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Virtual agent vs. chatbot: what's the difference?

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  • Chatbots and virtual agents are similar; they’re both software, but there are important differences.
  • Chatbots are simpler and don’t use AI.
  • Virtual agents are more sophisticated, can offer better answers, and utilize AI to deliver the assistance customers need.

Whenever you see one of those popup windows come up on a website, you think “chatbot.” However, that’s not always the case. You could be interacting with a virtual agent rather than a chatbot. There’s a difference between the two types of technology.

This post explores how chatbots and virtual agents are different, and how you can incorporate both into your contact center to elevate the customer experience.

What’s a chatbot?

A chatbot is a program that simulates human conversation (“chat”) through text or voice interactions. They’re designed to handle very simple interactions and carry out tasks which aren’t overly complicated (like scheduling a callback). Chatbots aren’t enabled by AI, meaning they won’t learn from an interaction. Rather, they’re trained to provide canned responses when someone asks a question.

We’ll illustrate with an example. Jill opens up a website to order a new bed for her dog. A chatbot window pops up and asks her if she needs help.

Jill types in that she’s looking for a dog bed. The chatbot responds with a link to the dog bed section of the site.

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What’s a virtual agent?

Virtual agents are more sophisticated than chatbots. A virtual agent is software that follows certain rules to provide answers or directions based on customer questions. While that’s similar to a chatbot, virtual agents use natural language processing (NLP).

NLP is a branch of artificial intelligence that gives machines the ability to read, understand, and derive meaning from human language. Thanks to NLP, virtual agents understand what a customer says rather than scanning for phrases the way a chatbot would. They grasp a customer’s intent in order to provide personalized, meaningful responses.

Because virtual agents run on AI, they need to be trained on data sets. Data quality is crucial here. Iif you don’t have high-quality data to feed into the virtual agent, it can’t offer the best possible answers. Before implementing a virtual agent, companies must ensure that their data sets are complete, accurate, and up-to-date. Otherwise, your customers won’t have a positive experience with your virtual agent.

We’ll use another example with Jill to show the difference between chatbots and virtual agents. Jill decides to order a dog bed online. She wants to get the cushion embroidered with her dog’s name.

The site uses virtual agent technology. Jill asks the virtual agent if it’s possible to embroider the cushion with her dog’s name. The virtual agent understands exactly what Jill is asking, because other customers have asked the same thing in the past. It responds that it’s possible to personalize the cushion and shows her pictures of which embroidery styles the company offers.

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What are the similarities between chatbots and virtual agents?

There’s a reason that people get confused between chatbots and virtual agents.When they see a window come up on a website, there may be nothing that says that window is a virtual agent or a chatbot.

Moreover, chatbots and virtual agents work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even if a contact center is closed, chatbots and virtual agents can still answer questions.

Chatbots and virtual agents both have the potential to improve the customer experience, too. Over 60% of American consumers prefer to use automated self-service to solve simple issues. Customers want to save time and effort by finding out information on their own.

What’s the role of the chatbot in the contact center?

A contact center chatbot can create a better experience for customers, even though it’s a simple form of software.

Contact center chatbots can answer easy questions, such as providing a link to reset a password or setting up a time to speak to a live agent. These are valuable, time-saving activities for a contact center. For every question a chatbot answers, it means a human employee can work on a more valuable activity.

A chatbot can also gather information and pass it off to a human agent. Let’s say Jill wanted to speak to someone about how long it would take to embroider her dog’s bed. The chatbot could take her number and set up a time to talk with a human.

What’s the role of a virtual agent in a contact center?

A virtual agent has several roles to play in a contact center. Like a chatbot, it also improves the customer experience, but it can also do other things thanks to AI.

Contact center virtual agents can gather data–not just about customers, but about the customer experience as a whole. A virtual agent can tell you how many people are contacting the company about a particular issue, where they’re located, what time of day they’re reaching out, and how long interactions last. This information is vital for companies to learn more about what customers want and whether their needs are being met.

Thanks to their skill at gathering information, contact center virtual agents can also boost lead generation efforts. They learn what a customer is looking for, then pass that information to a human employee who can follow up.

Another benefit of contact center virtual agents is that AI constantly learns from interactions, so it’s always getting smarter and providing better responses to customers.

Elevate your customer experience with RingCentral’s contact center software

RingCentral offers contact center software with chatbots and virtual agents. These features boost the customer experience in contact centers by enabling customers to find information quickly and independently. To learn more about creating a better contact center experience with chatbots and virtual agents, get a demo.

Create a better contact center experience
RingCentral offers contact center software with chatbots and virtual agents. These features boost the customer experience in contact centers by enabling customers to find information quickly and independently.

Originally published Jun 29, 2021, updated Jun 19, 2024

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