Some doomsayers say the internet may signal an end to human contact in business. A halfway measure is the emergence of “virtual agents”, human-like cyber-identities that could be selling policies on a screen near you.

A virtual agent understands natural language and interacts visually, often using a human or cartoon character. It gathers information at the speed and direction of the user, offers advice and suggests options available to the user.

Perhaps the agent's most important feature is its ability to hold a conversation. This removes the need to adjust to a computer's way of dealing with complex products. The virtual agent can explore possibilities, make suggestions and react to answers in a conversation, just like a broker, for example, would.

An agent can change expression to emphasise its response and can make use of its character or personality to extend the dialogue. There is a sense of actually talking to somebody. People can communicate with a virtual agent on a number of levels – business-like, questioning, even engaging in casual chat.

The agent can attract clients and provide service levels to help keep them. And as communication lines speed up the realism of the image and experience should increase too.

The most important point is that a virtual agent does not have to follow a prescribed path. Like a human adviser, it can respond to what the client says – ask another question, make a suggestion, provide alternatives.

And while doing this, the whole transaction is recorded – so compliance is provable. Recording also allows refinement of the adviser for situations where it was not able to cope.

The result is an invaluable store of information about what clients want and how they go about choosing it – including information about how service can be made more effective.

Service made simple
The virtual agent's ability to chat and ask questions extends opportunities to promote a brand, to cross-sell and to use existing information about a client to provide a better, simpler, clearer service. Behind the scenes, it makes it possible to consider pulling different technologies and information sources together to offer radically new ways of doing business.

Agents can be deployed both externally, as a virtual face of the organisation, and internally, as a point of contact and source of company know-ledge. This can be extended to training, to assist call centre staff or to present topics of interest to a manager.

The virtual agent makes it possible to get the benefits of a computer without having to think like one, claim its supporters. And it does not just stop with a computer. A virtual agent can work on interactive television or even a mobile phone – helping the client and promoting the brand. And when voice recognition has gained critical mass, the virtual agent will radically simplify getting the computer to navigate around complex networks of process and information.

Agents can be deployed both externally, to engage customers and suppliers, and internally, as a contact point for corporate knowledge. Branded images are already being animated and personalised to improve the richness of dialogue and trust of the service. We should expect further changes in capability and meeting people's needs with automated conversation.

But if speech takes over from the keyboard as the main link to a mechanised agent, could it also mean the death of the mouse?

  • James Sequeira is Logica's senior consultant specialising in providing technology solutions to business problems in the financial services sector.

    What is a virtual agent?
    Virtual agents, or avatars, condense all the personality of a company into a single point of contact. The more basic ones use pattern-matching or word recognition to decide which answer to give. More sophisticated ones can pick up on the way words have been used within a sentence.

    The main barrier to the development of the character is bandwidth. If the agent is used on a business-to-consumer site, the limitations of home computer modems have to be considered. The agent is not very much help if the site takes five minutes to load up. Compression technology has begun to be used together with virtual agent technology and this could lessen bandwidth problems.