What Is a Virtual Agent?

A question mark in a chat bubble.

Here’s the lowdown on what a virtual agent is, how it can help scale your customer support team, how to choose the right virtual agent platform, as well as the benefits of customer service automation.

What is a virtual agent?

A virtual agent — which is used synonymously with “intelligent virtual assistant” or “IVA” — is a software program that is powered by artificial intelligence (AI) to engage with humans in a conversational way. They can understand the way people speak and respond to requests, mimicking human interactions and executing certain tasks, especially simple or repetitive ones. Virtual agents are often used in customer service automation to help scale a support team’s capacity and deliver better, more efficient customer experiences. 

Virtual agents vs. chatbots

Virtual agents and IVAs are sometimes confused with chatbots. And although both can hold simulated conversations with customers, chatbots are restricted by what they’ve been programmed to talk about. Virtual agents, however, use conversational AI technology, including natural language understanding (NLU) and natural language processing (NLP) to determine the intent behind a user’s question and answer accordingly, even if they have not been explicitly programmed to do so. Virtual agents also use machine learning to retain contextual information and learn and improve as time goes on. 

Not all virtual agents are created equal

Different IVAs and virtual agent platforms have different levels of sophistication. According to the software review platform G2, capabilities of an intelligent virtual assistant include being able to understand conversational requests using NLP, being able to edit conversation flows, and being able to route conversations to a human agent.

But there are many other capabilities to consider when deciding on a virtual agent platform for customer service automation. Of course, every customer support team’s needs will differ, but in general, the best virtual agent platforms:

  • Automate omnichannel customer interactions (including chat, email, social media messages, and more)
  • Integrate into your CRM system — like Zendesk or Freshworks — so it can access your customers’ data and provide personalized support
  • Allow for backend API integrations — such as with your order management system — to automate even more processes end-to-end
  • Are easy to use and train and require no coding
  • Can communicate in multiple languages without using a translation layer (like Google Translate), so it can speak with your customers at native fluency

The combination of all these features results in what is essentially a superagent: an agent that completely understands your brand and its processes, just like any human agent, but this agent never has to take a break, speaks every language and covers all digital support channels, 24/7. (Psst: Ultimate's virtual agent platform definitely fits into the superagent category of support automation providers.)

The benefits of implementing a virtual agent for your customer support

When a company launches a virtual agent, the overall goals are usually to automate processes that save the company money and time while maintaining excellent customer service. But there are many benefits of automating your customer support. 

Virtual agents drive efficiency

Because many simple tasks or repetitive processes can be completely automated, this means that your human agents are relieved of these types of tasks. This means that they can focus their efforts on what they do best: the more complex cases that need a human touch. For example, with Ultimate's customer service automation platform, you can automate up to 60% of all incoming requests. 

Virtual agents increase customer satisfaction

Today’s customers have higher expectations than ever before. In a recent survey of top CMOs, 71% of respondents agreed that buyers expect an experience that is personalized to their needs and preferences, and 74% agree that buyers expect an immediate response to their questions.

Any old chatbot can ensure that customer questions are answered quickly, but a virtual agent with API integrations can deliver efficient and personalized responses that delight your customers 24/7. 

Virtual agents increase employee happiness

We focus a lot on customer satisfaction, but employee satisfaction is just as important. Customer service agents can easily get bogged down with mundane tasks. This can result in frustration and high turnover rates. By taking care of the simple queries, virtual agents empower employees to work on more complex tasks. This results in customer service becoming a more rewarding and sought-after career field, reducing attrition rates and increasing agent satisfaction. 

In an increasingly fast-paced, digital world, customer support teams are having to scale quickly, and it’s clear that virtual agents and customer service automation are the solution. In fact, in a recent Deloitte Digital survey

“79% of contact center leaders said they plan to invest in greater AI capabilities in the next two years.”

And it’s no surprise why. Overall, virtual agents can dramatically change how your business engages with its customers, streamline processes, and positively impact both customer and agent satisfaction.

Ready to start automating your customer support?

Here’s how to choose the right virtual agent for your business.