoying the part of my job that involves testing and replicating defects. I love being able to bite into a defect until I figure it out.

This work can be really stressful and busy at times, and it’s not for everyone. I tend to be a workaholic, so I need to make sure I’m taking some time off. As a company we seem to have a reputation of being hard workers but really knowing how to celebrate when we get together! I’m not sure how that started, but it came up again after one of the clients I work with was at our Queen’s Awards celebration and commented on how fun it was to celebrate with us.

RSPCA Creative VirtualIn addition to celebrating, the team also gets together to do good for the community. This will be my fourth time doing the 10k for the RSPCA, and I’m really looking forward to it this year. The first time I didn’t think I could do it. This year I started training earlier and am hoping to get a new personal best.

Having a career in the virtual agent industry does have a downside, though. My kids have an Amazon Alexa and are always asking her things. At first, they sounded a lot like the inputs we often get on a brand-new VA – cuss words and childish questions like “can you fart?” – when people are testing it out, which made me laugh. Now when Alexa misses a question or doesn’t have the answer, I find myself saying to my kids that she “hit the safety net” or “must not have those keywords”, and then suggesting another way they can ask. I can’t just enjoy Alexa like everyone else – I’m always analysing her knowledgebase! Although, I guess that’s a small price to pay for having my dream job.

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

Winning the Queen’s Awards is absolutely fantastic! I’m still excited! It’s such a prestigious award and not one that many companies can say that they won. I think I told everyone I know about Creative Virtual’s win, and I still look for a reason to slip it into conversation any time I can. I’ve told all of my family in the USA and all of my friends know. Some clients’ names are not always recognisable, but when you mention the Queen they always know the award is a big deal!

A friend once told me many years ago that when you find a job you get co-workers that you like or work that you like or you will like the pay. Working for Creative Virtual has been my dream job – I got all three! I mention this in every year in my annual review, and I feel grateful to work with such a great team and a great company.

[Meet the Team] Rachael Needham: Building Positive Relationships and Grounding Chatbot Technology in Human-ness

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 Rachael Needham, Head of Delivery Management with Creative Virtual USA. In 2007, ready for a career change, Rachael took a leap of faith and spent the last of her savings on a flight to London to interview for a position with Creative Virtual. The rest, as the saying goes, is history! Rachael has filled a variety of roles over the years, helping to build both successful virtual agents and a strong team in the US. In her current position, she oversees Creative Virtual USA’s implementations and coordinates with various teams and departments to ensure each deployment is delivered efficiently and in alignment with each customer’s requirements and goals. She shared with me the benefits of developing a healthy emotional intelligence and how Creative Virtual is evolving within an industry the company helped to create.

How has Creative Virtual evolved and grown as a company since your early days?

Creative Virtual USAWhen I first started with Creative Virtual, the company was still small and there was a lot of responsibility placed on the Knowledgebase Managers. There were lots of individual jobs that weren’t specified; everyone pitched in where they were needed. I’m pleased to say that I helped develop some of the reports with our Analyst, Lester [Lane] in those early days that we still use today! As the company grew, and we started working with an increasing number of large enterprises in the US, it became clear that we needed to start separating out those job roles.

In the US, companies are aggressive in their quest to be cutting-edge, so we designed our team structure with that in mind. By separating out job roles as Creative Virtual grew, we made our workflow more relevant to corporate industry while also allowing for career progression. Even though team members are still capable of taking on a variety of responsibilities, they are now able to develop more specialized expertise and take ownership of their piece of the workflow. Our team members are invested in our projects. We can see this difference in the Delivery Manager role, where DMs go beyond traditional project management and play a strategic role. I read an article a couple of years ago outlining three qualities that I feel define how we operate: extreme ownership, infectious enthusiasm, and growth mindset. I believe this is what has carried us as a company.

Creative Virtual USASomething that hasn’t changed, but which has helped the company grow, is that Creative Virtual has always been client-driven. By asking “What do clients really need?”, we’ve tailored what we do to our customers. We’ve developed our processes in a way that makes it easy for them to work with us. I’ve been involved with the development and documentation of the process flows and finding ways to address any pain points. I’ve also been involved with changing how we scope projects in the US which has created more visibility, built more confidence with our clients, and helped us address frustrations. While this was initially a tough change, and received some resistance, we now have a scoping process in place that’s allowing us to deliver implementations more efficiently and helping us build better relationships with our clients.

