Why You’ll Train In Virtual Reality For Your Next Job

A solution to bad customer service?

Image by Maurizio Pesce/Flickr.

Have you ever dealt with a difficult airline employee while trying to check in for your flight or seemingly waited a lifetime just for a refill on your cup of coffee?

In today’s world, great customer service is simultaneously a cornerstone of almost any successful businesses and yet somehow a continually neglected element in so many of our daily transactions.

A Silicon Valley startup says the solution to training better customer service employees exists in the emerging world of virtual reality. “Taking a new hire and setting them free into the retail world can be a daunting prospect,” says Portico Studios CEO Franklin Alioto.

Alioto and Jeff Meador, Portico’s COO, have created a virtual reality system that uses artificial intelligence, or AI, to create some of the most common and challenging scenarios that a customer service employee faces in jobs ranging from waiter to hotel staff and even those in the medical field.

Instead of throwing a new employee into the wild, where they could upset a real-world customer, Portico’s system allows them to interact with a continually evolving “virtual customer.” Unlike a generic training manual or video, the interactive world of virtual reality allows the training system to not only decide if the trainee made the “right” decision, but can actually measure the “intent” of their response to help fine tune, and weed out, certain behaviors.

“Rather than just command with an answer, we’re having a conversation,” Meador says.

The Portico system uses voice recognition software to trigger a response from the virtual customer. The system’s AI gathers information from the employee’s performance in real time, which can be used during and after the training sessions to help improve their performance.

After a training session, Portico stores a full transcript of the trainee/customer interaction along with the video of the session and a detailed speech pattern analysis. That analysis includes a word cloud, showing the trainee which words or phrases they used the most.

“Sometimes when you’re nervous, you say things you don’t really mean to be saying,” Alioto says. “I say ‘absolutely’ quite a bit.”

In one scenario, Alioto and Meador describe how a restaurant employee works with an irritated customer. There are three potential decisions the employee can make, each with different reactions from the customer.

In the scenario, the trainee encounters a customer who says they’ve been waiting several minutes for their waiter or waitress to return. According to Alioto, the most common response is for a trainee to say, “I’ll go find your server now.” But according to data gathered from real-world customers, Portico has found that a more desirable response is for the trainee to both look for the customer’s assigned waiter while also offering to take the customer’s order directly.

A trainee interacts with a virtual reality restaurant customer. Image via Portico Studios/YouTube.

It may sound like a subtle distinction, but if you’ve ever sat in a restaurant with your stomach rumbling, you know it’s one that can make all the difference between a generous tip and a one-star Yelp review.

As they work with clients in the corporate space, Alioto says they are mindful to keep the hardware requirements reasonable, creating versions of Portico that will work on traditional VR headsets along with more nimble, mobile phone versions.

Describing themselves as avid video game players, Meador says he and Alioto were initially looking at virtual reality applications in the entertainment space. And in the Portico demo, you can see that gaming element, where trainees are in a sense able to improve their “scores” by adapting to more successful service behaviors and coming back to replay training scenarios after receiving vital feedback from the AI.

“There was something really magical and really important about having a controlled, repeatable, scripted conversation that changed based on what you did,” Meador says. “This is exactly what corporate training is lacking right now. A safe, repeatable conversation where you can understand how a real conversation plays out.”

On Oct. 10, Portico plans to debut its training system to the public at the HR Technology Conference and Exhibition in Las Vegas.

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

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