The late comedian George Carlin used to tell a joke about asking a bookstore sales clerk where to find the self-help section. “She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.”

Though played for laughs, Carlin’s observation illustrates that the best solutions often are the ones that allow us to help ourselves. This, in fact, is the basis for the rise in self-service customer experience solutions. Studies find that roughly three-quarters of consumers today expect a self-service option for answering questions and resolving problems in a timely, efficient manner.

Recent advances in several forms of artificial intelligence (AI) such as natural language processing, machine learning and deep learning are expanding what’s possible in self-guided customer service through increasingly intelligent and useful virtual digital assistants (VDAs).

VDAs are automated software applications or platforms that leverage AI to help end-users complete tasks online. Leading examples include Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant. Today they are mostly used for tasks such as finding directions, playing music and controlling smart home devices, but they are rapidly being integrated into customer service platforms where they are expected to enhance efficiency, lower costs and improve customer satisfaction.

VDAs aren’t meant to replace humans — most analysts believe the ideal contact center will soon use a combination of digital assistants, human agents and social media to optimize the customer experience. As VDAs utilize machine learning to continuously improve through human interactions, they will be able to handle many routine tasks and allow live agents to focus on high-value customers and more complex issues.

Gartner analysts say that by 2020 customers will manage 85 percent of their relationship with an enterprise without interacting with a human.The firm says more than half of organizations have already invested in VDAs for customer service, as they attempt to automate much of the customer experience while maintaining the ability to escalate to a human agent in complex situations.

Gartner reports that those who have already invested in VDAs have experienced almost immediate benefits, with reductions of up to 70 percent in call, chat and/or email inquiries, and a 33 percent savings per voice engagement. Additionally, they report increased customer satisfaction due to the fact that VDAs not only guide customers through an interaction, they actually process many transactions on behalf of the customer.

Beyond customer service, Gartner also anticipates a growing use of VDAs to augment sales processes. The firm says AI-powered digital assistants are already surprisingly efficient alternatives to human sales staff, often achieving 30 percent higher conversion rates when engaging prospects or leads. VDAs are becoming attractive alternatives for sales organizations with high volumes of lead and opportunity processing and forecasting because they provide fast and accurate support when performing the different sales stages.

The self-service approach to customer service has been building for some time. Automated voice services and chatbots have been allowing customers to access banking, healthcare and other account information simply and securely for years. Studies show that most consumers experiencing a problem with a product or service first go online to check FAQs and troubleshooting tips before making a phone call. As virtual digital assistants continue to become more capable and sophisticated, they will drive increased automation, efficiency and customer satisfaction.