What changes have you experienced in the chatbot and virtual agent industry?

“Chatbot” was a negative term when I started in the industry – nobody wanted to buy a chatbot! Using “virtual agent” and “virtual assistant” was more acceptable but the technology wasn’t widely recognized or understood. The companies that were looking at their digital strategy then were early adopters that are very much at the forefront of the industry today.

Creative Virtual helped create the industry and develop the market. At the time, we were focused on proving virtual agent technology worked. Now people have bought into automation and know that chatbots, when done well, are part of an improved customer experience. The industry has changed and shifted, so we are now facing new challenges. Today, we are more focused on educating the market on what solutions to use and how to implement them. We’re also finding ourselves competing against lots of new start-ups. I’m curious to see what happens with these start-ups as the industry continues to shift.

What sets Creative Virtual apart in today’s crowded chatbot marketplace?

Most of the new start-ups are building a chatbot product but not the service around it, so they don’t have that support of a managed service. In that respect, they can’t compete with Creative Virtual’s offering. We have industry knowledge – for example, what is needed for a telco is different than what needed for a financial company, yet there are basics which can benefit both. We look at a client’s website and their goals, and then we tailor a solution specifically for them. It’s that human connection that makes companies want to do business with us.

The relationships we build with our clients are key. They know we are experts and trust us to help them with their online digital strategy. They come to us with questions and follow our advice because they have confidence in our knowledge and experience.

Creative Virtual USAAs my team will tell you, I’m a big proponent of emotional intelligence. How we handle situations and deal with stress without letting it affect our work is extremely important. I believe strongly that developing a healthy emotional intelligence is imperative and a big factor in building positive relationships. Creative Virtual has a technology product that companies want, but it’s the people on our team who they interact with. Our team plus the software is a winning combination.

To stay competitive, Creative Virtual needs to continue our development work, adding new features and integrations, which is something we’ve always done. People have the impression that AI [artificial intelligence], chatbots, and machine learning can do things on their own, but the reality is that for now humans need to be involved to make sure the solutions are successful. I hope to always keep a human element to our technology, continuing to be successful by grounding it in human-ness.

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

Winning the Queen’s Awards is definitely cool! In the US, the idea of royalty is a thing of fantasy. I loved seeing the photos of Chris [Ezekiel, Founder & CEO] and Peter [Behrend, CTO] meeting the Queen; it made something that was distant feel more real. I think corporate America doesn’t realize the prestige of a Queen’s award, so we didn’t feel the full impact here. But it was exciting to receive messages of congratulations from our customers and partners around the world. I look forward to more awards and recognitions for Creative Virtual as we continue to grow and help define the virtual agent industry.

I’ve never once regretted putting my neck out to get my job with Creative Virtual, as it’s been a great place to grow and be introduced to the corporate world. I’m grateful for all the fun memories over the years and for the opportunity to work for a company that has taken the time to focus on employees.

Live Demonstrations of Artificial Intelligence in the Contact Centre

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

No longer a thing of fantasy or science fiction, artificial intelligence (AI) is finding a place in our homes, schools and businesses, helping to automate tasks and make our lives easier. For organisations striving to improve their customer experience (CX), implementing AI has become vital. The contact centre must play a key role in digital transformation initiatives around AI, automation and customer self-service in order to avoid creating silos that will damage CX.

On Thursday, 14 June 2018, Chris Ezekiel, Founder & CEO of Creative Virtual, will join the expert panel of speakers for CRMXchange’s Tech Tank Roundtable Artificial Intelligence in the Contact Center. The live webcast, scheduled to begin at 7:00 pm UK time/ 2:00 pm ET/ 11:00 am PT, will feature insights on how to use machine learning and natural language solutions to make an immediate and positive impact in the contact centre.

Chris will give an inside look at how Creative Virtual’s intelligent solutions help contact centres build better relationships with customers through centralising knowledge management, integrating chatbots and live agents, and combining AI and human input. He’ll explore recent statistics, discuss industry predictions, and share live demonstrations of current implementations. Chris will also provide some practical tips for implementing natural language virtual agents and chatbots to enable seamless customer engagement and help your contact centre improve through lower costs, reduced staff turnover, and more engaged, skilled and happier agents.

