VirtuOz Says Virtual Agents are “Siri for the Enterprise”

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showed the most interest. In 2009, the startup moved its headquarters to the Bay Area in order to tap the local pool of engineering talent and go after the larger North American market. That’s also when the company raised $11.4 million in Series B funding, with Menlo Park, CA-based Mohr Davidow Ventures in the lead, and gave the CEO job to Adams, who’d previously led another MDV portfolio company called Sabrix. Today about a third of the VirtuOz’s 70 employees work from Emeryville.

The company’s virtual agents are simultaneously versatile and limited. If you go to VirtuOz’s own site, an agent named Chloe (after Adams’ third daughter, not the spy-tech whiz on 24) can answer your questions about the company’s history or the cost and features of the virtual agent technology. But she doesn’t know much about the world outside the company—even how VirtuOz’s software is different from that of competitors Next IT, noHold, or Creative Virtual, for example. If there’s a question she can’t figure out, she’ll direct you to a support form or a toll-free number. But overall, VirtuOz’s agents are a long way from passing the Turing Test: you won’t be tempted to wonder whether there’s a real person on the other side of the screen.

PayPal's VirtuOz virtual agent Sarah on the iPhone

But that’s not really the point. The point is that interacting with VirtuOz’s virtual agent is more rewarding than sifting through a community support forum or FAQ document—and a lot more fun than waiting on hold to speak with a human.

VirtuOz prices its service based on the number of customer conversations a client expects its agents will handle each month. The bottom-line argument for virtual agent software, of course, is that it’s more economical than hiring real people to staff call centers or chat systems. But Adams warns that companies shouldn’t think of a virtual agent as a way to avoid having to talk to customers. “It’s one-tenth the cost of any human-assisted channel, but there’s a balancing act between lowering costs and keeping the quality of the user experience high,” he says.

A good customer experience, even if it’s with a virtual assistant, can leave a positive impression that benefits a company later, Adams says. In fact, he says VirtuOz’s most enlightened clients think of their virtual agents as part of their branding—and are paying for them in part out of their marketing budgets. “It’s actually a shift from customer avoidance to customer engagement,” he says.

Adams says the advent of Watson and Siri have made VirtuOz’s sales pitch a lot simpler. Executives nod when he explains that VirtuOz is basically Siri for enterprises. “It’s less about the cleverness and the sassy attitude and more about the things that really sit behind Siri,” he says. “One is natural language search. Siri is getting you to the one right answer. We have been doing that for a while, but now when consumers go to a company website they are going to want the same experience.”

Adams also points to Siri’s heavy use of context and personalization. Before answering a question, Siri frequently checks on a user’s current location or dips into their address book or calendar. In the same way, a virtual agent should not only recognize a customer, but understand what transactions they have underway and be able to jump in with helpful suggestions, Adams says.

After all, why shouldn’t a customer support site be at least as smart as your phone? “We’ve already seen the consumerization of IT, as people bring their devices to work,” says Adams. “Now we’re going to see the consumerization of the enterprise in the way it interacts with customers.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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