Book Image

Empowering Organizations with Power Virtual Agents

By : Nicolae Tarla
Book Image

Empowering Organizations with Power Virtual Agents

By: Nicolae Tarla

Overview of this book

Power Virtual Agents is a set of technologies released under the Power Platform umbrella by Microsoft. It allows non-developers to create solutions to automate customer interactions and provide services using a conversational interface, thus relieving the pressure on front-line staff providing this kind of support. Empowering Organizations with Power Virtual Agents is a guide to building chatbots that can be deployed to handle front desk services without having to write code. The book takes a scenario-based approach to implementing bot services and automation to serve employees in the organization and external customers. You will uncover the features available in Power Virtual Agents for creating bots that can be integrated into an organization’s public site as well as specific web pages. Next, you will understand how to build bots and integrate them within the Teams environment for internal users. As you progress, you will explore complete examples for implementing automated agents (bots) that can be deployed on sites for interacting with external customers. By the end of this Power Virtual Agents chatbot book, you will have implemented several scenarios to serve external client requests for information, created scenarios to help internal users retrieve relevant information, and processed these in an automated conversational manner.
Table of Contents (18 chapters)
Section 1: An Introduction to Power Virtual Agents
Section 2: Leveraging Power Virtual Agents on Your Website
Section 3: Leveraging Power Virtual Agents in Teams
Section 4: Best Practices for Power Virtual Agents

What is a chatbot?

Chatbots, or simply bots for the context of this book, are not something new. They are almost as old as the internet. Of course, they evolved at different stages, taking various shapes and forms.

At a high level, the definition of a bot is a piece of software, or an application, that performs an automated task or set of tasks.

Way back in the beginning, chatbots were doing this by running a script or a set of scripts. This is nothing more than automating a set of commands.

If you think about it, it is pretty obvious how this would be valuable. It has been recognized that when dealing with repetitive tasks, leveraging a bot can not only take some of the workload from humans but also perform these tasks much faster and much more accurately.

This might sound familiar to those of us who have looked at how the personal computer was born. Not only have chatbots been around for almost as long as the personal computer, but they are now as important and prevalent as the personal computer, as we will see when we look at internet traffic consumption later in this chapter. As a matter of fact, the Encyclopedia Britannica defines a computer as a device for processing, storing, and displaying information (

But let's take a step back in time and look at some history. Bear with me here; this will set the necessary context for where we are going.

A condensed history of bots

The internet took shape in the 1970s. But it only caught the attention of the general public in the early 1990s. So, when I mentioned in the introduction that bots are almost as old as the internet, I was not lying.

Some of the first appearances of bots can be traced back to 1988. Yes, you read that right. Their preferred cradle at the time was a network called Internet Relay Chat (IRC). For those of us with gray hair, or no hair left at all, this will be familiar. We used to spend entire nights exchanging information and finding things out, reading documentation and other materials shared, among other things. Various servers were powering different networks with multiple channels, some more friendly or interesting than others. Funnily enough, IRC is still around; you can always poke around and find out more about it.

Those early bots provided all sorts of automation in a channel. From keeping a channel active, recognizing users, and providing them with moderator or administrator status, to responding to specific commands and even returning automated messages or documents, they were ubiquitous in that space.

As a matter of fact, they were extremely important. Due to the nature of IRC, a bot was always used by an established channel in order to keep the channel open and to prevent malicious users from taking over that channel. At the time, these kinds of bots were run from machines with long uptimes, typically running some version of BSD or Linux.

As they started to show true value, they started to become more refined and to escape the confines of IRC. They also started to separate functionality. Some bots are designed for the repetitive execution of tasks, while others are more inclined toward conversation. And that's how chatbots were born.

Some of the first incarnations of bots outside of IRC though were in fact web crawlers. To be more specific, the first such bot was called WebCrawler, and it was created in 1994. It went from AOL to Excite. But the most famous web crawler was created in 1996. It was named BackRub and was later renamed Googlebot.

Important note

To find out more about BackRub, take a look at the following link:

But bots have not always been used for a good cause, as we will see in the next section.

Malicious use of chatbots

As bots became recognized for their power and usefulness, they started to catch the attention of various malicious groups. Just like everything on the internet, they started to take on a life of their own, varying based on the group that adopted them.

Besides the obvious valid and good use cases, bots started to be adopted and used for malicious use cases. Having the ability to perform a large set of actions in an automated way was appealing to all.

Between the years 1999 and 2000, several incarnations of malicious bots and botnets (groups of bots working in conjunction) started to appear, for which people were unprepared. Some of these activities started through IRC but then expanded into the wild.

The year 2007 brought us one of the largest botnets at the time, called Storm. It was estimated that the botnet infected 50 million computers. There were various programmed use cases and scenarios leveraged in the attack. While negative in its intended use, it did show that bots can really scale.

Some of these use cases include actions such as sending large numbers of spam emails, identity theft, unauthorized distribution of malware, DDoS attacks, bots for artificially increasing traffic and revenue on advertising, game cheating bots, and many more.

But it is not all bad, so let's shift gears and fast forward a little.

Fast forward to today

What we know and use today on the internet was shaped in great part by bots. Starting with the assistance provided on various IRC channels, or the web crawlers that put information at the fingertips of users, bots evolved into indispensable tools for many business use cases. The ability to automate processes, as well as the power to interact with bots through normal conversation, became an indispensable tool. As technology evolved, so did the capacity of bots. We can now create smarter, faster, and better bots. Bots assist us in doing our day-to-day activities, assist our customers, and provide a differentiator for businesses that adopt and use them wisely. The current business landscape has evolved to leverage bots at scale.