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

C3 London 2018: Redefining customer care with conversational commerce

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

On 8-9 May Opus Research will bring their Conversational Commerce Conference (C3) to London. Replacing the Intelligent Assistants Conference held the previous two years, this new event will explore conversational platforms and how organisations can unlock the power of machine learning, natural language processing and intelligent assistance. The conference features interactive panel discussions, industry case studies and networking opportunities.

Coined by Opus Research years ago, the term ‘conversational commerce’ has never been more important in the customer experience space than it is in 2018. Organisations are tackling the challenge of creating conversational engagement with digital customers across a wide range of contact channels. Advancements in chatbots and virtual agents have opened up powerful opportunities for using these tools to create conversations with customers.

Creative Virtual is sponsoring C3 London and lending our expertise in delivering intelligent conversational systems to the conference agenda. Rachel F Freeman, Operations Director, will be an expert speaker on the Demystifying AI – Enterprise Strategies for Digital Self-Service panel on Day 1 of the event. Having first entered the virtual agent and chatbot industry in 2000, Rachel will draw from her extensive experience building and implementing these solutions for organisations to discuss realistic expectations for artificial intelligence in the customer service space.

At the Creative Virtual stand, our team will be on hand to share live demos and success stories of organisations around the world already using our V-Person™ virtual agents, chatbots and live chat to deliver conversational customer care. Also stop by for insights and tips on building a business case for the technology in your organisation and how to approach implementing these solutions to create seamless omnichannel engagement.

You can find more information about the conference and the full agenda on the C3 London event website. Be sure to follow conference announcements and updates using #C3London.

If you haven’t registered yet and are interested in attending, contact us for a discount code to receive £200 off the conference rate.  And if you aren’t able to be at the event in London, we’d love to arrange a personalised demo at a time that works for you.

What Goes Around Comes Around: A look at customer sentiment and intent

By Rachel F Freeman, Operations Director

I’m delighted that one of the main reasons why I started working in this industry 18 years ago (eegad!) has re-surfaced as a credible and viable objective to move ahead with conversational flows that also provide a profitable punch: customer sentiment.

During the first wave of all things cool and nifty on the web – when website stickiness and brand promotion online was first and foremost – a virtual assistant was often deployed to assist a marketing campaign and answer “silly” questions about random topics that might have little to do with the brand. So long as the virtual assistant (always with an avatar) was presented in a branded UI, then the key was to keep a customer on the page and enable the engagement to be about whatever the user wanted.

Of course, the problem with that approach at its most extreme was that it lost its financial credibility since, without promotion or discussion about the products/ services, there was little to no ROI on the tool. The virtual assistant was demoted as a bit of expensive frivolity that was often axed once the first tech bubble burst and focus moved from bling to bottom line.

That was when I lost my job creating such novelties as VC money was running out and there was little to no appetite to fund such projects and focus on user sentiment and fun smalltalk, like whether the virtual assistant enjoyed pizza on a Saturday night or playing chess with fellow 24/7 assistants.

Creative Virtual evolved after that burst as it saw an opportunity at that time to take this technology and move it away from sentiment and emotions and casual smalltalk to focus on the business proposition of enabling a client’s customers to find and self-serve answers to relevant FAQs.

The company was built by actively addressing the public’s requirements. These requirements have changed over the years from quick and efficient delivery of answers, limited smalltalk and some avatars to moving away from avatars and focusing on back-end integration with APIs ranging from currency trackers to train delays. Then there was a major focus on user journey and intent – what does the customer need and what is the quickest and smoothest way to get him/ her there? Organisations were keen to link their virtual assistants to live chat and use decision trees or conversation flows. We saw the removal of the avatar in many situations and flat web designs for simplicity.

Now in 2018, we’re in the age of AI (artificial intelligence), machine learning and conversations – sometimes even via voice. User intent is assumed based on channels and the context of when the customer starts a conversation. Now it is time to get back to assessing if the user is happy or frustrated and work out which channel and journey the user needs to take to feel special (personalisation) and guided (customer service) after a fulfilled mission of getting what was required (positive user experience). True conversations need to happen and no longer just a session with Q&A pairs. The “silly” questions and random topics have a place if it helps hand hold the user to an endpoint – and the circle the virtual assistant industry (myself included!) started to draw in 2000 can now be closed!

The whole aspect of AI and NLP (natural language processing) combined with human curation requires more blog posts – but suffice to say that for the purposes of this post –  the “science of conversation” is truly back on the map for self-service tools. And we at Creative Virtual will be leading the pack as we were (a number of us working at other companies first) at the beginning when sentiment was more important than intent. Now we know how to join them both up in the same conversation – and the future of the industry is looking bright!

