Next IT Alme: Helping Customers Do All Their Work

On September 2, 2004, we published my article, “May I Help You?” It was a true story about my experience as a boy working in my dad’s paint and wallpaper store. The experience taught me all about customer service.

The critical lesson that I learned from my dad and from working in the store was customers want and need your help for every activity that they perform in doing business with you from their first contact with you through their retirement.

That help was answering customers’ questions and solving customers’ problems. That’s the usual way that we think of customer service, helping with exceptions, the times that customers can not do their work. But, that help was also performing “normal” activities on customers’ behalves—providing the right rollers, brushes, and solvents for the type of paint they wanted to use, for example, or collaborating with customers to perform normal activities together—selecting a paint color for trim or a wallpaper pattern.

At Kramer’s Paint, my dad or I delivered all of that help—normal work and exceptions work. In your business, you deliver the help to perform customers’ normal planning, shopping, buying, installing/using, and (account) management activities through the software of self-service web sites and/or mobile apps or through the live interactions of your call center agents, in-store associates, or field reps. And, you deliver the help for customers’ exception activities through customer self-service apps on the web, social networks, or mobile devices or through the live interactions of customer service staff in call centers, stores, and in the field.

Virtual Assistants Crossover to Perform Normal Activities

Recently, in our on customer service research, we’ve begun to see virtual assistant software apps crossover from helping customers not only with the exception activities to performing normal activities on customers’ behalves, activities like taking orders, completing applications, and managing accounts. We wrote about this crossover a bit in our last post about IBM Watson Engagement Advisor’s Dialog facility. And, we provided links to crossover examples of Creative Virtual V-Person at Chase Bank and Nuance Nina Mobile at Domino’s.

Alme, the virtual assistant software app from Spokane, WA based supplier Next IT, can crossover to help customers perform normal, too. In fact, Alme has always performed normal activities for customers. One of our first reports about virtual assistants, a report that we published on March 13, 2008, discussed Jenn, Alaska Airlines’ Alme-based virtual assistant. We asked Jenn to find a flight for us through this request, “BOS to Seattle departing December 24 returning January 1.” Jenn did a lot of work to perform this normal activity. Her response was fast, accurate, and complete. We asked Jenn again in our preparation for this post. “She” prepared the “Available Flights” page for us. Once again, her answer was fast, accurate, and complete. All that’s left to do is select the flights. The illustration below shows our request and Jenn’s response.

alaska airlines blog

Next IT Alme Provides Excellent Support for Normal Activities

Alme provides these excellent facilities for performing normal activities, facilities that are one of its key strengths and competitive differentiators:

  • Support for complex, multi-step interactions
  • Rules-based personalization
  • Integration with external applications
  • Let’s take a closer look at them.

Support for Complex, Multi-Step Interactions

For normal activities, complex, multi-step interactions help virtual assistants collect the information needed to complete an insurance or loan application, order a meal, or configure a mobile device and the telecommunications services to support it, for example. Alme supports complex, multi-step interactions with Directives and Goals.

Directives

Directives are hierarchical dialogs of prompt and response interactions between Alme virtual assistants and customers. They’re stored and managed in Alme’s knowledgebase and Alme provides tools for building and maintaining them. Directive’s dialogs begin when Alme’s processing of a customer’s request matches the request to one of the nodes in a Directive. The node presents its prompt to the customer as a text box into which the customer enters a text response or as a list of links from which the customer makes a selection. Alme then processes the text responses or the link selections. This processing moves the dialog:

  • To another node in the Directive
  • Out of the Directive
  • Into a different Directive.

That customers’ requests can enter, reenter, or leave Directives at any of their nodes is what makes Directives powerful, flexible, and very useful. Alme’s analysis and matching engine processes every customer request and response to Directive prompts the same way. When the request (re)triggers a Directive, Alme automatically (re)establishes the Directive’s context, including all previous text responses and link selections. For example, financial services companies might use Directives to implement retirement planning for their customers. The customer might leave the Directive to gather information from joint accounts at the bank with the customer’s spouse before returning to the Directive to continue the planning, opening, and funding of an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

Goals

Goals let virtual assistants collect a list of information from customers through prompt and response interactions to help perform and personalize their activities. Virtual assistants store the elements of the list of information that the customer provides within virtual assistant’s session data for use anytime within a customer/virtual assistant session. Alme can also use its integration facilities to store elements of the list persistently in external apps.

