This week’s report is a product evaluation of Next IT’s virtual agent offering Alme (All me). The report updates our November 28, 2012 product evaluation. Just a reminder, Alme is the software behind about 20 deployments, all for B2C organizations. You’ve might have had some of your travel questions answered by Jenn of Alaska Airlines or Alex of United Airlines. Next IT is one of the pioneers in virtual agent technology. The firm was founded in 2002 in Spokane, WA and introduced its first product in 2004.
Remember that Alme uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) to analyze customers’ question and to match them with answers in its knowledgebase and in external applications. Key components are an NLP engine and a language model. The language model specifies language constructs that adapt the Alme to the lexicon of the deployment’s domain. Analysis of customers’ questions by the engine, using the language model allows Alme’s virtual agents’ answers to be dynamic and personalize-able through the access and analysis of data from external applications.
So what’s new in Alme? Lots. In the year or so since our last evaluation, Next IT has been quite busy. Its developers have made Alme a more attractive, more powerful offering that’s easier to deploy and to manage through significant improvements to its language model and its tools.
- Language model improvements help virtual agents deliver more accurate and more personalized answers and solutions to customers’ questions and problems. For example, Alme can use information within customers’ questions to establish a context for their “conversations” with virtual agent. This context makes conversations more natural and helps virtual agents deliver answers and solutions more quickly. Also, Alme now has a new conversational model that helps virtual agents perform complex tasks for customers. And, another new language model feature helps virtual agents handle ambiguous questions and questions that contain idiomatic phrases.
- New and improved tools make virtual agents faster and easier to deploy and manage and make Next IT’s clients more self-sufficient. In our previous evaluation, we had identified limitations in change management and team support. Next IT has addressed those limitations quite nicely in the tools of the current version. Also, the new Response Management toolset decouples the complex work of language model design, specification, and maintenance from simpler content/knowledge management work. As a result, organizations that license Alme can do more of the work to deploy and manage Alme virtual agents and become less dependent of Next IT professional services.
Alme’s key strength and most significant differentiator has been its capability to deliver very sophisticated answers to complex questions. Language model improvements make Alme stronger. For example, healthcare companies might use the new conversation model to collect the information required to complete an insurance application, a referral to a specialist, or a follow-up reminder to a prescription. On the topic of healthcare, Next IT has begun a major and very timely initiative in that market segment. On October 10, 2013, the firm announced Alme for Healthcare. Alme for Healthcare uses all of the new language model capabilities, especially the new conversational model for both of its applications—a clinical application that helps inform, coach, and engage patients and an administrative application that helps patients and administrative/support staff with forms, processes, and information retrieval. Look for announcements about the companies using Alme for Healthcare soon.
Improved tools make Alme more attractive and more competitive. Time and cost to deployment have been issues for all customer service applications. Deploying virtual agent products has been particularly expensive because language models are complex, domain-specific, deployment-specific, and proprietary. Companies that license virtual agent software depend on their suppliers to design, specify, implement, test, and manage language models and knowledgebases. Time to deployment can be pretty long, approaching a year in some cases. Next IT has provided all the services for initial virtual agent deployment and ongoing management. Some of its customers use those services. However, new tools and tools improvements give customers the opportunity to do much of this work themselves and give Next IT’s professional services consultants the facilities that speed and simplify the tasks that they perform for customers. The results: shortened time and reduced cost to deployment, faster ROI, and faster and easier ongoing management.
Virtual agents have become far more than avatars and FAQs in a box on your support page. Alme demonstrates and proves that virtual agents can do serious customer service work and Next IT continues to make Alme more attractive. A virtual agent should be an integral component of every customer service application portfolio.