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Short on resources and keen to keep clients from straying to other providers? A digital avatar called Sophie is set to change the way clients seek help from practices. By Angela Tufvesson
A client wants to know about puppy training, so a vet nurse called Sophie talks through some common strategies. Someone else worries their cat might have arthritis, so Sophie asks some screening questions and provides more information about the condition. Sophie also mans the phone after hours. In fact, she works all day, every day. Because—here’s the kicker—Sophie is a digital human who doesn’t need to sleep, eat or maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Your new digital colleague
Launched in March, Sophie is a new feature of Virtual Vet Nurse, an artificial intelligence (AI) powered chatbot developed in New Zealand two years ago in the early stages of the pandemic. Called Bruce, Sarah, Victor and a range of other monikers, these chatbots live on practice websites and help clients with routine tasks and queries like bookings, refilling medication orders and product sales.
Sophie is a ‘digital colleague’ who works alongside the Virtual Vet Nurse chatbot. She is an avatar who communicates with non-verbal cues, like facial expressions or tone of voice, to provide a dynamic, emotionally responsive and informative experience for clients. Talking with Sophie is a bit like a tele-consult with a vet nurse as she looks, sounds and empathises much like a regular human.
Steve Merchant, CEO of Virtual Vet Nurse and a veterinarian with 30 years’ experience, says the chatbot is a client’s first port of call. For more in-depth questions about pet care, it will invite them to speak with Sophie. “For clients who have questions about puppy training or whether their cat has arthritis or skin problems, research shows that a more engaging and empathetic experience can be delivered by digital humans,” he says. “You can speak to Sophie, and she can speak back. You can see her moving around and laughing and smiling.”
Merchant describes Sophie and her chatbot sidekick as a “turnkey” platform that takes very little time to set up on a practice’s website. It can also be personalised for referral practices, mixed practices, companion animal-only practices and more. “We’ve even got one cat-only practice deployed now,” Merchant says.
Sophie is currently available on monthly subscription to practices in Australia and New Zealand. Merchant says she is the only digital human serving veterinary practices. “There’s nothing like this in the world where you’ve got programmed, scripted AI that the practice pays for and presents to the customers for free as another employee who’s happy to stay up all night and chat to them.”
Extra pair of hands
For Christopher Mayell, director of Goodna Veterinary Surgery in Queensland, one of the biggest draws of recruiting Sophie to his team is her ability to work after hours and maintain a human touch.
“We don’t offer after hours services at all,” he says. “So there’s no-one here to man phones, we don’t transfer phone calls to someone’s mobile through the night or on public holidays or long weekends. I wanted a way to maintain connection and show people we’re still here trying to help them somewhat.”
Plus, he says, Sophie is an extra pair of hands when the practice is open. She answers questions about desexing or nutrition, allowing human staff to attend to more complex calls or patients physically attending the practice.
“She’s kind of like an added administrative assistant or receptionist that means our phones are less likely to clog up,” Mayell says. “She talks a lot about puppy and kitten nutrition, arthritis and medications.”
Moss Siddle, owner of Dandenong Ranges Veterinary Centre in Victoria, agrees that one of the biggest benefits of Sophie and the Virtual Vet Nurse chatbot is freeing up staff capacity.
“Historically as vets, we’ve always picked up the phone and talked to clients when they have queries, and we’ve done that free of charge,” he says. “The majority of the information can be relayed through the website. And if it does need to be referred on to us, that’s when we can arrange a tele-consult or face-to-face appointment.”
Indeed, Merchant says added time pressures facing vet practices was a significant factor driving Sophie’s development. “It has just been a perfect storm of more pets, fewer resources and more demanding clients. If there was ever a time to help share the load, now’s certainly that time.”
Branding and retention tool
Sophie is also a very effective branding and retention tool that keeps clients tethered to the practice. Instead of searching for answers to pet care questions on Dr Google or straying to other telemedicine providers, clients can access credible health and nutrition advice directly from the practice website.
“All pet care conversations follow general best-practice guidelines,” Merchant says. “They’re not live chat. They’re completely scripted—you’re not getting a third party talking to your customers. Sophie works on behalf of the practice and clients never have to leave the practice’s website. She refers to the practice she’s working for, and she introduces herself as part of the team.
“There’s a lot of competition in the digital space and this is a way that practices can capture and engage their clients and help keep them.”
Mayell says Sophie also helps clients become better informed and less susceptible to information overload at in-person appointments—which has flow-on benefits for retention. “It’s one way to help them fill their knowledge base so they don’t walk out of a vet consult with their mind so full that they can’t remember anything.”
About 50 practices have ‘employed’ Sophie and Virtual Vet Nurse across Australia and New Zealand, and Merchant says there are plans to expand further afield.
As the pet-owning public becomes more comfortable interacting with digital humans, Moss says platforms like this are likely to grow in reach in the not-so-distant future. “Over the next four or five years, the millennial generation will comprise 70 per cent of pet owners. They’ll have no qualms chatting with Sophie.”