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The upside from the increased investment in intelligent voice agents is an opportunity for businesses to revamp their old, out of date IVR technology PHOTO: Crystal

[24]7, provider of intent-driven customer experience applications, rolled out AIVA, its conversational virtual agent for self-service in mid-August. It was just the latest move in the growing self-service customer experience space.

"Consumers can begin a conversation through self-service, and complete the transaction with a live chat agent who has context of the previous conversation," said Scott Horn, chief marketing officer of [24]7. "The ability to use channels interchangeably, pick up where they left off, and never have to start over, results in a superior customer experience."

A Self-Service Refresh

[24]7 is one of a growing number of companies advancing the frontiers of the self-service customer experience with its investments in intelligent virtual agents. These investments range from omnichannel support to data tagging to intent prediction, said Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting and author of the recent, "2017 Intelligent Virtual Agent (IVA) Product and Marketing Report" (fee charged). 

The list of technologies in which these companies are investing money is a long one she said, a list which also includes better content generation, task management and auto content generation among others.

Other companies investing in this space also include Artificial SolutionsAstute SolutionsCreative VirtualInteractionsNext IT and SmartAction, to name a few.

There is plenty to cheer about with these companies making such investments, Fluss told CMSWire. Chief among them: with the industry moving to IVAs, the aging, woefully underinvested interactive voice response (IVR) systems that so many companies have will get a refresh. 

"As few as 10 percent of companies have made a substantial investment in IVRs to update them, improve their scripts, their voice user interfaces, the typically bad pacing," Fluss said. "In the past 10 years a lot has changed, including customer expectations."

How Vendors Define AI

There's a catch though. These investments are improving IVAs but they haven't yet realized the full potential of what IVA is expected to be, which is artificial intelligence.

Vendors will say their current products have AI, Fluss said, but it is not true AI. Rather, she says, when many of these vendors refer to AI, what they mean is a very smart rule-based type of application. "We are slowly migrating in the direction of true AI, but we are not there yet," she said.

Fluss defined IVA as having three core technologies: AI, machine learning and natural language processing. Most of these vendors are strong in the latter category, Fluss said — and are working their way to true AI.

In her report, she gave a more expansive definition: "IVAs are designed to emulate human conversations and interactions. They can provide assistance for many activities that previously required the attention of live agents, including customer service, help desk, product information, marketing, sales, placing orders and reservations, and more. These solutions are capable of delivering an intelligent and personalized customer experience."

None of this is not to detract from the current development cycle, which Fluss described as wonderful.

"Within three years we will have some rudimentary true AI-based applications in the world of self service," she said.

Self-Learning on the Horizon

Already, she wrote in her report, next-gen IVAs with more self-learning capabilities are on the horizon. "In the future, IVAs will use an increasing amount of self- learning technology that allows them to get ‘smarter’ over time and adapt to customers’ individual preferences as they ‘learn’ from past interactions to improve their understanding of what customers want and need," the report said.