Apple's Siri may be helping to get people comfortable with the idea of virtual assistants.
Alain Avakian, the Rent.com CTO, points to Siri when he talks about his own interest in virtual chat technology and its potential to augment customer service at his business.
"Recently, it's gotten quite good," Avakian said of virtual assistant technology, "The actual technology, the algorithms are pretty well done," he said.
But Avakian says he has to make sure that the virtual assistant has a "robust knowledge base" to tap into when it accesses the Rent.com data warehouse. The virtual assistant must also understand the types of questions customers are commonly asking, he said.
Virtual assistants, or chatbots, are powered by sophisticated algorithms that can interpret natural language and deliver answers either via online chat or voice.
Apple's Siri may be the most famous example of a chatbot today, but the technology is certain to expand, as Rent.com's plan illustrates.
Avakian said virtual assistants may help customers, especially during late night hours when his 30-member customer support team isn't working.
Rent.com was born in the dot.com boom and thrived through the bust.
The apartment listing service was acquired by eBay for $415 million in 2005. The online auction house sold Rent.com earlier this year to Primedia, which also operates rental listing sites, for an undisclosed price.
The sale is bringing some changes to Rent.com's IT, changes that allow for the addition of virtual assistants.
The company is migrating off the Kana Software enterprise CRM platform it used as a unit of eBay and is moving to Kana's software-as-a-service (SaaS) CRM that will allow it to incorporate virtual chat assistants.
Rent.com plans to use the hosted CRM offering's tools that allow customers to interact naturally, via online chat and are intended to augment staff support.
Following the sale to Primedia, Avakian considered migrating to a number of CRM vendors, but settled on Kana Express, a new version of the vendor's enterprise software that's delivered as a service.
Deciding to go with a SaaS platform was not difficult, said Avakian. "I don't have to spec out room in the data center," he said.
The service also means Rent.com doesn't have to deal with software, upgrades or the IT infrastructure, he added.
Rent.com owns its hardware but uses a Savvis data center facility.
"All the stuff that goes into launching an enterprise class solution is no longer on my lap," said Avakian.
Avakian believes virtual assistants can one day be used to handle routine queries and free customer service reps to deal with more complex problems.
James Norwood, Kana's CMO, said virtual agents use natural language technology that can detect sarcasm, or positive and negative sentiment, but their capability depends on how much knowledge they have access to.
"The longer you have them place, the more you can feed them, the more intelligent they become, and therefore the more accurate they are in their responses," said Norwood, though he added that the technology is by no means perfect.
"Interactive chat is powerful because it allows both human and automated agents to handle multiple conversations at the same time and also provide staff augmentation," said Ray Wang, principal analyst and CEO at Constellation Research.
But Wang said virtual tools may not necessarily keep a business from adding customer service reps, because the tools may encourage more engagement, business and support.
"The problem is the service expectations then grow and the volume increases again," said Wang, who called it a virtuous circle.
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.