What Is a Virtual Agent and How Can Contact Centres Use Them?

May 13, 2022 | 6 Mins Read

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As customer expectations continue to skyrocket in the wake of a pandemic that made the world switch to more digital means, organisations must keep up by making use of technology to deliver personalisation and value for their customers.

In this post, we will examine the use of virtual agents to deliver better service for your customers, outlining what it is, use cases and key benefits.

What is a virtual agent?

While many confuse virtual agents, chatbots and virtual assistants (we’ll outline more on the differences later), virtual agents are common in our everyday life. Most modern websites will now feature a virtual agent. It’s the app-like pop-up window that greets you when you’re perusing a particular site. That means if you’ve used a customer support outlet to change a password, track an order or ask a simple question, chances are you’ve used a virtual agent.

In terms of the technology, a virtual agent is a software entity that provides certain answers and directions for customer queries, these responses are based on specific rules and protocols. In essence, an organisation can make their virtual assistant as intuitive as possible depending on how sophisticated those rules and protocols are.

Also known as IVA (Intelligent Virtual Agent), a virtual agent is a type of conversational chatbot that uses machine learning, natural language processing and conversational AI (artificial intelligence) to understand customer intent and analyse patterns. With all this at play, these clever bots can usually correctly establish and address your customer’s queries.

What’s more, with machine learning at play, virtual agents can learn to glean when to escalate or transfer a real-time conversation to a human agent.

The differences between virtual agents, virtual assistants and chatbots

Let’s start by outlining the various things virtual agents often get confused with.

A virtual assistant is a remote employee; a human assistant is appointed to manage administrative tasks. Typical projects for a virtual assistant might be arranging business travel, overseeing someone’s work calendar and commitments and taking and transferring phone calls.

Virtual agents and chatbots are both used to ensure your customers have access to instant support, without the need for a human agent. But a simple chatbot is different to a virtual agent in that it simply doesn’t offer the same levels of sophisticated customer enablement.

A chatbot, also known as a Q&A bot can pick out keywords in the instant messaging conversation and can respond to common questions from a set of pre-registered answers.

A virtual agent is a type of conversational chatbot, but these more advanced solutions can be distinguished specifically if they use AI technology and NLP (natural language processing). These technologies enable them to imitate a real, human conversation more accurately.

What are virtual agent capabilities?

For the most part, virtual agents are used as a customer service enablement as they have functionality that empowers more streamlined, automated connections with customers.

Some of the key capabilities include automated text, voice response, chat and email messages to make contact with customers to help them resolve stakeholder requests.

What are the uses of a virtual agent in contact centres?

For contact centres, virtual agents can significantly improve the efficiency of each team.

Managing early communications with customers becomes much easier as virtual agents can manage common queries and give context to human agents for anything more complex.

For customer service agents, the virtual counterpart can support with queries such as order status enquiries, simple questions about returns policies, account detail changes or cancellations, product information, or stock details.

It’s important to remember, virtual agents shouldn’t be used to replace human agents, but work well alongside your physical team to pre-empt some of the common, repetitive queries agents might deal with on a regular basis.

As the technology is built to address enquiries in real-time, in a way that feels natural; replicating human language, customers should always feel their queries have been resolved, without having to speak with a human agent. That also means contact centres and call centres can drive down call volumes and free up more time for their team to handle more sophisticated, in-depth requests, complaints and questions.

What are the uses of virtual agents for user experience?

In addition to customer service use cases, virtual agents can be used anywhere with a need for a smoother user experience, or quick responses to common queries.

For example, virtual agents can also work well for IT support teams. A busy IT helpdesk will have to manage huge volumes of requests and tickets on a regular basis, much of them relating to the same issue.

Instead of having human agents churn out common response templates manually, virtual agents can help to guide users through any issues they encounter. They would also be able to take details, create tickets and conduct routing, meaning more complex tickets reach the correct live agents to resolve, or set priorities for the most pressing, such as business continuity issues, to be tackled first.

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As with customer service functions, data from IT helpdesk queries can be analysed to build a comprehensive knowledge base for users, so that anyone can log in, and access the information they need independently.

Virtual agents can also be used for lead generation initiatives. Sales teams or organisations looking to build a stronger database or CRM can use virtual agents and chatbots to capture information and assess their status in the sales funnel. That means sales professionals save time manually inputting data, and they can access the information they need to engage and nurture new leads.

4 benefits of virtual agents

As businesses strive to keep up with customer demands, considering a virtual agent solution might be a good idea. Here are some of the advantages of virtual agents for your organisation:

  1. Round-the-clock availability

With a virtual agent, you’ll be able to provide service to your customers 24/7. That means you won’t have to hire physical agents around the world to cover other time zones or choose to only operate during limited hours.

Implementing a virtual agent means, for the most part, your customers can have their questions answered whenever they need support. Even in the case of more complex queries, a virtual agent will have the ability to arrange call-backs or email support from a human agent, so your customers never get left in the dark.

  1. A smoother customer experience

Aside from better accessibility, you could be offering a more seamless customer experience by giving your customers the chance to get the answers they need in an instant, without picking up the phone or contacting customer support via email.

With a virtual agent in place, you could improve the first response time, reduce wait times and avoid customers being kept on hold, provide customised responses and optimise routine workflows in response to common queries.

  1. Better data insights

The nature of virtual agent conversations means you have a record of common customer queries and interactions. That means you have a backlog of actionable data- valuable insights that could make your customer journey even more streamlined.

With a valuable pool of information, you’ll gain better knowledge of product issues, common complaints, or any recurring feedback. You can also extract information on peak times for customers making contact, geographical details and interaction duration.

Many organisations using virtual agents have made use of this data to build a better self-service element for customers to troubleshoot their own issues- meaning they unlock efficiencies for their own human agents and the wider team.

  1. Better employee experience for human agents

Better data-driven insights and well-informed business decisions to improve customer service also has a huge impact on your contact centre agents.

Having automated processes, 24-hour virtual support, and intuitive self-service elements in place means you significantly reduce the pressure on human agents to be always ‘on’, and getting through as many tickets or calls as possible. In turn, by triaging requests through a virtual agent, you can focus on the quality of the support your human agents provide, agents can address more sophisticated requests and they can take more pride in their customer interactions.

How to choose a virtual agent

There are a number of aspects you might want to consider when you start looking for a virtual agent solution. It’s important to establish your business needs and think about the type of tool that would help you to achieve your business goals.

When it comes to intelligent virtual agent capabilities you might want to research some of the following:

Omnichannel or multi-channel support: Do you need a solution that supports the ‘always on’ nature of your customers. If you have a strong social presence, and customers contact you via your website, mobile app, messaging platforms, email and phone, an omnichannel solution could significantly support your agent productivity, and improve customer satisfaction.

Multilingual virtual agents: If your business is global, you’ll want to make sure your solution has the capabilities to address your audiences around the world. Likewise, if you’re looking to scale up or grow into new markets, having a solution that supports multiple languages could be a wise choice.  

Data insights and personalisation: Gathering information and metrics on the behaviours of your customers or end users could be one of the most powerful tools any business can have in the modern, competitive marketplace.

Choosing a platform with in-built analytics, intuitive automations, excellent scalability and omnichannel support will help you to personalise interactions with your customers. What’s more, streamlining your workflows in this way means you have the power to exceed customer expectations time and time again whilst also driving a better employee experience for the longevity of your workforce.


Originally published May 13, 2022, updated Jun 10, 2022

Allyn Jayawon


Allyn is the SEO Specialist for EMEA at RingCentral, the leader in cloud communications solutions.