December 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

The time may be right for virtual agents, says report

Efficient online self-service is essential for online retailers. That`s why e-retailers should look to virtual agents, says a new Forrester Research Inc. report.

Zak Stambor

Managing Editor

Efficient online self-service is essential for online retailers-particularly since 57% of U.S. online consumers say they are very likely to abandon an online purchase if they cannot find quick answers to their questions, says a new Forrester Research Inc. report.

Virtual agents represent an efficient option to bolster a company’s self-service options, particularly since they reduce customer service operational costs by deflecting agent-assisted costs because they lower the number of customers who call a contact center. Virtual agents-typically with a digitalized human appearance-are software services that provide automated assistance by simulating a two-way conversation in which they can help customers do anything from perform online tasks to locate online information.

Virtual agents help shoppers be more self-reliant online, which many prefer, says the report. 36% of consumers say they strongly prefer to find answers for themselves rather than reach out via telephone or e-mail, while only 28% of consumers prefer to contact companies via a telephone or e-mail rather than finding an answer on the company’s web site, according to the report.

Moreover, virtual agents can also help drive cross-sales by providing personalized product suggestions. For instance, Finaref, a French consumer credit and payment protection insurance company, reported that when its virtual agent is present on its home or product pages, its overall conversion rates jump 1.8% and 2.7%, respectively. And, when customers have a dialog with the virtual agent, they are 15 times more likely to make a purchase.

However, the Forrester survey found that only 8% of consumers say they are interested in using a virtual agent. But that represents a lack of exposure to the technology, rather than a lack of interest, says the report. Indeed, the report predicts that as online retailers offer virtual agents on their sites, the technology will quickly gain favor among shoppers seeking a fast, self-sufficient solution to their concerns.

Forrester conducted the online survey of 4,653 consumers in October.

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