In fact, bots are currently adopted so much that some statistics show that out of today's web traffic, roughly half is bot-generated traffic. As technology evolves, exponential bot traffic growth is expected. This will be driven by technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Artificial Intelligence of Things (AIoT) and the ability to implement conversational scenarios through natural language processing.

Let's just look at the Turing test, developed in the 1950s. It was meant to test the ability of a machine to have a conversation with a human in an indistinguishable manner from a normal conversation between two humans.

As AI-infused conversational chatbots have taken shape, their uses have extended into various scenarios, including the following:

  • Messaging applications, either as part of websites or baked into various applications.
  • Marketing platforms with a focus on external customers and potential customers.
  • Company internal platforms focused on serving internal users and employees.
  • Customer service scenarios targeted at helping existing customers.
  • Healthcare scenarios for scheduling appointments, locating services, or providing basic medical information.
  • Toys are getting smarter, with educational scenarios for various ages.

Chatbots are used in many other scenarios too.

In today's business world, chatbots will have an essential role to play. Let's look at the expected impact next.

Impact on organizations

As organizations of all sizes strive to evolve and compete with one another, part of their digital transformation strategy is to look at the use of bots.

Also known as enterprise chatbots, bots can serve various use cases in business, including the handling of customer-facing functions such as managing order status updates, cancellations and returns, account balance and payment processing, and customer service through automated support, all of which lessen the load on customer support and other teams.

Through integration with various automation processes, including Robotic Process Automation (RPA), enterprise bots can not only increase customer satisfaction and provide better and faster services but also greatly reduce expenses, reduce workload on support staff, and serve various other purposes.

We do have to recognize, though, that while bots have gotten smarter and can do more, they are not in a position to replace humans. Hence, their position is ideal as a first line of contact, but processes will be escalated to a human team for more complex scenarios or scenarios that are not pre-determined.

Furthermore, the technological evolution over the last several years has brought us the democratization of bots and the bot creation experience. A multitude of platforms now allow non-developers to start creating basic bots for various scenarios.

To somewhat differentiate them from the old, negative connotation associated with the bot nomenclature, but also to more closely describe a specific category of services offered by bots nowadays, we find bots being referred to as virtual agents. Organizations have offerings of great value, such as the following:

And these are only some of the larger offerings. There is a whole range of solutions available from smaller vendors.

The differentiating factors between these offerings are their ease of use and creation, their ease of integration into various applications and services, their capability to leverage AI, their capability to resolve real use case scenarios in the most efficient manner possible, their capability to monitor their evolution and performance, and their ability to manage any associated risks. As AI is becoming more embedded in technology, ethics is a new topic on the table as well. The ethical consideration is at the forefront of a lot of new technologies, as we strive to make sure that the use of these platforms serves a real purpose and does not have a negative impact on people.

Some of the most common scenarios for enterprise virtual agents include the following:

  • Support bots aimed at providing real-time help to customers
  • Informational bots providing additional context in specific scenarios
  • Application bots providing specific application access
  • Enterprise productivity bots enabling organizations to streamline and integrate systems and processes

From a visual perspective, these chatbots are presented in various ways. It is often up to the design team to define the look and feel of chatbots on their specific target locations.

From a web presence perspective, the visual presentation often takes a cue from the overall web design, keeping with the tone of the branding of the respective site or pages where the chatbot is present. Let's have a quick look at some of the formats for presentation, as seen with a few of the larger providers of this service.

ServiceNow presents on their platform page a minimalistic chatbot at the bottom right of their page; it looks like this:

Figure 1.1 – ServiceNow chatbot

Figure 1.1 – ServiceNow chatbot

To make it obvious that a user browsing this page can engage with the chatbot, a starting message is also presented in a conversation bubble.

IBM, on the other hand, takes a more simplistic approach, presenting a simple icon:

Figure 1.2 – IBM chatbot

Figure 1.2 – IBM chatbot

When clicked, a conversation window is presented to the user, as presented in the following screenshot:

Figure 1.3 – IBM chatbot conversation window

Figure 1.3 – IBM chatbot conversation window

Other organizations take a less conservative approach, by presenting the chatbot trigger with a graphic representing a robot, as we see in the following example from ShareGate:

Figure 1.4 – ShareGate chatbot

Figure 1.4 – ShareGate chatbot

Besides the custom-designed representations, there are many options for free graphics-depicting chatbots available on various sites that serve stock images. These can be used to put a face to your virtual agent.

It is not uncommon for these chatbots to receive a name and even a person's image or avatar in order to make them a little more personal. You might see messages such as the following, presented by the Amtrak virtual assistant:

Figure 1.5 – Amtrak chatbot

Figure 1.5 – Amtrak chatbot

Typically, you will see these chatbots presented at the bottom right of a web page. Note that not all elements positioned in that area of the presented web page are chatbots. Chatbots will not always be presented in that particular page area. It is simply a design decision rather than a standard. Historically, the bottom-right area of a web page was the space used by organizations for mailing list subscription buttons or social network links. A little bit of healthy competition for that screen real estate takes place sometimes.

Now that we understand more about chatbots and have seen how other organizations create and present chatbots, let's next focus our attention on the Microsoft offering.