For better or worse, e-commerce lacks human sales help. Online broker Esurance hopes a virtual customer service rep can get users over the initial hump of signing on.
The San Francisco-based Esurance is the e-commerce operation of White Mountains Insurance, which claims about 110,000 policyholders.
It woos its target market of young consumers with a fast self-service experience, promising they can print out their own insurance cards in around ten minutes. Now, the company aims to up its customer relationship management with a talking, interactive version called "Erin Esurance," the illustrated character who's the face of the online agency.
On Tuesday, the moving, talking version of Erin went live, in the form of a Veeper. Veepers are "virtual people" created with technology from Pulse.
The Veeper will act as Esurance's "welcome wagon," said Lisa Ward, Esurance director of customer experience. "Because we were feeling there's a challenge right after someone has bought, we have a team of people in our service center. We took that concept and brought it to the online realm."
Ward said that there's a higher conversion rate when site users pick up the phone and call the service center. "But since we're an online model, we were looking to blend the best of both worlds," she added.
Pulse's authoring system lets users quickly create virtual characters using any photo or other two-dimensional image. Veepers move their heads, blink their eyes and move their lips along with their spoken messages created via built-in text-to-speech. Unlike video, which must be reshot each time there is new dialog, the text-to-speech function lets authors easily change the content of the messages, with facial expressions and lip movements automatically generated to match. Pulse markets Veepers as a low-file-size alternative to streaming video.
While most Pulse clients, including State Farm Insurance and Grolsch Beer, choose to animate photos of business people, Ward said Esurance's goal was to extend the branding of its signature character. The static image of Erin Esurance, created by San Francisco animation company Wild Brain, was introduced in July 2004. She appears throughout the company's e-commerce site and she was also used in a television ad campaign.
"Erin was so well-suited and animation was well-suited for the Internet," Ward said.
For starters, the Veeper version of Erin will be used for specific situations in which follow-up is needed, for example, when a new customer needs to file an extra form required by the state. "Because we're paperless, Erin provides some online assistance as to what this information is about, and whether they'll need to send anything," Ward said.
Ward said the goals for deploying Veeper technology are lowered costs in follow-up by human customer service reps, and she's expecting at least a 20 percent reduction in calls to the call center. An intangible benefit is reducing hassles for customers.
While this is the first time that a corporate customer has deployed Veeper technology to animate an illustration, according to Ed Manning, Pulse SVP of worldwide sales and services, he said that many animators use Veepers. Pulse has a partnership with Warner Bros. to co-develop Veeperized versions of Looney Tunes characters to be used on mobile devices.
Pulse introduced Mobile Veepers in September 2003. They can be used for multi-media messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, voicemail and chat functions.
Manning said Veepers tech speeds the development of multi-language mobile applications. "We make the visual Veeper once take the .wav files and automatically render the Veeper in all those different languages."