Are Virtual Agents Ready to Interact with Your Healthcare Consumers?


Eye-opening research by NTT DATA Services sheds light on healthcare consumer satisfaction with virtual versus human agents.

Are healthcare consumers happy with the replacement of human agents with virtual agents? Apparently not, according to new research.

Twenty four percent of patients have accessed customer service support over the past year with their healthcare provider, according to research by NTT DATA Services. If they spoke with a human customer support agent at that time, they may not next time, as 54% of organizations are in the process of developing an automation plan for customer service processes.

However, patient trust of virtual agents is low-94% say they would prefer to speak with a human for service.


“What we found is that overall, consumers are not happy with the replacement of human agents with virtual agents,” according to Kris Fitzgerald, vice president and chief technology officer for NTT DATA Services. “The purpose of this research was to gain a better idea of what consumers expect from businesses that use automation.”

The research began with the goal of answering key questions:

  • How does automation impact consumer expectations for customer service?

  • Are consumers and enterprises ready for automated customer service?

  • What challenges do enterprises need to overcome to improve the automated customer experience?


More than 1,200 consumers and more than 100 U.S.-based businesses responded to the survey. Consumers were asked how they felt about virtual agents, such as what works well, what is frustrating about them, and could they be used for complex tasks. Enterprises were asked about their internal preparations for automation, such as whether they have a plan in place and whether their technology is capable of upholding an automated system.

“Oftentimes, businesses adopt an automation-related practice without understanding their consumer needs. Customers then have to deal with long wait times, bots that cannot answer their questions, or proving their identity with each new redirection,” Fitzgerald says. “We all know what that is like-waiting on the other end of the phone, repeating your name and phone number with each new segment of the bot’s script. The result is frustrated consumers-only 9% of whom actually trust virtual agents to solve their problem. As it is, companies must rethink how they can help their customers solve problems. Our research expands on how automation can be used effectively to provide a better user experience overall.”


Other findings

While 51% of the survey respondents agree that virtual agents work well for simple inquiry, quality service remains the top issue for customers. More than 75% of consumers would prefer to have a live agent solve their problem in a longer time period, as opposed to a virtual agent that would solve their problem in two minutes or less, according to the research.


“Efficiency might be important, but businesses are ignoring consumers’ needs for quality. Human agents simply bring a connection that virtual agents cannot bring,” says Daniel Thomas, vice president, automation, integration, and alliances for NTT DATA Services.

“More than that, what we have found is that millennials are not among those who trust virtual agents,” Fitzgerald says. “While they are willing to use the technology to accomplish a task, they agree it needs to be able to provide quality service in the same way that a live agent can. This is where the business should take measures to train both their human employees and their customers. Humans may not be the agents answering the phones, but they can be trained to manage the technology in a way that makes it simpler for consumers to use.”

Next: An added bonus



As an added bonus, according to Fitzgerald, when people are able to work alongside automation, they are then empowered to start exploring more strategic and complex tasks. “For consumers, businesses can use an introductory period, in which their new bots answer the phone with a personal name, introduction and explanation of their function,” he says. “From there, customers can choose to work through the agent, or have an easily accessed line to a human agent.”

Businesses must focus on the outcomes, according to Fitzgerald. “While customers do value efficiency, they also value quality and businesses cannot afford to forget this as they bring automation to the forefront of their operations,” he says. “When a business can adopt a solution that allows for quality service that is also accurate and focused on the people both inside and outside of the company, they are more likely to succeed. From there, automation can become part of everything, enabling the enterprise to take full advantage of the capabilities it brings to operations and the opportunities it opens for employees.”

Managed care importance

The findings are relevant to any place in the healthcare industry where there is value in person-to-person interaction, says Thomas. Previous research has shown that people actually try to resolve things themselves through online self-service applications 63% of time before making a phone call, according to Thomas.

“However, with machines today, consumers have expressed frustration with the simple self-service model of virtual agents,” he says. “They feel as though the machines force them to figure out problems on their own, or wait on hold for an extended period of time. People ultimately want to interact with other humans. When virtual agents are used on the other end of the line, they need to be able to solve the problem in the same manner that a human would-personably, efficiently and effectively. When healthcare executives can ensure that their virtual agents are solving problems in accordance with consumer needs, they are better able to focus on the more complex patient needs.”

Based on the research, Fitzgerald and Thomas offers three pieces of advice for healthcare executives when using agents:

  • Positive engagements rely on your agents-human and virtual-delivering the results consumers need. “Use your virtual agents to the highest advantage,” says Fitzgerald. “Instead of focusing on replacing the human-to-human interaction, focus instead on understanding what calls you want your virtual agents to handle. Most of the time, virtual agents can handle simple items, answering questions such as “Where is my card?” or “What time is my appointment?” By using your bots to answer these easy questions, you can free up your humans to do human work and to provide that human-to-human interaction that customers value so highly.”

  • People engaging with your business will be happier if you can provide both quality and speed. Fast answers that are correct are key, according to Thomas. “When investing in technology, both of these should be your top priorities,” he says.

  • The technology is rapidly getting better at providing quality and speed. “Now is the time to begin examining what the market has to offer,” Thomas says. “The number of people who prefer to work with virtual agents will only go up from here.” 
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