Canada’s largest retailer of consumer electronics is employing virtual agents and online communities through a software-as-a-service model to improve customer service over the Web.

Future Shop quietly launched 12 online communities in June, along with an English and French-speaking avatar, Aaron and Alec, who guide site visitors through its products and services. The forums include chat, blogs, polls and private messaging, among other social networking tools. The Web tools are powered by Lithium Technologies Inc., based in Emeryville, Calif.

Robert Pearson, director of e-commerce at Burnaby, B.C.-based Future Shop, said the virtual agents and online communities are seen as a way for staff at its 127 stores across the country to extend their expertise online, where more and more customers are researching their purchases. The communities are subject-area specific on things like home theatre and gaming.

The virtual agents are fed information from what Pearson described as a “knowledge base” of data on various products, including buyer’s guides and product reviews, as well as stored e-mail responses to customer queries.

Future Shop worked with a local firm, Burnkit, on a tool that allows the system to query both the Future Shop database and the Lithium-powered community forum to provide answers to common questions or problems.

“The larger challenge wasn’t technical but one of organization,” said Pearson, noting that Future Shop employs approximately 9,000 product experts of some kind. “It was a case of operationalizing this. We had to ensure there was cross-functionality with marketing, e-commerce and our partners in the IT department.”

The idea is to not only bring in employees but to encourage technology enthusiasts to work collaboratively with customers in solving problems and identifying helpful approaches to using consumer technology, Pearson said.

Joe Cothrel, Lithium’s vice-president of community management services, said Future Shop was unusual in bringing so many of its employees into the online communities to interact with customers. Overall, he said the market for such technologies was particularly ripe.

“We’ve reached an inflexion point in terms of adoption. By now, almost every Internet user has been to a message board. It’s not going to confuse them. They know how to use it,” he said. “There are certain things you can assume today you couldn’t assume five years ago.”

Pearson said the company will be able to measure the level of activity between customers and the virtual agents, who have also been programmed to have a sense of humour.

“There’s some humour built into this,” he said, adding that they might perform skits to walk through issues. “Even if customers ask off topic questions such as asking them to sing or dance, they will actually participate with the customer.”

Cothrel said Lithium tends to offer customers two tracks: a technical track on how to get the software ready, and a management track to help firms understand how to promote the services and make them visible to customers. Lithium says it also counts Dell, Symantec and Nintendo among its customers.