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Virtual Customer Service Agents: Any Help?

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A new study shows how to simulate genuine, friendly and personal customer service online.

friendliness, expertise, smiling, customer service, virtual costumer service agents, commercial research,

Perhaps you are able to recall this, but there was a time that if you had a question or a complaint, you could go to a building, with a desk, and there was an actual person to talk to and get annoyed with. Nowadays, you type hours of your life away writing emails or filling in contact forms, while being on hold at the customer service for days in a row. However, not long ago, the virtual customer service agent (VCSA) appeared. A kind, patient and helpful chatbot answers all your questions, all delivered with a smile.

VSCAs
VCSAs are computer-generated characters that simulate a company representative and interact with customers through artificial intelligence. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Amsterdam and the VU University found that these VCSAs are able to provide online service with personal support and could be perceived as real humans and evoke social responses. This research addresses how classical service agent characteristics can be used to create a humanlike service agent online. The researchers focus on three classical characteristics: friendliness, expertise and smiling.

An experimental survey simulated a fictional setting in which the customer could interact with the VCSA. There were three manipulations: smiling (a smiling face vs. a neutral face), the communication style (socially oriented vs. task oriented), and anthropomorphism ( a human face vs. a cartoon).

Findings
What they found, was partly surprising. First, smiling did not increase a sense of social presence and personal contact. Although the stereotype of customer service is an excessively smiling and slightly too handsome person, this smiling is not beneficial for your customer experience. Furthermore, it also does not seem to matter to the customers whether they have an image of a human agent in front of them, or a cartoon. Anthropomorphism does not evoke a more social response. And lastly, as expected, socially oriented VCSAs had a more positive effect on personalization and social presence, and were  perceived as more friendly and having more expertise. This research thus shows that virtual customer service benefits the most from focusing on social interaction, instead of task-oriented service.

Scientific vs Commercial Research
Although these outcomes are definitely interesting, there is this nagging thought that instead of helping the scientific community along, this study is mainly targeted at commercial implementation. Of course, there is an inherent tension between commercial goals and increasing scientific knowledge for merely science itself, but it is not always clear what the actual goal of a study is. With subjects like this, it is possible that the findings are merely beneficial for companies that want to come across as customer-friendly as possible, while spending as few money as possible on customer service.

Do you have personal experience with VSCAs? What do you think about them? And what do you think of employing research for commercial goals, like this?

And, to see the future of VSCAs, watch Spike Jonze’s new movie ‘Her’

Reference:
Photo: Flickr, IronRodArt – Royce Bair (“Star Shooter”)
Tibert Verhagen, Jaap van Nes, Frans Feldberg, & Willemijn van Dolen (2014). Virtual Customer Service Agents: Using Social
Presence and Personalization to Shape Online
Service Encounters Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication DOI: 10.1111/jcc4.12066

friendliness, expertise, smiling, customer service, virtual costumer service agents, commercial research

This post was written by Nura Rutten:
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