Chances are you’ve probably already interacted with a virtual agent without even realizing it.

To fully understand what a virtual agent is, think about the world’s most popular virtual assistants, Alexa and Siri. These are software robots that guide people through basic digital tasks, such as creating a calendar entry, or turning on a TV. They are primarily used in the home or on personal devices to handle personal tasks.

Virtual agents, meanwhile, are a slight step above virtual assistants, as they work for brands and organizations to help guide customers and employees through business-related tasks. When you think of virtual agents, think of them as digital customer service agents, hotel concierges, mortgage processors and insurance agents.

Anyone who has ever chatted with a brand online, either via a company’s website, Facebook Messenger or Slack, or the phone has more than likely chatted with a virtual agent, depending on the company. Virtual agents have traditionally served low-level support roles guided by rules-based scripting. If you use Keyword A, the virtual agent replies with Comment A. If you use Keyword B, the virtual agent replies with Comment B. They provide basic triaging of customer queries, either by guiding customers to FAQ pages or by escalating more complex conversations to human agents.

The Intelligent Virtual Agent

Today’s cutting edge companies have shifted from low-level virtual agents to more capable and compelling Intelligent Virtual Agents (IVAs). By empowering virtual agents with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), digital labor has been able to take on more challenging roles. Instead of following simple scripts, IVAs can connect to back-end business systems to provide personalized and unique answers to a specific customer’s questions.

“Increasing enterprise focus on customer experience has resulted in a shift towards higher quality of services delivered,” according to new research from Everest Group. “While rule-based chatbots were able to offer automation of simple jobs in the contact center setting, the technology has had limited success in enhancing the overall customer experience.”

Whereas virtual agents do a good job telling you where to find information on shipping rates, IVAs are able to tell you exactly what the shipping rate will be for your exact address and/or package size and weight. Even more impressively, they can help you choose a product, make a payment and then access a company’s supply chain to process the order for shipment.

“IVAs are AI-powered conversational bots that have potential to offer high value in various business functions such as contact center, F&A [finance and accounting], HR, and IT & helpdesk through superior customer satisfaction, round the clock support, and reduction in service costs for the enterprises,” according to Everest Group. “IVAs go beyond solving basic customer queries and are becoming capable of handling much more complex interactions such as sales and marketing, payment collections, employee support, and customer acquisition and retention.”

The Best of the Best IVAs

The upper echelon of IVAs combine the aforementioned skillsets with Natural Language Processing (NLP), which enables the IVAs to accurately respond to queries no matter how idiomatic or sequential the customer’s phrasing. IVAs powered by NLP handle the following two statements with the same business processes and equal precision:

“Can you please cancel my debit card and send a new one to my home?”

“My card was hacked and I don’t know what to do. Do you return it? How do I get a new one when it’s ready?”

In both instances, the IVA can immediately cancel the lost card, work with the customer to find any potential fraudulent charges, issue a new card to the customer address on file and inform the customer when it will arrive.

In an even smaller class of these products, IVAs respond to customer emotion using sentiment analysis. These IVAs take cues from customers to deliver the appropriate emotional response at all times. What triggers might anger customers? Is the IVA dealing with acceptances and rejections? Will it be handling fraud-related issues? The best IVAs are able to avoid the many emotional landmines that may come their way when interacting with customers, which leads to better customer satisfaction and much quicker handling times.

For a more in-depth examination of this topic, as well as a comprehensive overview of the best IVAs on the market, read more from Everest Group (spoiler alert: IPsoft’s Amelia receives the highest marks). This research provides additional confirmation that the gulf between consumer-oriented virtual assistants and more complex IVAs built for the enterprise continues to grow.