April 2, 2002, 12:00 AM

Identifying when shoppers prefer online virtual help to call center help

Cost-cutting virtual assistants could become a way of life online, but only if they are always accurate, relevant – and polite, says a new study from eGain Communications.


As online companies seek to bring down call center costs, virtual assistants could become a way of life on consumer web sites. Consumers prefer them to call centers for some tasks, such as asking general questions about privacy or payment policies, according to a new study. But whether consumers actually enjoy using them or just tolerate them depends on avoiding key implementation errors. Research commissioned by eGain Communications, a provider of e-service software, shows that accuracy and relevancy of response are the most important factors ensuring a good experience with a virtual assistant.

The survey also identified when faulty execution on others fronts was enough to make users end the session. For example, visitors won’t continue to use a virtual assistant that fails to deliver a satisfactory answer after three tries. Consumers also responded negatively to a virtual assistant pop-up window that covered other windows, and to virtual assistants that are intolerant of common grammatical and spelling errors – queries shouldn’t have to be restated due to unintentional input errors by the user, according to the researchers. Consumers responded better when the virtual assistant appeared constantly, but unobtrusively, on the screen at all times and near, but not at the top, of every the page.

Virtual assistants should be supported by adequate infrastructure when companies choose to put them on their sites, the study concluded, because while visitors like the speed of getting an answer from a virtual assistant, they become frustrated when bandwidth or internal processing issues slow down response time. And even though a virtual assistant is only a digital image, perceived “rudeness” was enough to turn consumers off. One tested error message in the study judged rude by site visitors was “Please, one idea at a time. You don’t have to say everything at once. I can help you better if you ask fewer questions.” A similar response that got a better reaction simply asked visitors if they would be willing to break up their query into a series of questions so as to receive a better answer.

The Usability Company, a research firm, conducted the study, which was jointly sponsored with eGain by a major European bank.


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