Goals have the ability to respond to customers dynamically, based on the information the Goal has collected. For example, if the customer provides all of the Goal’s information in one interaction, then Goal is complete or fulfilled and the Alme virtual assistant can perform the activity that is driven by the information. However, if the customer provides, say, two of four required information items, then the Goal can change its responses and request the missing information, leading the customer through a conversation. Goals are created by authors or analysts who specify a list of variables to store the information to be collected and the actions to be taken when customers do not provide all the information in the list. In addition, Goals can be nested, improving their power and giving them flexibility as well as promoting their reuse.

Healthcare providers (Healthcare is one of Next IT’s target markets.) might use Goals to collect a list of information from patients prior to a first appointment. Retailers might use them to collect a set of preferences for a personal e-shopper virtual assistant.

Rules-Based Personalization

Personalization is essential for any application supporting customers’ normal activities. Why? Because personalization is the use of customer information—profile attributes, demographics, preferences, shopping histories, order histories, service contracts, and account data—to tailor a customer experience for individual customers. Performing activities on customers’ behalves requires some level of personalization.

For example, virtual assistants use a customer’s login credentials to access external apps that manage account or order data and, then, use that order data to help customers process a refund or a return. Or, to complete an auto insurance application, virtual assistants need profile data and demographic data to price a policy.

Alme’s rules-based personalization facilities are Variables, Response Conditions, and AppCalls. They are implemented within the knowledgebase items that contain the responses to customers’ requests.

  • Variables provide personalization and context. They contain profile data, external application data, and session data, for example.
  • Response Conditions are expressions (rules) on Variables. Response Conditions select responses and/or set data values of their Variables.
  • AppCalls (Application Calls) pass parameters to and execute external applications. They use Alme’s integration facilities to access external apps through JavaScript and Web Services APIs. For example, Jenn, Alaska Airlines’ virtual assistant, uses AppCalls to process information extracted from the customer’s question—departure city, arrival city, departure date and return date—and normalizes and formats the information for correct handling by the airlines’ booking engine. This AppCall checks city pairs to ensure the flight is valid and formats and normalizes dates so that the booking engine can display appropriate choices. AppCalls also integrate Alme with backend systems. Ann, Aetna’s virtual assistant, uses AppCalls to collect more than 80 profile variables from Aetna’s backend systems to facilitate performing tasks and to personalize answers for Aetna’s customers after they log in and launch Ann. (See the screen shot of Ann, below.)

Integration with External Applications

The resources that virtual assistant applications “own” are typically a knowledgebase (of answers and solutions to expected customers’ questions and problems) and accounts on Facebook and Twitter to enable members of these social networks to ask questions and report problems. So, to perform normal activities, virtual assistants need to integrate with the external apps that own the data and services that support those activities.

Alme integrates with external customer service applications through JavaScript (front end) and Web Services (back end) interfaces. New in Alme 2,2, the current Alme version, Next IT has introduced a re-architected Alme platform that is more modular and more extensible. The new platform has published JavaScript and Web Services interfaces to all Alme functionality and support for JavaScript and Web Services to external resources.

AppCalls use Alme’s integration facilities. To process an AppCall successfully, developers must have established a connection between Alme and an external application. Jenn integrates Alme with Alaska Airlines booking engine. Ann integrates Alme with Aetna’s backend systems. Here’s a screen shot.

aetna blog

Virtual Assistants Are Doing More of the Work of Live Agents

Next IT Alme was one of the first virtual assistant software products with the capabilities to perform normal activities. Its facilities are powerful and flexible. While integration with external applications will always require programming (and Next IT has simplified that programming), Alme’s facilities for supporting normal activities are built-in and designed for business analysts. They’re reasonably easy to learn, easy to use, and easy to manage.

By performing normal activities, virtual assistants are doing more of the work that live agents have been doing—quickly, accurately, consistently, and at a lower cost than live agents. That frees live agents to handle the stickiest, most complex customer requests, requests to perform normal activities and requests to answer questions and resolve problems. It’s also a driver for your organization to consider adding virtual assistants to your customer service customer experience portfolio.

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