Intelligent virtual assistant (IVA): Definition, benefits, and use cases

IVA user enjoying the efficiencies brought by IVR usage
March 25, 2024
Written by
Alvin Lee
Opinions expressed by Twilio contributors are their own
Reviewed by
Dave Esber

Intelligent Virtual Assistant (IVA): Definition, Benefits, and Use Cases

Intelligent virtual assistants (IVA) are incredibly sophisticated applications with the potential to revolutionize the way modern businesses service customers.

In this post, we'll dive into IVAs, exploring the various types and highlighting the benefits, especially within the context of customer engagement. We'll also touch on the integration of IVAs with contact center platforms like Twilio Flex.

What is an intelligent virtual assistant (IVA)?

An IVA is an application powered by artificial intelligence that can understand user requests and converse with users in a natural way.

Historically, basic virtual assistants could follow predefined scripts and perform straightforward tasks based on user input. These assistants could even answer frequently asked questions (FAQs) based on the detection of certain keywords.

The IVA, on the other hand, comes from innovations made by AI and machine learning (ML). Far beyond executing basic tasks, IVAs can understand context, learn from interactions, and engage in complex conversations with intuitive responses.

What does this mean for businesses? IVAs enable businesses to offer a dynamic and ultra personalized user experience to customers.

Let’s start with an examination of the core technological concepts.

How do intelligent virtual assistants work?

Advanced and sophisticated, IVA capabilities center on key foundational technologies related to AI/ML. Understanding these foundations helps to demystify the seemingly complex nature of IVAs.

Natural language processing (NLP)

Critical to the effectiveness of an IVA is its ability to understand and interpret human language. NLP is what enables IVAs to comprehend user queries and understand context. Because of NLP, interactions with an IVA feel natural and intuitive.

Predictive AI and adaptive learning

Using historical data, predictive AI forecasts outcomes and makes recommendations. It’s what enables IVAs to anticipate user needs. Through predictive AI and adaptive learning, an IVA can learn from user interactions and adapt over time. It not only understands what you ask it but can also anticipate what you might ask next. The more you interact with an IVA, the better it becomes at assisting you.

Generative AI

The use of generative AI in IVAs is somewhat secondary, but it still plays a role in creating more natural-sounding responses or generating solutions to complex queries. By replying with more than just generic or templated responses, IVAs can offer more dynamic user experiences.

Before we go on to explore the types of IVAs, let’s first clarify the differences between IVAs and chatbots.

Intelligent virtual assistants vs. chatbots

IVAs and chatbots each play pivotal roles in customer interaction. However, several distinctions set them apart.

  • Depth of interaction: IVAs can engage in nuanced and context-aware conversations, understanding user intent. In contrast, chatbots can only engage in basic conversations confined to specific topics.

  • Learning capabilities: IVAs can learn from past interactions with a user and adapt over time, unlike chatbots. This learning capability enables IVAs to deliver increasingly personalized experiences to users.

  • Integration and scalability: IVAs and chatbots can both integrate into your business operations, but IVAs scale better, especially when handling complex tasks.

Now that we’ve clarified the differences between IVAs versus chatbots, let’s explore some common types of IVAs.

Types of virtual assistants

Because different IVAs might have some overlapping capabilities or use cases, the categories aren’t rigid. However, all IVAs have commonalities in technology and usage. The following are some common types of IVAs:

  • Text-based: This is interaction primarily through text. Examples include ChatGPT or Bard.

  • Voice-based: This is interaction primarily through voice commands. Examples include Siri or Alexa.

  • Multimodal: This is interaction through a combination of text and voice, providing a more comprehensive user experience. One example is Google Assistant, which users can interact with by voice or by text through a handheld device. Another example is Google’s Contact Center AI platform (CCAI), which enterprises use alongside Twilio Programmable Voice and Flex solutions to intelligently automate the customer experience.

  • Domain-specific or specialized: This is interaction fine-tuned for performance within specific tasks or industries, such as healthcare and finance. With the wide availability of AI and automation tools, some companies are even building their own specialized IVAs.

Setting aside the broad range of IVA types available, what is common across all types is the ability to bring tangible benefits to businesses that use them, especially in the realm of customer service.

Benefits of using intelligent virtual assistants for customer service

As businesses seek to enhance customer service, IVAs have become an indispensable tool, bringing significant transformations to how companies engage with customers.

  • 24/7 availability: IVAs provide personalized support to customers around the clock, eliminating the constraints of traditional business hours while continuing to keep your human staff needs low.

  • Cost-efficiency: IVAs help businesses off-load a significant portion of customer interactions and can reduce the overhead associated with large customer service teams.

  • Consistent responses: IVAs ensure a consistent brand experience by guaranteeing that every customer receives accurate and uniform information.

  • Scalability: IVAs can handle increased query volume as your business grows, without any degradation of interaction quality.

With these benefits in mind, how might your business effectively integrate IVAs into its operations?

How your business can use AI virtual assistants

Your business may have one or several entry points where an IVA can enhance customer interactions and satisfaction. Here are some practical ways:

  • Embedded in your website or app: Embed an IVA directly into your digital platforms with a chat-style interface to provide real-time support for visitors.

  • Behind social media channels: Deploy an IVA on social media platforms, such as Meta (Facebook) or X (Twitter), for automated handling customer inquiries or support requests.

  • Powering interactive voice response (IVR) systems: Provide phone support with intelligent automation that helps customers quickly find what they’re looking for, freeing up human support agents to handle more complex customer inquiries.

  • Supporting internal operations: Use an IVA to streamline internal processes, perhaps by assisting employees with tech issues or human resource queries.

As demonstrated, businesses can integrate IVAs into various facets of operations. Now, let’s look more concretely at one example of IVAs in business: working alongside a digital engagement center like Twilio Flex.

IVAs and Twilio Flex

Integrating IVAs into your customer engagement approach may seem daunting at first. But it’s quite straightforward and can be a game changer for your business.

As a concrete example, you can build an IVR system to handle customer inquiries over the phone, gathering voice or touch-tone inputs and then responding intelligently with dynamically generated audio prompts. When you leverage technologies such as voice intelligence, speech analytics, and conversational AI, your IVR system can become a cutting-edge IVA. Your IVR system can take on a significant portion of the customer support burden, enabling you to reduce wait times, improve customer satisfaction, and scale without needing to add human resources.

Many modern companies build IVR systems and other types of IVAs by using Twilio Flex, a cloud contact center that helps businesses centralize and customize customer support and communications. Flex facilitates your support team’s ability to engage customers across multiple channels—including voice, chat, and social media. Additional features like contact center automation and CustomerAI help businesses reduce response times while leveraging AI-driven insights to enhance customer experiences.

Because Flex is fully programmable, you can build plug-ins that integrate IVAs. Whether your IVAs handle customer queries directly or assist your human agents as they engage with your customers, Flex’s adaptability means your IVA-leveraging solutions can scale as your business grows.

Additionally, fusing IVAs with a platform like Flex represents the future of customer service. So if your business wants to stay ahead of the curve by offering always-on and globally scalable experiences that delight your customers, this is a strategic approach worth pursuing. Check out a Flex demo to see for yourself.

The terms AI virtual assistant and intelligent virtual assistant are essentially synonymous. Therefore, an AI virtual assistant is an AI-powered application that can understand user requests and respond with natural language. This makes IVAs ideal for tasks such as customer support, scheduling, and information retrieval.