Power Virtual Agents – Past, Present and the Future

I am starting a new blog series with the motive to share some of the essentials that the beginners would like to know as they embark on the journey with the Power Virtual Agents.

In this blog, I am registering my thoughts as to how the Power Virtual Agents may have been conceived, key features & limitations and some details on its roadmap.

Power Platform Family

Each and every member in the Power Platform family has a distinct persona in terms of how they portray the data form the underlying Common Data Service. This distinct persona is what makes it useful to produce business solutions.

  • Common Data Service provides that robust technical infrastructure that forms the foundation for the Power Platform.
  • Power Apps enables anyone to create Web or App UI that most businesses are familiar with on top of CDS.
  • Power BI enables anyone to create a Report UI
  • Power automate is a thread that knead between all the three family members.

If we notice it keenly, this Power Platform setup is scalable to any futuristic User Interfaces. We have Traditional Web/App based UI, Reporting UI and what about the other UIs that can be possible with the underlying CDS?

Bot Framework

There is a team that wanted to create a framework that can enable very powerful and advanced bot development, that isn’t constrained by the no code/low code approach but prioritizes the power, flexibility and pushing all the boundaries of bot making. But with great power, comes the great responsibility. This responsibility means that developers need to be engaged who must be proficient with the bot framework and all the related services, deeper knowledge in azure and deployments. This required considerable resources, time to market is longer and requires a team of developers for support post implementation.

“Adoption” remains a challenge.

Parallely, the Power Platform is becoming a huge hit in the mass market with the no/low code approach powered by the CDS.

Virtual Agent for Customer Service

So, a product is conceived that prioritizes the low code phenomenon, but built on top of the Bot Framework; like a wrapper abstracting all the underlying Bot Framework complexities, but still truly representing the essence of Bot Framework – The Virtual Agent for Customer Service was introduced. In fact, it isn’t hard to understand the feature set of Virtual Agent for Customer Service if you followed the history of bot framework closely.

I got an opportunity to play with it and have blogged my thoughts. It is a great product that simplified the bot making and truly bringing the capability to the mainstream. But such a shame that it was segmented with the “Customer Service” branding. The VA for Customer Service needed the recognition it deserved in order to help with mainstream adoption.

On the other hand, Power Platform keeps getting matured to add almost any User Interface on the sophisticated Common Data Service. What if the “customer service” segmentation is removed and VA for Customer Service is elevated to work with the full potential of CDS? This way the VA for Customer Service can be given the recognition it needs at the same time, it just feels like this is where it belongs.

Then, Ignite happened.

Ignite 2019 & Power Virtual Agents

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In Ignite, the Virtual Agent for Customer Service got rebranded as Power Virtual Agents which provided this bot making tool the elusive status in the Power Platform family and soon it rose to prominence in the community. It almost feels like Microsoft created this elite Power Platform family so that it could add the product that it wishes to attain the mass market attention – Virtual Agent for Customer Service is definitely worth that attention. After all, democratizing the AI is one of the top priorities.

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So, coming back to our Power Platform narrative, currently we have Web/App UI, Reporting UI and Conversational UI. Let’s wait a few more years possibly for Reality UI and the corresponding Power Reality(?) may be. Just saying!

Features & Future

Below are some of the core features as part of the Power Virtual Agents and its roadmap. I’d like to remind you that the Power Virtual Agents is currently in Public Preview and the reason I am pointing out the roadmaps and limitations (and some of my wishlist features :)) and are purely because of the belief that right expectations can be had while self-understanding the product and potentially recommending to the clients when it becomes Generally Available.

Bot Authoring

You might already be aware how easy it is to author the bot with no code and how Power Automate really becomes the Power Virtual Agents’ best friend in helping it connect to hundreds of products and services. Currently the customer cannot upload an image to the Bot and it is inevitable that this feature will end up in the bot in the future as it may open up many interesting scenarios when we couple this with Cognitive Services (more on this later).

Currently the bots lack personality and the brand that your organization would like to reflect. In the future, Power Virtual Agent potentially offers the capability to customize the elements such as avatar, background colors and chat bubble to reflect the brand of an organization.

If you are familiar with the Adaptive Cards, you would appreciate the Adaptive Cards support within the Power Virtual Agents. This way the bot’s response can be made visually appealing to the customer especially when the bot needs to surface a lot of information in the chat window. Currently, Power Virtual Agents does not support it and this is in my personal wishlist and hoping to get it sooner.

In the future, more the customers interact, the better it gets. Currently, there is a lot of guess work with creating topics and trigger phrases. In the future, bot will surface suggestions to the author about topics and trigger phrases people are using that the bot doesn’t yet know how to answer. This way, the author can choose to create or modify topics to improve the customer engagement.

Language Support

Currently only English is supported by the Power Virtual Agents and no known workaround to support additional languages. In the future additional languages will be supported to cater to diverse audience.

Bot Export and Import

Currently, when we sign up for the bot, we get a Power Virtual Agent on a particular environment and this is where we build the bot, test and publish to your customer. But, this is not ideal as we do not want to fiddle with the bots when we know our customers are on the same environment. If we need that level of environment separation, we need to hand create all the topics in each and every environment, which is not efficient and error prone. In the future, we will have an ability to export and import the topics that might simplify the bot provisioning in other environments.

Channels

We want the bots to be where the customers are. That means, the bot must be available almost on all the social channels to attend to the external customers and organization channels such as Teams, Slack to cater to the internal customers. The image above presents the variety of channels the Power Virtual Agents already support. We can see many more channels being added in the future to reach the customers no matter where they are.

When I call the help desk, I have always heard that the “Calls are monitored and recorded” when we are about to start our interaction with the human agents, but I never get a copy of those recordings. But, the trend has started where the Live Chat transcript is being shared with the customer. Currently, sending the bot interaction transcript to the customer is not present out of the box and this is in my wishlist as well.

Authentication

There is a lot of value in bot knowing the customer that is chatting. This way, when the customer asks any data that pertains to them, the bot can look it up and present it back to the customer securely. Recently, Power Virtual Agents recently introduced a way for a customer to click a button within the chat window for authentication purposes which will make the bot fully cognizant of the customer to serve them effectively.

Personally, I like auto authenticating the customer if the customer is already authenticated on a web channel, as this will reduce the friction of invoking the authentication process and enhance the user experience significantly. Hoping this will make it in one of the future releases (wishlist feature). Fingers Crossed!

Analytics

Bots without analytics is typically useless. There is really no way for the bot makers to understand where the bot shines and where it is lacking. With Power Virtual Agents, we get a full suite of industry standard KPIs and analytics powered by Power BI. But, if you are wanting to customize the analytics by adding new reports or updating based on your organization KPIs, you are out of luck.

Handoff to the Human Agent

The Power Virtual Agent can be integrated with the Omnichannel Engagement hub in such a way that the bot can handoff the conversation to the Human agent without needing to write any code. But, having to handoff the bot to products other than Omnichannel engagement hub (such as Teams) may require custom development. Stay tuned to know more about how to setup the handoff to other products.

Signing off

To be fair, the Power Virtual Agent is still in Preview but the feature set is amazing and the whole idea lives up to its promise. The roadmap is super strong with some advanced features. Take sometime to familiarize yourself with the roadmap features. By the time you read this post, most of the limitations and roadmap features may have already made it to the product. Now that the Power Virtual Agent joins the Power Platform, the visibility is high and the expectations are sky rocketing and adoption shouldn’t be a concern anymore.

As I mentioned before, the dream of AI for every business is not impossible anymore, if we are up for it.

Now, all I need is for the Power Virtual Agents to be Generally Available.

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