Two online insurance carriers, State Farm and Esurance, have recently contracted Pulse, a San Francisco-based software outfit, to deploy its technology on their Web sites with the aim of boosting customer confidence leading into mission-critical online tasks. Pulse's virtual personalities, known as Veepers, create the impression of streaming video personalities but consume less bandwidth while offering more flexibility and interactivity with users. Internal metrics from both Pulse and its wide range of clients suggest that these features can be instrumental in increasing completion rates of critical site task flows. This brief will discuss the technical and qualitative strategies behind Veeper technology, address its current implementations and investigate future deployment strategies that signal opportunities for improving the online insurance experience.
- Technical strategy relies on advantages.
To the untrained eye, Veepers appear and perform similarly to streaming video. In reality, they use Pulse's IDE technology to manipulate facial expressions (smile, blink speak, etc.) on a fixed JPEG image and match them with accompanying audio dialogue. Pulse claims that a typical Veeper's file size can be anywhere from 20 to 50 times smaller than a streaming video file of the same duration. Veepers also minimize file size by not requiring users to view a "one size fits all" presentation. Upon loading a page, a Veeper greets a user with a 30 to 50kb message and awaits user interaction. The user can then click on various links to hear more from the Veeper on applicable topics of interest. While file sizes are already low, Veepers also have the capability to identify a user's connection speed and optimize its audio compression level, thereby balancing file size and audio quality for users with the slowest connection speeds. A final advantage over streaming video is the fact that messages are easy to change. Unlike altering a video file, which requires re-recording, the Veeper's messages can be changed by typing new text into the speech creation software. This provides for on-the-fly content updates not possible with video.
- Human nature drives qualitative strategy.
Pulse has developed its Veepers strategy by relying on the research of Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI), which claims people are genetically programmed to respond more favorably to a person speaking than simple text on a screen. CSLI has concluded that users are three times more likely to provide personal information when a character is positioned appropriately and that the likelihood of solving a customer service issue is 77% with an online character versus 50% without. Pulse believes that Veepers are more capable than streaming video technology because of their ability to interact with an individual user. Veepers greet and engage the user and prompt him to click on specific topics of interest or confusion. Matching information with the appropriate emotions is crucial for a positive customer experience and Pulse uses Stanford's research for every detail of online personality such as physical and verbal ranges of emotion. Consider the customer experience of an overly enthusiastic Veeper communicating unforeseen complications.
- Present manifestations.
Currently, State Farm's Veepers appear at the beginning of the auto rate quote and online enrollment as actual agents welcoming users and explaining how long the processes will take and what information and materials will be required. Esurance, a San Francisco-based insurance carrier that sells policies solely online, is finalizing its own Veeper with Pulse where the company's animated spokeswoman will appear after a policy has been purchased. Esurance's aim is to use its Veeper to alert purchasers to information specific to them, such as a state-specific requirement for vehicle inspection that, if overlooked in text, could delay or cancel the underwriting process. In both cases, the carrier is using Veepers to address its most critical online obstacles: quote and enrollment completion for State Farm and communication of after-purchase follow-up requirements for Esurance.
- Additional opportunities for Veepers.
Both Esurance and State Farm are monitoring early results with an eye on further implementations. A Veeper can appear during a task and assure the user they are three minutes from completion and to expect the following items, thus elevating the user's level of confidence and reducing abandonment rates. Raising comfort level is crucial, especially when personal information is being divulged. Veepers have the potential to make existing policyholders more comfortable with making changes to personal information or policies online as opposed to picking up a phone. Veepers can be used to proactively explain why an auto quote form requires their social security number and can address how the information is protected. Lastly, claims initiation, a process that benefits from the personal touch, is another possible consideration. An already emotional user who has just had a collision can be guided through the process rather than having to negotiate text on their own.
Veepers are a new take on customer service and, if implemented thoughtfully, can be a tremendous asset for creating a positive online experience. A primary goal throughout the online insurance industry has always been to eliminate obstacles for the online user while ensuring a high level of confidence throughout. By preempting online interactions with relevant information, Veepers can augment online completion rates, boost customer satisfaction and reduce usage of more costly channels. However, careful scripting of dialogue is crucial and over-use or improper positioning will be a nuisance to users. Ultimately, the success or failure of this technology will rest on its implementation.
Jay Basnight is a Research Analyst with Watchfire GómezPro in Waltham, MA. He can be reached at [email protected].