What is an Intelligent Virtual Agent (IVA)?

A robot surrounded by gears, graduation hats and a magnifying glass.

Intelligent virtual agents (IVAs) are often confused with chatbots; however, IVAs are considerably more advanced than regular chatbots and can engage with a customer in a manner that mimics a human.

Intelligent virtual agents (also known as “intelligent virtual assistants”, “IVAs” or “virtual agents”) are AI-powered software that can engage with customers in a conversational way. They’re essentially digital assistants that can understand human speech and respond the same way a person would, especially when it comes to simple, repetitive requests.

Although sometimes confused with chatbots, virtual agents are actually much more sophisticated. And since recent advancements in AI are making IVAs easy-to-use and cost-effective, more and more businesses are adopting virtual agents instead of simple chatbots. Chatbots imitate human dialogue to a certain extent but are limited by a given script. Whereas IVA’s initiate context-related, human-like dialogues:

If a user asks a question about an order and enters an order number, the virtual agent saves this information and can access it again later in the conversation. If the next question is about changing the delivery address, the bot still knows who is talking and what it is about. One huge benefit of an intelligent virtual assistant, is that they are able to keep track of information throughout a conversation and learn as they go.

Unlike chatbots, IVAs can understand and reply to any inquiry, even if they have not been explicitly programmed to do so. Through a combination of natural language processing (NLP), natural language understanding (NLU), machine learning, and AI, intelligent virtual agents are able to recognize human speech, understand the intent behind it, and respond in a way that mimics human conversation.

By using machine learning and deep learning, virtual agents are able to build up a large vocabulary, understand slang and misspelled words, and learn from each experience. This means that they are able to give precise and personalized responses to inquiries and only get better as time goes on. That’s a clear advantage compared to traditional chatbots, which can only provide scripted responses and are unable to learn and grow.

Get an in-depth look at IVAs and how they work in our guest post on G2's Learn Hub.

How intelligent virtual agents help businesses

IVAs can change the way that a business deals with its customers. Machines examine data and provide personalized insights to customers in a manner that simply cannot be matched by a customer service agent. By implementing virtual agent technology, businesses are able to deliver 24/7 support with almost no downtime. Customer issues can be resolved quickly and with minimum effort from customer service agents and customers themselves. IVAs — especially when they’ve been integrated into a CRM platform — help businesses to tailor experiences to individual customers and keep track of their previous behaviours, which also helps to streamline interactions. Businesses save money by automating aspects of their customer service process as there are no costs associated with training new staff. What’s more, the existing customer service agents will be able to take on more challenging work and leave the repetitive tasks to the IVA, which results in happier staff and reduced attrition rates.

Intelligent virtual assistants and customer service

By introducing intelligent virtual agents, businesses can dramatically improve their customer service processes. The entire process of dealing with customer queries is streamlined: there is no need to be waiting in queues to speak to an agent, and IVAs can respond to queries at any time. The impact that this has on a customer's experience is massive. Waiting in long queues either on the phone or for live chat support often leaves customers with a negative perception of the business. But companies that have adopted virtual agents can almost completely eliminate wait times and help customers access the information that they require in a heartbeat.

Check out a virtual agent in action