Virtual assistants vs Chatbots: What’s the Difference & How to Choose the Right One?

In the world of AI – chatbots, and virtual assistants are two popular words that are used interchangeably too often even though they mean two different things. Sometimes, you might even hear the term ‘virtual assistant chatbot’ being used in place of a chatbot or a virtual assistant. 

In this blog, we take a look at the differences between a chatbot, a virtual assistant, and a virtual assistant chatbot, and give you some guidelines on which solution to use, and when.

What Is a Virtual Assistant Chatbot? 

A virtual assistant chatbot is a mash up of two separate programs – a chatbot, and a virtual assistant. The only similarity between these two programs is that they are both built to make the lives of humans easier through conversations. Let’s understand the basic differences between chatbots and virtual assistants.

What Is a Chatbot?

Chatbots are programs that are designed with the purpose of engaging with customers in human-like conversations. Thus, chatbots are deployed by businesses to interact with customers (or prospects) and offer assistance around the clock. 

Let’s understand the role of a chatbot better with an example: Barney.

Barney is an ecommerce chatbot (a digital customer service and sales representative) deployed by the brand Barney and Flowers – a gift shop that offers an unusual combination of dinosaurs and flowers as gifts. Now, Barney can:
– Field questions about the different customizations that are available along with relevant images
– Help customers through the process of customizing and placing their order
– Automate workflows for refund, and reschedule requests and offer instant resolutions
– Assist customers with updates on delivery

Barney plays the role of a customer chatbot and assists customers with everything that the folks at Barney and Flowers have built it to. However, if there’s something that is beyond the scope of Barney’s capabilities, all it can do is hand over the conversation to a human agent.

Chatbots are intelligent enough to sense the context of the conversation and execute the right bot flow. However, chatbots cannot find answers or perform a set of activities on their own. On the other hand, a virtual assistant can crawl through existing resources and offer assistance for a wide range of requests. 

What Is a Virtual Assistant?

Virtual assistants (also popularly known as intelligent virtual assistants or intelligent personal assistants) are online personal assistants that help people with their day-to-day activities such as managing their email, scheduling meetings, etc. Popular virtual assistants include Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana.

While these virtual assistants can assist you with many everyday tasks, when it comes to customer service, they can only suggest that you reach out to all the Barneys of the world, but cannot resolve your queries on their own. 

Now that we have a basic understanding of what chatbots and virtual assistance are, let’s dive deeper into the key differences. 

Key Differences Between Chatbots and Virtual Assistants

Virtual Assistant Chatbot: Virtual assistant vs chatbot


Rule-based chatbots: Traditionally, chatbots were only capable of executing rule-based programs (hence the name, rule-based chatbots). These chatbots are built on a decision tree, allow for interaction through buttons, and reply with a set of pre-defined or scripted answers. 


Intellectually independent chatbots: ML-powered chatbots are designed to thoroughly understand customers requests and inputs (with some training in the beginning). Over time, these bots continuously learn on their own by recognizing similar keywords, and become less dependent on training. This is why they are popularly referred to as “intellectually independent chatbots”.

Contextual chatbots: These advanced chatbots are backed by artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and natural language processing (NLP). This technology enables chatbots to continuously learn, offer accurate responses, and retain context to personalize conversations. Chatbots that are built using advanced technology, such as Freddy AI for CX, can also be leveraged to offer end-to-end customer engagement.

Chatbot feature - agent handover

Virtual assistants
The technology that powers virtual assistants is almost the same as a contextual chatbot. However, virtual assistants have advanced natural language understanding (NLU) and artificial emotional intelligence that enables them to understand natural language commands better. Virtual assistants also pull information from search engines such as Google and Bing and apps to convert that into text or voice information.


The functions of a chatbot can be broadly classified into the following two categories:

Assist businesses and customers: Chatbots are built and deployed by businesses to play assistants to customer service as well as sales and marketing teams. Chatbot applications across industries are numerous, but the most important functionality is improving customer engagement – right from providing accurate responses in seconds to hand-holding customers through the entire purchase journey, chatbots help businesses offer better customer experiences.

Chatbot vs virtual agent
Serve as an experiential platform: Chatbots are deployed outside of business context to provide a platform for different servies. For example, the chatbot ‘Woebot’ serves as the platform for a suite of clinically-validated therapy programs for various mental health challenges.

These chatbots are also deployed with the goal to enhance user experience. For instance, the H&M chatbot plays the role of a personal stylist, and at the end of an interactive conversation, the bot recommends an outfit based on the customer’s taste.

H&M chatbot


Virtual assistants
Virtual assistants such as Jarvis-AI, and Bixby perform the tasks of a personal assistant or secretary. This includes taking notes, reading text or email messages aloud, looking up phone numbers, scheduling, placing phone calls and reminding the end user about appointments. 

Virtual assistants can also help with reading out instructions or recipes, giving updates about the weather, and engaging the user in a casual or fun conversation. 


Chatbots are deployed on websites, support portals, as well as on messaging channels such as WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. Chatbots can also be deployed on mobile applications and in-app chat widgets to resolve customer issues.

Virtual assistant
Virtual assistants are baked into the devices that they come with. Devices such as Google Home, and Echo by Amazon have their corresponding virtual assistants built in. These devices primarily function on voice commands. Whereas, mobile phones and laptops generally have an application that users can use to interact with the virtual assistant (in addition to voice commands).


Support bots have a conversational user interface (CUI) which is a chat-like interface that enables customers to converse with the chatbot via messages.

Virtual assistants
Virtual assistants have a chat-like interface but also can function without an interface when activated using voice commands. 

Virtual Assistants or Chatbot: Which One Should You Choose?

We’ve already discussed the different benefits that chatbots and virtual assistants offer. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to double-check if you’re choosing the right solution: 

Are you looking to improve your personal productivity?
If yes, then a virtual assistant is what you need. Virtual agents can help you improve your productivity by delegating tasks to an assistant. 

Is your business looking to improve customer engagement?
If you’re looking to scale your customer service to offer 27/4 support, or accelerate your sales and marketing efforts, then a customer-facing chatbot is the right solution for you. 

Are you after the ultimate goal: improving your customer engagement as well as increasing productivity?
If you’re looking to do both of this, then what you need to do is deploy a customer-facing as well as an employee-facing AI. Freshdesk when integrated with Freddy Self-service is a one-stop solution where you can do both:
– Design and deploy a customer-facing chatbot that can resolve upto 60% of incoming conversations on its own.
– Launch an agent-facing chatbot that assists customer service and sales reps with their daily tasks.

Sign up for Freshdesk today and give your customers as well as your agents a better experience.

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