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[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.

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

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

Creative Virtual is one of only four companies in London to be recognised by The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise in the category of Innovation in 2017. The company was selected for this honour not only for our innovative technology, but also because of the hard work and dedication of our global team. Creative Virtual’s experienced, expert team is what sets the organisation apart from others in the industry. As part of the five-year celebration of our Queen’s Awards for Enterprise, we’re talking with some members of the Creative Virtual team about the technology, their involvement in the industry and what winning this award means to them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Look Back: 2017 in Review

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improving Engagement and Empowering Your Team

By Liam Ryan, Sales Director

Every day I speak with organisations going through digital transformations, particularly in regards to their customer service initiatives. Selecting the right software and working with a knowledgeable provider can make or break these efforts. Organisations need technology solutions that are cutting-edge but that also complement existing systems and infrastructure.

This is exactly what we do at Creative Virtual, and I am proud to share that it has earned us a spot as a finalist in the category of ‘Software Innovation of the Year’ in the 2017 Digital Entrepreneur Awards (DEAs)! To be shortlisted, we needed to demonstrate that our software improves engagement and output, and empowers individuals and teams, which fits perfectly with our company vision. We offer organisations the technology to enable seamless, fully-integrated, end-to-end customer engagement backed by the experience of an expert, knowledgeable team. This not only improves the customer experience but also empowers employees.

Digital Entrepreneur AwardsA perfect example of this is the integration of our V-Person™ virtual agents with live chat. Our virtual agents and chatbots give customers an easy and convenient way to self-serve and are playing an important role in helping organisations meet the engagement demands of digital customers. However, we know that sometimes customers will have complex issues that are best served by live agents, or they simply prefer to talk to a real person. Based on a set of customisable rules and triggers, the virtual agent can seamlessly escalate users from virtual to real agent, with a complete history of their conversation being passed to the live chat agent.

Creative Virtual’s V-Person Live Chat™ solution is integrated with the same knowledgebase being used to power the self-service virtual agent. As customers ask questions, the platform automatically presents live chat agents with the response found in that knowledgebase. Agents then have options to reply with the answer as it appears, send an edited version of the text or type in their own response. The customisable console also gives options for agents to provide real-time feedback and suggestions on content. Live agents are empowered to become knowledge experts and share the responsibility of keeping self-service channels up-to-date.

Our thanks to the award judges for recognising our digital innovation, and the proven business results are customers are achieving with our solutions, by shortlisting Creative Virtual for Software Innovation of the Year. We look forward to the winners from the South region being announced during an awards dinner on 8th November in London.

Celebrating Innovation, the Queen and the Dedication of a Global Team

By Chris Ezekiel, Founder & CEO

Oh what a night! Last week Creative Virtual hosted a celebration of our Queen’s Awards for Enterprise: Innovation 2017 with an amazing group of people representing 14 different nationalities coming together in London for the festivities. It was another proud moment for the company and me personally, and an evening that will long live as one of the best in Creative Virtual’s history.

As a lifelong West Ham supporter, I knew the evening was destined to be a success when we turned up at the venue to setup and saw Trevor Sinclair and Joe Hart there filming for Football Focus! Unfortunately, they couldn’t stay for our celebration, but it was a sign of more good things to come. And it made for a great story to share at the event with so many of my fellow West Ham supporters in attendance. COYI!

West Ham      Trevor Sinclair

It was an honour to have Mr Leslie Morgan OBE DL, Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London attend to officially present our award on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen. As he spoke about how difficult it is to win this award, I was reminded again of what an incredible and humbling experience this truly is for our organisation. Creative Virtual is one of only four companies in London recognised for innovation by the Queen in 2017, and this is a testament to the innovation we deliver to our customers every day. I was proud to accept the Grant of Appointment on behalf of our dedicated team around the world and know our CTO Peter felt the same as he accepted the crystal bowl.

The Queen's Awards for Enterprise     The Queen's Awards for Enterprise

We were also thrilled to have Jim Fitzpatrick, our local Member of Parliament (MP) for Poplar and Limehouse, in attendance. This was his first Queen’s Awards for Enterprise presentation in his 20 years of representing East London, and he spoke about the ‘singular success’ of Creative Virtual, recruiting local people and making our mark internationally. It made me proud once again to be an East End success story!

Jim Fitzpatrick     Jim Fitzpatrick

Of course, I also took a turn to speak – it’s no secret I love talking! – and used the opportunity to share some stories from Creative Virtual’s history and express my thanks to all those who contributed over the years to the success we are achieving today. I couldn’t be more proud to be leading this company, a brilliant mix of quirky people, and I echoed Peter’s words that this award is about the whole team. We raised our glasses to all those who weren’t present to celebrate with us that night. It was a thrill for me to look out over the crowd and see such a mix of people sharing in the excitement of the celebration – Creative Virtual team members from around the world, my family and friends, some of our customers and partners, and a variety of others who played a part in my company’s story.

The amount of goodwill we’ve received since winning this award has been amazing. There were so many wonderful messages when our win was first announced on Her Majesty’s birthday, and even more after our award ceremony and celebration last week. I’d like to share just a few of them here:

Thanks very much for inviting me, it was a great night out which I really, really enjoyed.  I was really impressed with the culture and spirit that you guys have managed to create within your company.”

“It was a real pleasure to be in attendance. What an incredible journey you have been on and have in front of you. The team is great and was nice to put faces to names I have seen over the last year.”

“Thanks for the invite Chris. Fantastic to see a partner being awarded and recognised for success. Great to meet some fellow Hammers fans as well.”

“I know you have worked very hard to create and build what Creative Virtual is today. No big effort goes unrewarded. This award is a true recognition to your effort, and the effort of everyone in the Creative Virtual team.”

“Thank you so much again for a lovely evening. I’m very grateful to have been a part of such a special occasion for Creative Virtual. I have to say that as work dos go, that was one of the nicest I’ve ever been to. Really lovely people, it’s clear from everyone I spoke to and the speeches given that you have a great company full of talented, proud people.”

My thanks to everyone who helped us celebrate our award that night, both in person and virtually. From walking the red carpet to officially receiving the award to dancing into the wee hours of the morning, it was a fantastic celebration! Special thanks to Leslie and Jim for taking the time out of their busy schedules to help make our evening so special. Thanks also to the staff at 28 West for keeping things running smoothly and to Quantum Class for the great live music.

Check out more photos from our awards ceremony and celebration on the Creative Virtual Facebook page.

28 West     Quantum Class

An Invitation for Two to Buckingham Palace

By Peter Behrend, CTO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise: Innovation 2017

 

By Chris Ezekiel, Founder & CEO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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