Web agent has the answers

The Defense Logistics Information Service's Phyllis doesn't actually speak but can give answers to questions on about 6,000 topics.

DLA creates a virtual representative to supply logistics information

The smiling face of Phyllis welcomes visitors to the Defense Logistics Information Service'even in the middle of the night.

Phyllis is not a person but a Web agent, a piece of software designed to respond to military procurement specialists' and vendors' most-asked questions.

As a virtual version of a call-center representative, Phyllis 'emulates the human presence' by answering questions or collecting information for an answer, said Luman E. 'Buck' Williams, a logistics broker at the Battle Creek, Mich., branch of the Defense Logistics Agency.

DLA tried to give its virtual customer service representative a personality by selecting several photographs of a woman from a CD-ROM of clip art and dubbing her Phyllis, Williams said at the recent FedWeb conference in Arlington, Va. Her name is a play on FLIS'the Federal Logistics Information System, which is the government's main database of product records. Phyllis appears at the upper right on the agency's home page, www.dlis.dla.mil. A .WAV file plays when the home page is loaded, drawing attention to the Web agent, but it's the only use of sound. Phyllis doesn't speak.

Clicking on her photo leads visitors to a page where they can type in a question for the virtual representative to answer.

Links to the appropriate DLIS and DLA Web pages accompany many of Phyllis' responses. Easier navigation means fewer clicks and more user trust, plus better exposure for the agency's products and services, Williams said.

Agency officials studied operations at the DLIS call center to determine the most frequently asked questions.

To give Phyllis something to say, Williams and his assistants garnered information from subject matter experts from DLIS and elsewhere. They compiled a list of 6,000 topics organized into hierarchical trees.

'It's a beautiful technique because once you teach the knowledge base, you never have to teach it again,' Williams said.

Behind the scenes, the DLIS agent is powered by an off-the-shelf product, NativeMinds NeuroServer from NativeMinds Inc. of San Francisco. Other off-the-shelf agents work in much the same way, Williams said.

NeuroServer came with a spell-checking engine, and the agency supplemented it with a thesaurus of military and procurement terms.

Many question formats

The natural language interface recognizes 19 ways to ask a question, such as 'what is,' 'who is' and 'tell me about.' The agent can combine knowledge from multiple topics into a single answer, Williams said. For example, the answer to 'Where would I get information about contracting assistance in Virginia?' would draw from topics about contracting and contractors in Virginia.

When someone asks Phyllis a question outside the purview of DLIS or DLA, she can redirect the customer by pulling up the appropriate Web site in a separate frame.

Williams described Phyllis' temperament as '100 percent professional' because, unlike real people, she 'never gets grouchy, never has a bad day.'

The agent can quickly adapt to changing circumstances, Williams said. It took two workers only two hours to scrub 1,000 pieces of information, such as names and addresses, from Phyllis' knowledge base after a privacy directive last year.

Her biography began with a study of contact center operations in the fall of 1999. Williams said the consultant recommended that the agency use an interactive voice response system, which would handle phone calls automatically. 'I hate those things,' he said.

Following the study, DLIS officials drew up a business case for Web agent software in August 2000. Shortly afterward, the agency acquired the NativeMinds tool and started training DLIS Web personnel and modeling the knowledge hierarchies.

The Web agent went live in May 2001 with more than 600 topics in the knowledge base, Williams said. The application now contains 6,000 topics.

Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., studied the DLIS call center and found that call volume dropped by 30 percent after 18 months of using Phyllis, despite the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and subsequent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Behind the scenes, the agent software tracks interactions of two or more questions, Williams said. 'We avoid analyzing the casual Web surfer, spiders and crawlers,' he said. The application logs the IP or domain addresses of Phyllis' questioners but does not use session cookies, he said.

The agency developed its own analytics using Crystal Reports from Crystal Decisions Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., but the current version of the NativeMinds product provides some canned reports, Williams said.

During 2002, the virtual representative took an average of 3,041 questions in 1,387 sessions per month. This year, Phyllis' monthly averages are 4,984 questions in 1,759 sessions, a 63 percent increase. The statistics show that users trust the answers, Williams said.

Phyllis answers 87 percent of the questions posed to her. DLIS uses its analytical reports to identify the 13 percent that Phyllis can't answer, which represent the 'opportunity space' for improvements, Williams said.

The virtual rep is programmed to keep conversations focused on defense logistics. For instance, a fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival could ask the Web agent, 'Is CCR a rock band?' Phyllis would respond with information about Central Contractor Registration, the Defense Department's centralized vendor registration process.

But Phyllis is allowed a small amount of banter. Asked who is the boss of rock and roll, she answers: Bruce Springsteen.

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