Virtual Assistants Are Coming Into Their Own

By helping get customers the info they need fast, and freeing up human workers, virtual assistants are now an essential member of any frontline response team.

Stores are shuttered. Offices are closed. And for as long as the measures put in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic last, most organizations -- public and private sector -- are more than ever reliant on their contact centers to help and support their customers. But the sudden and huge increase in call volumes has coincided with the need to protect the contact center workforce that would normally handle them.

Respond now, rewards later

No question: it’s a huge challenge. And it needs a similarly large and rapid response. Getting contact center staff up and running to work from home so that they can respond to customers’ inquiries has to be right at the top of the COVID-19 agenda. It’s essential to meet immediate needs created by the crisis. But there’s a longer-term consideration here, too. Providing customer service that’s as responsive and compassionate as possible now is more likely to increase in positive brand perceptions and customer loyalty post-crisis.  Of course, it stands to reason that the opposite holds true, too.

Building trust during the pandemic is non-negotiable. Organizations that can do this will see the rewards. In fact, customers who trust a brand are three times as likely to not switch for a year and are four more times as likely to share personal data. Eight out of 10 customers who have switched say that the organization they’ve left could have done something to retain them. Getting the customer service response right in this crisis is going to have an impact long after the pandemic is over.  

Onboarding the virtual team

To meet head-on the scale of challenge organizations face to put that response in place fast and at scale, there’s now an unanswerable case for standing up virtual assistants. They can help achieve two vital tasks. The first is to provide automated answers to customers’ basic questions. That relieves human staff so they can focus on more complex and higher priority issues. That’s borne out by research that Accenture’s done which shows that during a time of crisis most customers prefer to turn to contact centers to get answers to urgent and complex issues. And the other essential role virtual assistants can play is to give call center workers faster and better access to the information they need to better support customers.

Up to speed, up to scale

So, what should organizations focus on to get virtual assistants up and running as fast as possible? There are a couple of critical areas to focus on. The first is speed of implementation. That’s going to need the relevant infrastructure, management systems and processes all set up quickly. Next is making sure that virtual assistants are trained on accurate and relevant content. In the context of COVID-19, that means a specific intent library created to address customers’ issues arising from the pandemic, as well as having more general organization and industry specific content.

Virtual support for every organization

All organizations in all industries can benefit from virtual assistants. For example, we’ve been working with public agencies and governments around the world to help them respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes unemployment and benefits agencies who are having to take on a huge surge in inquiries from citizens. Healthcare providers, too, are facing unprecedented demand to support people with help and advice. And businesses, from banks to grocery retailers and airlines to pharmacies, are dealing with spikes in service demands that they’re unlikely to have seen before.

For all of them, virtual assistants are proving their worth many times over. By helping get customers the basic information they need fast, and freeing-up workers to deal with more complex cases, virtual assistants are now an essential member of any frontline response team. 


Dawn Anderson is senior managing director and global lead for customer, sales and service at Accenture, who is focused on helping clients develop seamless experiences across their customer journeys.


Athina Kanioura is the Chief Analytics Officer and global lead for Applied Intelligence at Accenture. In this role she leads a team of professionals focusing on helping clients scale analytics, AI and automation across the enterprise.