Executive Q&A: The Power of Optus' Virtual Agent

Chris Smith, the head of online for the telecommunications company, discusses the correlation between the company's virtual agent and customer empowerment.
Customer Service

Busy customers have become increasingly interested in finding ways to self-serve. In fact, as this 1to1 Media article highlights, automated self-service is a growing global trend. Forward-thinking business leaders have recognized the need to provide self-service capabilities, not only because their customers are requesting them, but also because they help lower the company's service costs.

Optus, a teleco provider in Australia and New Zealand, is one company that has embraced this trend and made the necessary changes to provide customers with the ability to self-serve through a virtual agent, which the brand introduced in May 2013.

As Chris Smith, the company's head of online, explains, the Optus Virtual Agent is designed to answer simple and commonly asked questions that don't require live agent response. "She's here to empower our customers to go online and resolve their low-complexity queries on their own," he notes.

Further, the interface, developed by IntelliResponse, allows customers to also see the top trending topics on the same page, including other customers' questions. "Ultimately, the virtual agent benefits all customers as she manages simpler queries, freeing up agents in other areas like web chat and the call center to handle more complex questions," Smith notes.

In this interview with 1to1 Media, Smith talks about the benefits of the virtual agent and the self-service trends that Optus is seeing.

1to1 Media: Can you share the recent self-service trends that you've been seeing?

Chris Smith: We're definitely seeing self-service increase as more customers have more options and choose different channels depending on their needs. Web chat on mobile is proving incredibly popular - we've even heard stories of customers using this while they're in meetings at work. Finally, agility is becoming more important for our customers as they start conversations in one channel and then finish the interaction in another.

1to1: What do you attribute to customers' increased propensity to want to self-serve?

CS: We know customers want to be in control and have the flexibility to manage their needs when and how they want. They may not have time to call up the call centers and go into a store so they prefer to self-serve. Above all, customers expect rapid, accurate, and consistent answers.

1to1: Can you share some figures that highlight the move to self-service?

CS: Before we introduced the Optus Virtual Agent on our "Contact Us" page, more than 70 percent of consumers chose not to use or weren't aware of our self-service options and instead called our call centers. Now, less than 39 percent choose to call, leaving the other 60 percent to self-serve online.

1to1: How is the virtual agent helping improve the customer experience?

CS: The Optus Virtual Agent answers questions using natural language, so it's really easy for customers to use. They simply type in a question the way they would verbally ask it and get an instant response. If customers need more help, the virtual agent offers Chat with a live agent transferring the history of the customer's journey to the live chat agent so that the customer doesn't have to repeat what they have done so far.

1to1: The Optus Virtual Agent has been asked more than 3.6 million questions since it was launched less than a year ago. Can you share the most popular questions?

CS: As she was originally only located on the "Contact Us" page until recently, not surprisingly her most popular question was "How do I contact Optus?" In November 2013 the Optus Virtual Agent was moved to the Help & Support area of the site. Here are the most popular self-service questions: When does my mobile contact end? How do I use My Account? I forgot my password. How do I contact Sales? What mobile plans do your offer? I'd like help with my Home Broadband modem setup. How do I pay my bill? How do I change my plan? I need help using my mobile or tablet? How do I check the balance of my bill?

1to1: How much quicker is asking a question to the virtual agent compared to contacting the call center?

CS: The virtual agent responses instantly whereas it takes longer calling the call center and going through the recorded options to get to an agent.

1to1: Can you also explain how this is helping Optus reduce service costs?

CS: Cost savings are achieved through call deflection and decreased volumes through our call centers. We've also recently refreshed our website, www.optus.com.au and mobile app, which will hopefully drive more customers to self-serve.

1to1: Has this system helped improve satisfaction among call center agents by reducing the number of simple questions that get directed to them?

CS: We have retrained our call center agents to help them to better problem-solve customer issues. We've removed a lot of our old metrics like call handling time so agents can focus on solving problems the first time around. The Optus Virtual Agent helps with this by reducing simple questions so the agents can focus on the more complex ones. Our Web chat agents are now well aware of the virtual agent tool and later this year we will make it available on all agent consoles.

1to1: Does the system learn from customers' questions? If so, how has it evolved since you implemented it?

CS: Yes the virtual agent is self-learning. When we first launched, the Optus Virtual Agent was able to return a response to manually entered questions 78 percent of the time. Now, 94 percent of customer questions return an answer with a 93 percent accuracy rate.

1to1: Can you share any future plans to improve self-service?

CS: We recently added a virtual agent to our Help & Support section of the Optus site and we may add in the Optus Virtual Agent avatar this year. We're also looking at adding things like Facebook integration, assisted form filling and integration with the My Optus App.