Fifty-seven percent of consumers are likely to abandon an online purchase if they can’t find quick answers to questions, according to Forrester. “If 50 percent of customers can’t find the answer they’re looking for on a site, they leave the site and become what eBay calls ‘silent sufferers,’" says Mark Gaydos, VP of Worldwide Marketing for VirtuOZ, a Paris and San Francisco-based virtual avatar (VA) company. Most consumers want to find the information themselves on a site, whether through search or FAQ's; email and call centers are often a last resort. VirtuOZ merges the two, fusing the facility of search with the engagement of conversation, providing companies with virtual avatars that turn customer service search and FAQ’s into a dialogue with a virtual representative personalized to the brand. The goal is to increase customer engagement, while reducing the time involved in answering customers’ questions and resolving their problems.

Gaydos says that companies that use VirtuOZ reach a resolution rate of 75 percent almost immediately. VirtuOZ monitors the unsuccessful conversations and modifies the agent, raising the resolution rate to over 90 percent.

“That’s higher than a lot of other methods,” Gaydos says. “Especially FAQ’s and search.”

One of the great benefits of virtual agents is price.

According to Forrester, telephone customer service costs over $12 per contact for technical service, over $6 for call-center customer service, over $5 for web chat or callback, and $2.50 to over $5 for email.

The approximate cost per virtual agent: $1.00 or less.

“To reinvigorate online customer service, eBusiness professionals should give virtual agents another look,” writes Forrester’s Diane Clarkson.

There’s another aspect to avatars, too: building brand loyalty. With avatars there is both a personal and ludic quality.

“We had one guy who would flirt with one of our avatars,” Gaydos says.

Fans of some VirtuOZ VA’s have built fan pages for the avatars. When fnac (a French chain that’s like Best Buy, but even more amazing) took their avatar, Clara, off their site, customers were unhappy.

“We took her off the site and there was a protest,” Gaydos says. “People have that emotional connection with an avatar.”

The most telling thing about the consumer connection is this: 69 percent of customers end their dialogue with “Goodbye.”

Virtual Agents are Just the First Step.

VirtuOZ envisions the agents' proactivity becoming much more advanced in the future.

A level beyond VA’s are virtual assistants, which store your data and therefore know more about you, for example which products you’ve purchased or what problems you’ve had with them.

The third level, the virtual advocate, is not too far from Tim Berners-Lee canonical 2001 vision of the semantic web. Virtual advocates use your data to operate proactively on your behalf, for example offering you deals up front for things you’d be likely to purchase based on your history.

Natural language processing (NLP) is one of the keys to virtual agents. For its language processing, VirtuOZ uses dependency grammar, in which words are defined by their context, not their specific order. The team started with Chomskyian syntax, which is more dependent on groups.

“But Chomsky didn’t work,” says Alexandre Lebrun, founder and CEO of VirtuOZ.

The team found out about the work of Sylvain Kahane, professor of linguistics at the University of Paris X. VirtuOZ based their machine-language algorithms on Kahane’s work, and even ended up contributing to it, as Kahane used VirtuOZ’s technology to further his linguistic analyses.

VirtuOZ has a relationship with the University of Paris VII’s Formal Linguistics Laboratory (PDF), which uses VirtuOZ’s technology to “improve human-machine dialogue and to provide an appropriate formal description in order to make its implementation possible."

"The practical objective is to successfully interpret questions and fragmentary, elliptical responses,” according to the lab's mission.

VirtuOZ was founded in Paris in 2002. In 2008, the company expanded to the U.S., with offices near San Francisco’s South Park. In Q3 2008 the company received $11.4 million in series B funding, led by Mohr Davidow Ventures.

VirtuOZ was ranked 36th in the 2009 Deloitte Technology Fast 500 EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa), and 9th in Deloitte’s EMEA software rankings. Its virtual agents are currently employed by eBay, H&R Block, Michelin, L’Oréal, PayPal as well as large European companies like fnac and the telecom provider SFR.

By Mark Alvarez