August 2, 2018
Conversational AI

How to get a virtual agent

The number of robots in the workplace has been steadily increasing over the last couple of centuries. Virtual agents, however, are a brand new addition to the workforce. What are they, how can you get one and what are the potential pitfalls?

In order to find the right candidate during the employment process, a recruitment team usually checks qualifications, experience and references. This is a well-established and widely used process - at least when the potential candidate for the position is human.

Expensive experimentation

We have found that when “recruiting” a machine, many organisations tend to make the mistake of simply choosing a platform without thorough research. This is usually because the organisation is keen to independently learn about, and experiment with, artificial intelligence, chatbots and virtual agents. But making the wrong decision to try and gain this insight quickly is a costly experiment - unless you’re one of the few lucky companies that hit the jackpot first time.

Before employing a chatbot or virtual agent, you should consider whether the solution will bring tangible results to the organisation, as opposed to just being swept along by the hype that a chatbots is the ‘must have’ application in 2018. Would you throw caution to the wind and hire the first person that walked through the door, just because of hype? Would it be enough that they used all the right words during the interview?

In an up-and-coming industry, predicted to grow into a multi-billion dollar ecosystem over the next couple of years without any reference points or regulatory institutions, there will always be players that promise more than they can deliver.

Chatbot or virtual agent?

The vast majority of suppliers use one of two terms when describing their solution; chatbot or virtual agent. But is there any difference, other than wording? According to Gartner, one of the world’s leading consultancy firms on emerging technology, the distinction is quite clear.

Chatbots answer simple questions - like an FAQ - and can guide the user to the right page on a website, while a virtual agent is able to answer the same questions, in addition to acting on the users behalf, such as transferring funds between accounts or buying products.

However, when employing a virtual agent, a “chatbot phase” is common. This is a natural starting point in the implementation phase of the project, and ensures that the virtual agent has a basic understanding of the domain before expanding its capabilities. It is also far easier to implement a virtual agent without the need to integrate with advanced back-end systems, such as user authentication, in the early phases of the project. More on that later.

25% enquiry coverage

Our experience, gained through implementing dozens of virtual agents, is that you can cover approximately 25% of incoming end user traffic by answering questions that don’t require APIs. That is roughly similar to the best FAQs that are available. The rest of the traffic has to be handled by a virtual agent that can act on the user’s behalf.

And just how many questions should a digital employee be expected to answer? We’re seeing that both the chatbots and virtual agents which are being deployed need a lot of time to absorb the required knowledge to successfully represent the organisation externally. How much time this takes depends on the architecture of the solution and how scalable it is for large, enterprise-scale organisations.

Is it enough for your organisation that your new digital employee is only able to answer 20 to 50 questions? That is usually not enough to handle anything more than a very small and specific part of an organisation. Many chatbots have limits to what they can handle. We always recommend researching suppliers that have experience with other organisations in your specific industry, so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Pre-made modules

At, we have developed industry-specific virtual agents that can handle thousands of enquiries - from day one. In the banking and insurance sector, for instance, we have created a module with over 2,500 ready-made user intents, covering everything from enquiries about opening hours to blocking credit cards for customers. Our municipality module, tailormade for local government and public administrations, ships with over 4,500 complete intents. It is currently employed by nearly 70 Norwegian municipalities (around 25% of the population) and expanding throughout Scandinavia.

We have worked hard to ensure that our platform can be rapidly expanded; learning new questions in a matter of minutes. This functionality allows our clients to easily build on their established foundation, a functionality which we have not yet seen similar to in the market for virtual agents. This means that when organisations are ready for something more than just an FAQ-bot, which they almost invariably will, they can use our platform to enhance their digital employee's capabilities, making them able to rapidly move from a chatbot to a true virtual agent with our flexible and customisable APIs.

