Web-based avatars can interact with customers, answer basic questions, and navigate a company’s site, but are they smart enough to replace a knowledgeable customer service rep? In most cases probably not, but when the City Council of San Carlos, CA, had to eliminate a position from their administrative budget they decided to find out.
“We had to cut our receptionist position at City Hall and initially the idea was to place an informational kiosk at the front desk so people could still navigate the building and find phone numbers for city agencies,” says Jasmine Frost, senior systems analyst and webmaster for the city. “I didn’t think that gave our constituents the best experience, and I had heard about avatars so I went to the Web, found SitePal, and created one.”
SitePal, created by Oddcast, is a subscription service that offers customizable avatars. For a $20 monthly subscription fee, the City of San Carlos is able to replace a $90,000/year position. The avatar Frost created is named Carly, and she cheerfully greets visitors to City Hall, offering them a menu of choices that looks like a Monopoly board. She can provide phone numbers for city departments, direct visitors to rooms within City Hall, and answer commonly asked questions.
Early on in the implementation, Frost fielded many calls from citizens that were unsure how to use the avatar. “Initially people were intimidated by Carly and they didn’t know if they should touch the screen, or talk to her, or what to do,” Frost says. “Especially our seniors weren’t comfortable with it, but once I show them how to use the system everyone loves it.”
Frost says she had support from the top throughout the implementation, with city councilors saying that as long as she keeps customer service levels high then they are behind the program 100 percent. “I’m not aware of any other cities taking this approach to technology, so it was somewhat of a leap of faith,” Frost says. “Now that it’s been publicized, I get calls from everywhere from Montana to Florida asking me about Carly because cities are facing budget cuts of their own.”
Thanks to the press coverage Carly has received, Frost is also planning to “jazz her up” with a 2.0 version. She’d like to add a suggestion box so people could give her more feedback, and she’s also looking at adding an artificial intelligence capability so Carly can learn how to answer more questions.
“For the friendly experience an avatar gives you, it’s surprisingly easy to create and implement, and it’s something people really like. “It’s different, new, and the people who have used Carly say she’s very simple to use. We hope to restore the position we had to cut, but in the meantime this is a great alternative.”