Over the past few months, virtual assistants have quickly become a topic of conversation for C-level executives, engineers and brand managers alike.
While the first generation of these chatbots — or whatever form the assistant took — may have frustrated consumers and pained marketers, they’ve more recently become a growing aspect of a brand’s customer experience.
These assistants, often AI-powered, offer support to modern marketing teams by answering customer questions (pre- and post-sales), offering instruction and guidance and delivering a consistent brand experience. This recent development is pushing marketers and brand managers to navigate uncharted territory: the complex world of virtual assistants.
When a company decides a virtual assistant is beneficial for its brand, it will face a series of preliminary questions, such as:
- Is it worth it to deploy a virtual assistant that’s AI-based and can learn over time?
- Should we look to integrate with a popular assistant like Alexa or Google Home, or should we look to other channels that customers are already using?
- Do we use our IT resources to design and develop the virtual assistant in-house, or should we look externally to a third-party vendor to create our virtual assistant?
The answers to these questions should come from two already established areas that fall under marketing: channel strategy and brand consistency.
Because virtual assistants are becoming a key touch point between businesses and consumers, it’s critical that brand managers and marketers have a strong seat at the table, from concept to strategy, design to deployment, and managing the solution after it is live. Despite what may be your initial inclination in these resource-challenged times, you can’t leave this to IT or to customer service — although you should get input and assistance from those groups.
Channel Strategy: Where Are Your Users?
As with any new marketing endeavor, investing in virtual assistants shouldn’t happen without a clear strategy. Virtual assistants can be complex, because, like the web, they can reach people across channels — but they go beyond desktop, laptop and mobile. Virtual assistants extend across smart home devices, smartphones, web browsers, traditional voice calls, social media and more. That’s a lot to consider!
Which channels are most important to your specific audience? Which channels support the highest volume of customer interactions? This insight can dictate where to deploy a virtual assistant and how it should be designed to interact with consumers.
For instance, if your target audience engages heavily on social media, deploying a virtual assistant that can provide support to consumers across social channels in real time should be a top priority. If many of your customers are on the go but picking up the phone to call with questions or concerns, deploying a branded voice-based virtual assistant to a customer service support center may be your best bet. If you want to be present in the homes of your customers, then adding support via a home assistant like Alexa could round out your strategy.
While virtual assistants can cross channels, beginning with the channel or channels with the highest volume of customer activity (which is often a combination of voice and webchat) is typically the best place to start.
Brand Consistency: Who are you?
People today are accustomed to a multichannel lifestyle. Laptops, phones and voice-enabled devices have found a place in our daily lives. With more channels on the table, busy consumers will pick up the most convenient device at any given time. This requires a new level of consistency in the customer experience. Virtual assistants have the potential to fill this void and can help establish brand consistency in two meaningful ways.
First, your assistant needs a voice, tone and overall experience that’s in line with all of your customer interactions as well as your marketing assets. Establishing what your brand sounds like and how it talks to people is a challenge in and of itself and will take some time and finesse to master. However, once defined, it’s essential that it remain true to brand style and be easily identifiable, regardless of which channel it’s operating on.
Second, consistency with virtual assistants requires that its knowledge of the customer remains the same across channels — meaning that users should have the ability to start a conversation on one channel and carry it over to another seamlessly.
For example, a customer should be able to begin placing an order with a virtual assistant over the phone and continue the process exactly where they left off over web chat or text — without answering the same questions twice. This creates a personalized and highly contextually aware application that extends across channels and over time.
Building an Extension of Your Brand
Working with vendors who are dedicated to designing this technology is often the smartest way to go, but brand managers need to shepherd the project to ensure their brand voice is embodied properly.
Virtual assistants at their core, regardless of the medium or deployment, should serve as an extension of a company’s brand, and if managed properly, will remove friction from the customer’s experience.