Security and privacy

Another factor that has to be taken into account is security, especially for enterprises that serve a large customer-base. Ensuring the security of users is paramount, especially in an age where everything is digitalised and personal data is regarded as the “new oil”. is on the front foot when dealing with security, for both our clients and their end users’ sake.

In stark contrast to several other suppliers in this emerging industry, we have chosen to prioritise the security aspect thoroughly when developing our solution. We are currently working towards an ISO 27001 certification to solidify our market-leading position.

The forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is - as it should be - looming over every organisation that processes user data. We ensure that data processed on behalf of our clients through our platform is performed in accordance with all current data regulations, including GDPR. Our solution can anonymise data, in addition to facilitating requests from end users for their chat log to be deleted.

The solution also comes equipped with the ability to ask for consent from the user to process their data before the chat window is initialised, if that is something a client requires. We view this as something that enhances our clients’ ability to demonstrate compliance with GDPR, in addition to respecting individual users’ rights when collecting and processing personal data.

One final data-related consideration is that our platform has not been built on the need to store large amounts of data in order to improve the intelligence of the virtual agent. Several other virtual agent platforms are very dependent on that specific capability. We therefore strongly recommend that you ensure that your digital employee has the right prerequisites to be able to represent your organisation in the appropriate way - especially concerning the ever-increasing demands for safety and privacy.

User authentication - the future is now

Now that we’ve covered the basics of your new digital employee, we can start focusing on the fun stuff; going beyond chatbots. To be able to do this, your virtual agent needs to identify and authenticate the user. At Sparebank 1 SR-Bank, a large Norwegian bank, we use the BankID authentication software to achieve this. We are actually one of a very select few suppliers that can deliver this capability through a virtual agent.

Once the end user’s identity has been confirmed, the virtual agent is authorised to act on their behalf. SR-Bank’s virtual agent, “Banki”, can now block cards and provide account balances - directly in the chat window. This is possible through the most secure methods of user authentication, such as BankID, but we can also provide solutions for lighter authentication requirements that “only” need a username and password.

Below are two examples of how a end user’s enquiry might look if they need to block a lost or stolen credit card, with and without user authentication enabled.


As you can see in the example above, there are significant differences in what can be achieved with a virtual agent compared to a chatbot, and the level of service they are able to offer. One such example is our client Sparebank 1 SR-Bank who is currently working towards making their virtual agent, Banki, a certified digital financial advisor, and they have already taken a major leap towards that goal by enabling user authentication.

A checklist of necessities

So where are you now in the hunt for a digital coworker? An employment process is often more extensive than we imagine when making the decision to recruit. Here is a very simplified checklist of what you should consider in your potential digital candidates:

  • The ability to understand the end user - no matter how they communicate
  • Scalability - what does the future volume of end user traffic look like?
  • User authentication
  • Security
  • GDPR readiness and compliance with existing regulations
  • Experience - is your prospective solution widely used?
  • Compatibility with existing internal software solutions

When you’re certain that the candidate has all the right qualifications for the job, only one thing remains: taking their references. Contact someone else that uses the solution and hear what they think of the software. If you can, try the chatbot or virtual agent out for yourself on their website, before comparing it to similar solutions from other suppliers. This is probably the least comprehensive step but it might be one of the most important - and it won’t take long. A mistake here could cost your organisation dearly in terms of both funds and resources.

Consider using recruitment experts

If the whole employment process seems daunting and you are concerned that it can’t be done properly without the right expertise and experience, we recommend using a system integrator to help you review the different options and potentially implement the solution. The right integrator will have considerable experience in the field and can compare the solutions in a systematic way, and ultimately help you make the right decision for your organisation.

With the benefit of the aforementioned experience the system integrator could also make the process of implementation more effective, in addition to helping you establish strong foundations prior to your own personnel taking over operations.

With the benefit of sound research, careful planning, and possibly even support from a good system integrator with the right skills, resources and methods , the appointment of your new digital employee can be a thoroughly satisfying experience, providing tangible benefits for your organisation well into the future.

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