What is a Virtual Agent? Everything You Need to Know

A virtual agent (also called Intelligent Virtual Agent or Chatbot) is a software program that effectively replaces the need of a human agent by using predefined rules, coupled with artificial intelligence to provide automated customer service. The virtual agent is typically used to start a proactive conversation, ask the right questions, qualify leads, and provide information on products and services.

If you’ve ever reached out to a help desk to check the status of your order, change a password or book an appointment, chances are you’ve already interacted with a virtual agent without even realizing it. Here is an example to help you understand a typical conversation you’ll have with a virtual agent.

Virtual agent



Virtual agent vs Chatbot – Debate demystified

A simple chatbot or Q&A bot – as the name suggests is primarily programmed for basic communication. A typical chatbot runs on scripted rules, which is nothing but predefined questions for which the bot already has been programmed. Apart from scripted answers, chatbots also select keywords from a question and provide relevant answers from a knowledge base.

A virtual agent or custom bot, on the other hand, is also a bot that interacts with customers, but it goes one step ahead by using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and NLP to understand user intent and resolve common issues like password reset or escalating an interaction to a live chat agent.

To better understand the difference let’s take an example of a customer query.

Query: “I’d like to cancel my order”

Chatbot: Will look for the keyword “cancel order” in the knowledge base and will provide an article telling how to cancel an order.

Virtual agent: Will ask for the order number, place a cancel request, and will also try to upsell. Here is a live example.

Cancel order - chatbot example


Although both the technologies have the capability to access knowledge base articles, identify keywords, and provide a list of results to the users, virtual agents always had an edge over chatbots due to AI and natural language algorithms.

With this cutting edge technology, the thin technological line between chatbots and virtual agents is fading away and because of that, it makes complete sense to say that a virtual agent is nothing but a bot with artificial intelligence.


Benefits of a virtual agent

Implementing a virtual agent for your business provides immediate responses to your customers and also reduces the time your live agents need to spend on routine queries. Instead, they now have the time to respond to complex queries.

Here are the top benefits of using a virtual agent.

1. Automates repetitive tasks

Tasks like booking an appointment, canceling an order, registering for a webinar, upgrading an account, are repetitive in nature and can be handled by a virtual agent. This not only saves time but also helps agents to focus on more important work like making a sales pitch to a prospective client.

2. Improves customer experience and satisfaction

According to Klaus, to keep customers happy the FRT (First Response Time) should be within 1 min 36 secs. Customers want quick replies to their questions and implementing a virtual agent is the quickest way to achieve that. A virtual agent reduces FRT and improves resolution time by auto-assigning a complex issue to a live agent and ultimately improves customer satisfaction.

Customer service maturity assessment

3. Generate leads

Virtual agents collect relevant information like name, email address, and in some cases phone numbers to help in follow-ups. This not only gives a way for further communication with leads but also qualifies them for further sales cycles. Here is a quick example to show how it works.

Chat bot lead generation GIF


4. Provides 24/7 customer service

Offering round the clock support is one of the obvious but important benefits of using a virtual agent. This is useful for businesses that operate in different countries, as a virtual agent can provide 24×7 support to customers in all time zones, without the need for hiring new support staff.


Things to consider while choosing the right virtual agent for your business

1. Installation

Installation of some live agents might require a tech person to visit your company and set it up for you. This might increase the installation time and cost. So, while selecting a virtual agent keep in mind that the installation process is simple, less time consuming, and can be done by your team without any training.

2. Integration

Integration with your CRM, CMS tool, customer support software, or sales CRM is crucial to close the leads generated by the virtual agent. And for lead generation, it’s important that your virtual agent can integrate into a webpage, mobile app, or even messaging platforms like WhatsApp, FB messenger, and iMessage so that users can access the virtual agent easily.

3. Automation features

Although this might seem obvious, not all virtual agents have all the automation features. Having automation features like auto assigning conversation, searching knowledge base, and triggering messages for website visitors will help save time and reduce human agent’s involvement.


Why Freshchat?

Freshchat’s AI chatbots understand the intent and can send precise answers, conversational flows, engage with customers, and run targeted campaigns.

1. Intelligent, not just scripted

Freshchat’s support and sales bots are built on top of AI and ML that detect the intent of your prospects and customers to either let bots engage or transfer the conversation to a human.

2. Smart Integration

With Freshchat, you can connect with your customers wherever they are – Website, WhatsApp, Apple Business Chat, Facebook Messenger, etc. You can also integrate Freshchat with your CRM, CSM, or Helpdesk Software.

3. IntelliAssign

With IntelliAssign you can avoid the hassle of cherry-picking conversations and manually assigning it to team members. You can automatically assign incoming messages to team members or groups (teams) by configuring their skill level and conversation limit.

4. Run hyper-targeted campaigns

With Freshchat you can nurture leads, onboard new users, upsell to customers, and re-engage users by sending the targeted email, in-app, and push messages.

5. Proactive messaging

With Freshchat you can send proactive messages to prospects and customers based on who they are, where they come from, and what they do on your website and product.

6. Multilingual FAQ support

Speak to your visitors in the language they are comfortable with. With Freshchat, team members can create FAQ content in multiple languages, and the chatbot presents the right content for every user based on their local or selected language.

7. SmartPlugs

SmartPlugs brings all the data from your apps and systems inside the inbox. Be it a CRM, helpdesk, delivery tracking, or other third-party applications, with SmartPlugs, your team members can get all the contextual information to recommend better, sell smarter, and support faster.

8. In-app Chat

With in-app chat, you can reach out to users proactively, and allow your app users to get in touch with you, be it asking for order updates, delivery status, support queries, or responding to in-app campaign messages.

9. Generate leads, convert, and increase revenue

Send proactive campaigns that trigger conversational bots based on your prospect or customer’s demography or behavior. Qualify leads, book meetings, reduce cart abandonment, and crush your revenue goals.


Final thoughts

The terms “Chatbots” and “Virtual Agent” are often used interchangeably and you can consider chatbots and virtual agents more alike than different. But instead of worrying about the terms you should think about your business needs and try to look for a tool that can solve your problem and help you achieve your business goals.


Cover Illustration by Saravana Kannan