Virtual assistants can help ease the burden on your people, but it pays to make sure your brand’s digital PA isn’t pretending to be human. Aimee Coleman explains why.


If you’ve logged onto the Woolworths website in the last couple of years to ask a question about your online order or locate a store, you’ve probably met Olive.

The virtual assistant is a cute googly-eyed green olive created to triage questions, problems, and direct more complex challenges to the brand’s call centre staff.

Like Woolies, many brands and organisations now have a virtual assistant as part of their support staff. By employing a virtual assistant, your people can focus on more complex problem-solving, business development-type conversations. And invest in building relationships. Virtual assistants can also reduce the impact on your staff from frustrated customers.

If you’re contemplating one, Olive is a great example.

Like the more advanced virtual assistants in-market, Olive is evolving and responding to advancements in technology such as the exponential reach of AI tools like ChatGPT.
Right now, virtual assistants are going from being reactive and able to respond to simple questions to being more active with multiple solutions pathways. For example, Olive will soon be able to issue refunds.

Other brands making a mark with brand-aligned virtual assistants include Bank of America with its assistant Erica which can help users to manage their finances. Similarly, ING has Inga, a warm, friendly assistant that responds to customer enquiries with empathy. Inga can do simple things like put a hold on your card straight away or give you high-level advice about financial calculations in the bank’s app.

To be useful and trusted by your customers, virtual assistants need to draw on the power of your brand. They should be aligned with your brand expression and born out of your personality traits.

They can often be the first or only brand representatives. So think about them as a member of staff. You want to reflect what your brand looks like and maintain the distinctiveness evident in your brand codes, voice, colours, typography, and illustration style.

One thing you want to avoid is the uncanny valley effect. If you’re unfamiliar, this is when something robotic, digital or virtual looks or acts too close to a human. It creates a sense of dissonance, revulsion or awkwardness that people immediately respond to.

A brand that runs the risk of the uncanny valley phenomenon is ANZ. The bank’s virtual assistant, Jamie, looks very much like a person. She has been developed with a persona – a 25-year-old New Zealand woman – and the sheer fact that she has been created to feel more human creates a risk for the brand.

The uncanny valley effect is an emotional response. It’s about a feeling of unease that makes you question, where is this thing? What can it see, what does it know? What can it do? In the current climate of data breaches and hacks, we’re warier than ever about our privacy and personal information. So ensure you’re not inadvertently making your customers uneasy when dealing with your virtual assistant.

Most big brands are already heavily invested in virtual assistants and have a few evolutions under their belt. If you’re not, there’s still time to get cracking. For start-ups and smaller brands, there may be an advantage without the limitations of legacy technology systems to work around. This will allow you to choose newly accessible open AI tools off the shelf.

If you’re not yet on the journey, a good place to start is by looking at how you can create a virtual assistant that addresses the simplest, most frequent customer problem presented to your frontline staff. Do they want to access their digital statement? Have they forgotten their password?
Bear in mind, too, that if there is a question your call centre staff are asked most frequently, it could point to a flaw in the user experience of your existing digital tools or a product or service challenge or opportunity. Auditing your existing customer experience is the best place to start. There may be a simpler, more obvious fix to customer problems that can be solved without the introduction of a new communication channel.

If you’re creating a virtual assistant, think about making it easy for customers to interact with. Think about where they live – on your website, in your app, in the metaverse. And think about which of your brand levers are most relevant to pull; how much of your brand you can inject into it so that if it is the only interaction, you can make a genuine impression.

Can it surprise and delight your customers in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily burden your current teams, systems or processes?

And, if it feels right for your brand, it won’t hurt to make your virtual assistant as cute as Olive.


This article first appeared in Inside Retail.

Aimee Coleman is Director of Principals’ AlphaLab.


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