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Virtual Assistance

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I recently tried out a new assistant, but I don’t see it working out long-term; in fact, I think I will end our partnership sooner than later. At first, Amy seemed so great – upbeat attitude, super responsive, incredibly dogged in her pursuit of finding the ideal time for all parties involved for a meeting. But like any relationship, the shine has worn off, and I am ready to move on.

This may be a good time to note that Amy has been my virtual assistant (or “my robot” as my actual human assistant Amanda calls her) for the past few weeks. I was lucky enough to hear a really fantastic futurist speak at a recent training for a board I serve on, and he spent a significant amount of time discussing artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on all businesses, especially professional services firms. I freely admit some of what he detailed was completely outside of my realm or skillset, but I liked the idea of dabbling with AI by going here and signing up for a free trial.

The set-up was really easy; the emails I received from Amy (I could choose between Amy or Andrew, an option I appreciated) were warm, and I was excited to see how it worked. A quick glance at my calendar shows that six hours of every workday are occupied by meetings. Although the internal ones are easy to set up due to our shared calendars, setting up meetings with prospective clients, volunteer leaders or project collaborators can be more challenging, with the ubiquitous Doodle poll as the only option.

Amy reached out to me as soon as I hooked up my calendar. You can let her know some basic preferences (conference call line, cell phone, location, etc.) and the site notes that it usually takes her/it about 12 meetings to start to feel totally comfortable using the service.

I was a bit hesitant to use Amy to schedule anything high-risk – say, with our client partners. My internal contacts or people I know well, however, were prime targets. I breezily noted that “Amy will take care of setting this up for us,” and watched appointments emerge on my calendar.

But then, it got a little annoying. I had to train Amy that anyone with an mci-group.com domain didn’t need to know our office address, and that my conference line was preferred over my cell phone. Every small correction caused her to make a calendar update, which we all know can be annoying if you have to accept each one.

Was it me, or did her tone become a little less friendly once I pointed out something to change?

We recently updated our own website – www.mciusa.com – and it will have chatbot functionality. This experience was a great reminder that AI needs to be taught and that we will need to spend some time ensuring that our customer service bot speaks to people in a way that is warm, engaging and – most importantly – helpful.

Our management team heard a great speaker last month, and our speaker spent some time on this topic as well, showcasing this demo of how AI can speed up transactions that normally take a considerable amount of time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flSLI2JmWVE

If you take time to watch even the first 30 seconds, you will see the speed, informal language and ability to collect information is pretty neat.

In any case, my trial is over – so what did I learn?

  • AI is already here – we all interface with some version of this via customer service experiences or the recommendations we see when we log into Amazon.
  • Like always, associations are somewhat behind on this – but just like our member expectations around the consumer interface were raised due to the investments large corporations made, our members will soon (or already) expect instant customer service assistance when they visit your site.
  • People get your content pushed out to them – so chances are, when they visit your site, they have an issue that needs solving – maybe a research summary to buy, or a contact they need to look up, or an event registration. Our client partner home pages really need to offer solutions to their stakeholders – and we need to view how we structure resources through that lens.
  • A lesson that I seem to relearn every few years of my career – that despite technology, sometimes it is a lot easier and more personally satisfying to walk down the hall or pick up the phone rather than turfing scheduling to “my robot.”

I think the most important thing I have relearned over the past month is that our work with non-profit organizations expose many of us to some incredibly smart people – speakers, experts, officials, servant-leaders. I made it a goal to not just take notes during several speeches, but come home and implement at least one actionable element. It allowed me to relive a little of that in-person event magic in my office, and gave me a chance to expose my peers to a few takeaways as well. So the next time you hear about the next big thing, go ahead and take it for a spin when you get back to your office. Tell Amy or Andy that I sent you.

Erin Fuller is the president of MCI USA’s Association Solutions business unit. Her favorite childhood cartoon was “The Jetsons” and she is still waiting for a closet just like Judy’s.

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