Before you make any decisions, it’s necessary to define both technologies. Much of the confusion surrounding the differences between the two can be attributed to the lack of clear definitions.
- Chatbots – At its most basic, a Chatbot can be defined as ‘a computer program designed to have a conversation with a human being, especially over the internet.’ (Cambridge Dictionary)
- Virtual Agents – On the other hand, VAs are defined as ‘a computer program or device that can understand spoken questions and instructions, designed to help you make plans and find answers to questions etc..’ (Cambridge Dictionary). Prominent examples of VAs include Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant.
Definitions aren’t always straightforward – Difficulty in defining the two technologies stem from the fact that they are similar in many ways and they share several common functions, characteristics and abilities. They’re also both emerging technologies that are evolving quickly.
While Chatbots and VAs share many similar characteristics and functions, there are key differences. Making an intelligent choice between the two depends on understanding these differences.
- Chatbots are more task-specific – Generally, Chatbots excel when it comes to providing complex solutions to specific problems. They are usually designed to automate particular enquiries rather than act as a general assistant.
- Customer service focused – Currently, Chatbots are predominantly deployed in a customer service context. This is because of their ability to successfully automate high-volume, routine enquiries.
- Rule-based Chatbots – follow pre-defined conversational flows that don’t allow for considerable deviation. They also typically lack Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities.
- AI Chatbots – Utilise complex AI technologies, including NLP and Sentiment Analysis, to better understand user intention and meaning and to provide a more flexible and comprehensive response to customer enquiries.
Virtual Agents also boast several characteristics that make them a powerful AI tool. These include;
- A user-focused approach – Today, most VAs are focused on assisting a user complete everyday activities, rather than to engage specific organisations or complete in-depth tasks. If you consider the way VAs like Alexa and Siri are used, it’s typically to find out the weather, play music, order a taxi or search the internet.
Designed for a wide variety of tasks – In this sense, VAs take a more general approach, prioritising a diverse skill set over any single, well-developed ability.
There are three key ‘battlegrounds’ in which the major differences between the two technologies are most clearly expressed. Studying each of these conflicts in greater depth should give you a clearer idea of which technology is better suited to your organisation.
- Personal vs Commercial use – Whereas Chatbots are primarily used in commercial customer service contexts as a means of automating communications, VAs are used by individuals who want assistance with personal tasks and activities.
- Integrated technology vs stand-alone – While VAs are often stand-alone applications (eg. Siri, Alexa etc), Chatbots are usually integrated into existing communication platforms, such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. The latter is far more cost-effective and allows for greater accessibility due to the widespread use of these platforms.
- Depth vs Breadth – Though VAs are typically able to respond to a wider range of questions, this prevents them from tackling in-depth enquiries. Alternatively, Chatbots are designed to automate specific processes (or a range of related processes) but lack generality. This makes them better suited to customer service settings, where you may want a Chatbot that can fully automate a retail store’s return process but aren’t concerned with it being able to give customers tomorrow’s weather report.
To make an informed decision, it’s also important to deconstruct a common myth that’s often perpetuated about the difference between Chatbots and VAs. When asked what the main distinction between the two technologies is, many people respond by arguing that VAs are more intelligent than Chatbots due to their use of NLP and their ability to action a wider range of tasks.
This isn’t true for two key reasons;
- AI Chatbots also make use of NLP technology. In this respect, they’re no different from VAs.
- VAs are able to action a wider range of tasks but at the expense of their specificity. Though they benefit from breadth, they lack depth.
In reality, the Chatbot vs VAs debate cannot be reduced to a question of intelligence. Chatbots outperform VAs in some situations and vice versa.
Instead, it’s all about context. It’s about what you want your technology to do. Do you want a technology that automates complex, high-volume enquiries in a customer service setting? Chatbots are your best option. Want an application that can assist individuals with a wider range of simpler, day-to-day household tasks? A Virtual Agent is probably the answer.
Most organisations are looking to make savings by freeing up human agents to tackle more complex tasks, relieving pressure on the contact centre and providing 24/7 customer service. In this instance, a Chatbot is ideal. In contrast, VAs are typically developed by larger tech companies who have an interest in integrating their devices and applications into the everyday routines of individual consumers.