Digital self service

Virtual Assistants are not Virtual Advisors

If the promotional videos are to be believed, Virtual Assistants are the future of sales and service. You see images of smiling customers talking into their phones, asking their Virtual Assistant (who almost always seems to have a female name!!!) to book a flight, transfer some money or order some flowers for a friend. It looks so simple ­- you just voice your request and the rest is seamlessly taken care of for you.

Increasingly, companies are resolving the many technical dependencies that currently prevent their Virtual Assistants from moving out of the innovation labs and into production. Legacy systems are being integrated; natural language processing is getting more accurate and the predictive accuracies are improving. It’s just a matter of time before most companies will be able to offer you a Virtual Assistant (hopefully with a few male names to balance things out), ready to execute any instruction or request via chat, voice or web.

What few will be in a position to offer you is a Virtual Advisor.

The difference between assistance and advice

A Virtual Advisor is not simply an executor of instruction. It is a digital expert capable of offering you advice.

To better understand the difference between assistance and advice, here are a few examples.

Imagine you have a cough, and you need it to go away. Who do you go to? Your local pharmacist or your local doctor? Your decision usually depends on the perceived risk of error. If you feel it’s just a mild cough and you suspect it is the start of a mild cold, you may well go to the pharmacist who will simply look to prescribe the right solution based on a pre-determined problem. Their value is working out which medication is best for you to fix a cough from a mild cold. And the risk is low, if it does not get better in the next week or so you can go to your doctor.

If  however you were worried that your cough may be serious, and you are not sure of its cause, you will more likely choose to see a doctor. The doctor will not start by looking at all the possible solutions (medications) for a cough. S/he will first want to diagnose the root cause of the cough, as this will significantly impact on the type of solution that will be prescribed. This is because the cough may be caused by a mild bacterial infection, a more serious viral infection or even a more sinister cause such as lung cancer. The cause impacts heavily on the solutions that will be considered.

It is thanks to this ability to help you work out the cause of your distress that you are willing to pay your doctor for their advice. It is their ability to operate in the problem domain, not simply the solution domain that sets them apart from the pharmacist.

The same applies to financial advice. If you are clear about your need e.g. a transactional account, then you may well feel happy to engage with a financial assistant who will simply help you choose the right transactional account based on your different feature/benefit preferences. If however you are not sure what you actually need, a financial advisor is who you may prefer to see. S/he would typically start by first analyzing you as an individual and investigating your broader financial needs before moving across to determining the right solutions to match your needs. Like the doctor, they too will start in the problem domain before moving to the solution domain.

Consider buying a camera. If you know what you are after but need help choosing between three different makes of cameras, you may well be happy to chat to a store assistant. However, if you are new to photography you may prefer to chat to someone who takes the time to really understand what it is you need before then offering you a recommended solution. What you need is an advisor.

This multi-tiered diagnostic; the ability to diagnose you (your profile) and your need or problem before then diagnosing the right solution or product, is what separates an assistant from an advisor.

An assistant needs you to know what your problem or need is – they will then help you work out the best solution or answer. This solution may be to execute a specific instruction or identify a relevant solution.

An advisor assumes you are not clear about your need or problem, and therefore aims to help you clarify your situation and need/problem before moving on to explore relevant solutions, answers or actions.

So why then are most Virtual Assistants not able to offer advice?

Virtual Assistants are designed to accurately work out the customers intent (instruction) and then offer an accurate response (answer/action). They are not designed to work in the problem domain prior to moving into the solution domain.

If you are not sure, ask a Virtual Assistant off one of the major retail sites for help understanding your situation or problem. You will soon realise that all ‘advice’ is either a link to related information, or a product recommendation based on ‘next best buy’ or ‘other people like you also choose this’.

That is why when we built CLEVVA we ensured that you could capture logic in multiple domains. We ensured that logic did not need to be captured in restrictive decision trees, but could be driven off data tables and relationships. The result is that you can build powerful Virtual Advisor apps – digital experts that can offer your customers help in clarifying their problems and needs before then helping them work out the best solutions based on all the different product, policy and procedural rules of the company.

Because our Virtual Advisor apps are driven off prescribed logic, you are assured that the right advice is always given, and that you have a detailed record to prove it.

So if you are looking to offer your customers more than a digital conduit to their instructions, you may want to consider building them a Virtual Advisor capable of providing consistent, compliant and value-adding advice.