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May 7, 2012

Symantec’s Nathan: ‘I Am Not A Real Person’

David F. Carr | May 04, 2012
Nathan freely admits he is a virtual agent, not a real person, but he still makes Symantec technical support a little friendlier.

Ask Symantec’s Nathan for advice on installing a Norton anti-virus product, or moving it to another machine, or interpreting an error message, and he seems to have an answer to everything. Ask him an existential question and you can also count on a straight answer.

You: Are you real?

Nathan: I’m not a real person. I’m a virtual agent, created by VirtuOz. I understand you are asking about installing. Please choose an option below …

As a virtual agent, Nathan is represented by a profile photo, but the man you’re seeing is just a model. Although communicating him is presented somewhat like live chat with a customer service agent, it’s more like talking to a search engine–a search engine that’s smart enough to ask some follow-up questions before offering you links to the content most likely to answer your question.

“We wanted our search box to have a personality–a good, friendly feeling,” Stefan Osthaus, VP of worldwide support and customer experience at Symantec Corporation, said in an interview. ”

This is intent-based search. When you come in, we can understand what you want by asking a clarifying question and then give you really nice search results.” As such, it’s really more an aide to self-service than a replacement for support personnel, he said.

“We’re not replacing talented people with a headset on their head. We’re replacing our search box,” he said.

Although the user interface text makes it clear that Nathan is a virtual agent, Symantec might replace the photo with a cartoon avatar “to be more up front that it’s not a real person,” Osthaus said. “The way it is now leaves room for misinterpretation, and we don’t want that.”

Nathan appears on the Norton support site for Symantec’s consumer antivirus and PC management products (although so far not the PC Tools product line).

Symantec created Nathan with help from VirtuOz, which like CodeBaby and several other firms specializes in creating these characters. Online service suite firms such as eGain also have introduced virtual agent offerings.

One way VirtuOz aims to distinguish itself is by “by channeling consistent, high-quality user experiences,” said Pam Kostka, chief marketing officer for VirtuOz. The virtual agents are designed to make interacting with an automated system friendlier, but the software also can be set up with rules or triggers to recognize when the users are expressing frustration and route them to a different channel. The most common alternative is live chat with a human, although click-to-call integration also is possible, she said.

Virtual agents usually are positioned on product or product support pages. VirtuOz also is developing a series of micro-agents focused on answering specific types of questions, such as shipping status on an order. Agents can be added to a company Facebook page, although so far Facebook’s rules do not allow artificial people to respond to customer conversations.

The real key to the software is not the avatar but the behind-the-scenes technology for natural-language processing and predicting the user intent behind a question, Koska said. Agents for different customers might differ in “the level of response capabilities” depending on what information or systems they have access to and the business purpose for which they are deployed, she said. Often, the goal is guided navigation through a website or a support knowledge base, as is the case at Symantec. At another customer, EBay, agents can take “proxy actions” on behalf of the user, such as canceling a bid.

Another anti-virus player, Kapersky Lab, uses a VirtuOz agent for both sales and support. VirtuOz also has brought the Michelin Man to life as a brand ambassador for the tire company.

Osthaus said Symantec has seen good results from Nathan, helping it boost customer satisfaction and allowing people to get answers more quickly. However, success wasn’t immediate. “When we first integrated him into the website and switched him on, we saw dissatisfaction–he was cute, but stupid. He did not have the underlying intelligence to answer all the right Norton questions.”

That was in February 2011, and after “a little bit of tweaking,” the results got better, Osthaus said. “It started to shine about a month after implementation and has improved ever since. Now, he can even sell you something. He’s not only a support agent anymore.”

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard

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