Siri's Impact on Virtual Agent Expectations

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By humanizing the experience, Apple's Siri has increased expectations of what virtual agents should sound like.

What do Zooey Deschanel, Samuel L. Jackson, John Malkovich, and Martin Scorsese have in common? They all talk to Apple's Siri as if she's a human being, someone who understands what they need.

And, in Apple's advertisements, Siri answers back, helping Deschanel order tomato soup on a rainy day, tells Jackson where he can find organic mushrooms for a homemade date night dinner, shares a joke with Malkovich, and even elicits a compliment from Scorsese after helping him reschedule his appointments.
Apple is showcasing Siri as a quasi-human who is able to have a conversation with iPhone 4 owners. And this perception has completely revolutionized customers' expectations of virtual agents, including the sometimes-dreaded IVR. As Tara Kelly, president and CEO of Splice Software, put it, people are expecting a more human-like interaction when they speak to a virtual agent.

"Siri has raised the bar, making people think and feel differently," Kelly said when I caught up with her yesterday at SpeechTEK 2012. Siri has not only shown that a virtual agent can stop being robotic and instead take an almost-human persona, but by making this solution available to consumers, Apple has also shown that this is the way things can and should be done. Now that consumers have experienced Siri, they no longer want to hear a robotic IVR which makes them repeat themselves endlessly when they try to get their service needs answered. Additionally, humanized virtual agents are likely to elicit more trust from customers, Kelly argued. "Anything automated is expected to be conversational," Kelly said.

Dave Rich, LumenVox's CEO, agreed. "Siri has created popular awareness of what virtual agents can sound like," he said. But it goes beyond the way the virtual agent sounds. Siri seems to have personality. Not only does she try to help customers find a solution to their problems without them having to type their question on a keyboard, but whenever she doesn't know an answer, she comes up with a clever reply.

"Siri has given new life to the industry," Rich said. He argued that once they experienced Siri, executives started asking why their organization didn't have such a solution and the virtual agents of the future are expected to be more human-like. "If you can personalize it and make it fun and relevant, you increase the value," Kelly added.

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