Want to learn more? The best way to understand The science of conversation™ is to see our technology in action with a personalised demo.

Supporting Customers and Employees in the Digital Age

By Liam Ryan, Sales Director

Every organisation is going through a digital transformation, particularly in regard to their customer and employee experiences. Virtual agents and chatbots are ideal for supporting both digital customers and employees with a reliable and consistent self-service option that also helps reduce support costs and improve efficiency.

At Creative Virtual self-service solutions are our specialty, and we’re honoured to be named ‘Best Self-Service Solutions Provider 2017’ by Corporate Vision Magazine’s UK Corporate Excellence Awards 2017. For over 14 years we’ve delivered bespoke virtual agents and chatbots designed to provide a quick, easy way for users to get information and troubleshoot issues.

Once viewed as a novelty or ‘cool’ thing to have, virtual agents are now a key component of many customer engagement strategies. Smartphones, social media and a variety of other technological advancements have changed how we communicate with each other and how we want to communicate with brands. The traditional ways of providing customer service are no longer meeting the expectations of digital customers. As a society, we’re more inclined to seek out self-help options and are becoming increasingly more comfortable with using chatbots and virtual agents.

Despite most organisations being focused on improving their customer experience for a while now, an emphasis on improving the employee experience is relatively new for many. Yet organisations are starting to feel more pressure to make internal changes to better engage a digital workforce and lower costs. Virtual agents are proving to be a great fit for internal service desk and HR departments, giving employees an easy way to self-serve in a variety of situations. By giving employees the tools to troubleshoot and solve common problems anytime, anywhere on their preferred device, organisations can reduce costs and improve productivity.

Check out this recent webinar AI, Chatbots & Live Chat: Separating Truth from Myth, now available to watch on-demand, for a look at how organisations are already using virtual agents and chatbots to improve engagement with digital customers and employees.

Our thanks to Corporate Vision Magazine and the UK Corporate Excellence Awards for this honour!

[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.

Resisting Change Can Spell CX Disaster

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

Over the summer, one of my Netflix obsessions was ‘Call the Midwife’, a TV drama that follows a group of midwives working in London’s East End during the 1950s and 60s. There often seemed to be a conflict between the traditional customs or ways of thinking and modern ideas that drove the storyline of the episodes. For example, patients resisting new medical practices such as giving birth in a maternity home instead of at home or the older generation of midwives dismissing the younger nurses’ ideas on topics like allowing husbands to be present for the birth. Often the arguments came in the form of “If it was good enough for my mum, it’s good enough for me!” or “We’ve always done it that way!”

Humans – and companies – are creatures of habit and often resistant to change. While the ‘but it’s always been done that way’ reasoning makes for a relatable and compelling TV show, it can spell disaster for organisations when they resist recognising changes in customer behaviours and preferences. Blockbuster has become a posterchild for missed opportunity, passing on the chance to purchase Netflix and then trying to get into the streaming trend too late, which ultimately led to the company’s demise.

When it comes to customer experience, organisations can’t afford to ignore the impact technology is having on the way we communicate with each other and with brands. Today’s highly connected digital customers are looking for 24/7 access to information and support across multiple channels and devices. They want a seamless experience that is personalised, consistent and easy. Companies like Amazon are often applauded for their superior customer experience, and customers are now expecting that same level of service from all the organisations they engage with, regardless of industry.

As consumers increasingly turn to self-service and digital channels, organisations need to analyse the changing preferences of their customer base and look to incorporate new channels and technologies into their customer support strategy. The change to self-service needs to happen in conjunction with an evolution of the contact centre. Current capabilities of AI-powered chatbots and virtual agents put these solutions in the perfect position to be complementary with the contact centre and live agents.

While some sceptics talk about chatbots and virtual agents in the customer service space as a passing fad, the reality is that they are a tried and tested tool for providing digital self-service and are helping to define the future of customer engagement. Since the days of the early chatbots, these tools have improved greatly in their conversational abilities thanks to advances in natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI). The evolution of customer expectations has also driven massive amounts of innovation in the technology to allow for flexible back-end integration, easier maintenance and a reliable hybrid approach to self-learning.

Take the first step toward meeting the expectations of digital customers with chatbots by requesting a demo to see this technology in action. Change can be hard, but smart organisations (and midwives!) know it is the way forward.