In today’s technology-driven world, artificial intelligence (AI) has rapidly become an integral part of customer experience (CX) management and frontline customer service. As businesses seek more efficient ways to handle customer interactions, AI-powered contact centres have emerged as a promising solution. Will AI replace contact centres employees and truly connect with customers? 

Contact centres and automated tasks

Many contact centres deal with repetitive, process and “rules” oriented work in high volumes, which often have predictable patterns of demand. In heavily regulated industries such as financial services, regulations dictate how some types of contact must be handled. This environment lends itself to intelligent automation of processes and self-service tasks, which can bring efficiency benefits, free up valuable capacity in your teams and improve CX.

But not all contacts are simple and process-oriented. Often, people get in touch with a problem or a complex set of circumstances. They may be worried or angry and want to speak to somebody and go away feeling understood, and this raises a critical question over the effectiveness of AI in customer interactions: Can AI genuinely exhibit empathy when dealing with customers?

Defining empathy in the context of AI

Empathy, in its essence, refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It goes beyond mere comprehension; empathy involves emotional resonance and the capacity to respond appropriately to others’ emotions. Human beings have the innate ability to be empathetic creatures, able to recognize and relate to the emotions of their peers. However, AI’s understanding and replication of human behaviour remains limited compared to the depth and complexity of human cognition and consciousness.

The limits of AI empathy

AI, as it stands today, operates on algorithms and data patterns. Whilst it can process vast amounts of information quickly and accurately, it lacks the emotional depth and intuitive understanding that underpin genuine empathy. Recent advancements in natural language processing and sentiment analysis have allowed AI to mimic empathetic communication to some extent. AI chatbots, for instance, can be programmed with empathetic phrases and responses to create a more human-like interaction. By recognizing specific emotional cues, AI can offer tailored replies that acknowledge customers’ feelings.

But these responses are mechanistic and lack the heartfelt connection that customers often seek when reaching out for support, particularly in relation to things that are emotionally difficult or which require careful handling. In fact, such moments where an emotional connection is made can be fantastic for brand perception and a great experience for the employee.

Imagine a contact centre where AI deals with all the routine and repetitive work, and where customers can self-serve for things that don’t require a conversation. Imagine in that same centre an energized and happy team who spend their days dealing with more complex and emotionally challenging and fulfilling conversations having been recruited and coached for empathy, and where incentives and recognition are based upon customer outcomes.

Such centres are emerging, and when you see moments of real connection between customers and contact centre people it can be inspiring.

A real example of empathy in action and priceless impact

We worked with a global financial services client to help develop a more customer-centric culture. After running one of our Customer Experience Academies, they set about creating an initiative that would transform the customer and employee experience. They pioneered one of the first successful (and award-winning) approaches to creating Magical Moments. After having met all the needs of the customer and the organisation, the staff were encouraged to do small inexpensive things to go the extra mile, to really make a difference and make the customer feel good 

In one example, a terminally ill lady called in to withdraw money from her pension. Her goal was to buy her son a car and driving lessons, and for them to go on a last holiday together. Her situation was incredibly difficult, and the call was very emotional. The agent handled it brilliantly, made everything as easy as possible in the circumstances. The lady went away happy that she would now be able to get on with her plans and felt she had been treated with dignity and respect.

The agent, inspired by the initiative, then visited a travel agent during her lunch break and sourced several travel brochures in which she had the travel agent markup suggestions of places the lady could visit, which would be suitable for her with her mobility issues due to her illness. She also used the small budget available within the initiative to purchase a phone charger for her son’s car. She sent these to the lady with a card explaining what they were for. The impact was priceless. I remember so clearly listening to the recording of the call of the lady phoning back in to thank the agent and the organisation for their kindness. In her moment of real need, she was completely overwhelmed by the kindness and empathy shown. 

The initiative generated hundreds of these types of moments, and whilst it is an unusual approach, it illustrates what I think is a possible way of maximising the power of tech such as AI for the benefit of customers and employees. 

Could AI have delivered such an interaction? I think not, and neither should it. Those kinds of interactions, utilize just about every facet of what it is to be human and draw upon a lifetime of experiences to produce an outcome, that when executed right, literally stir the soul of the customer and the employee. Whilst these types of initiatives are unusual, every contact centre I have ever visited have complex and emotional calls to deal with every day. 

Using AI in contact centres for the right purpose

In this context, I believe that the best use of AI is to:

  • fulfil simple, monotonous and process driven interactions and to eradicate as many errors as possible so that things just work how they should (and often they just don’t!).
  • facilitate advanced self-service for more complex tasks as far as possible to allow people that prefer to deal with chatbots to get what they need. At the same time, search for every opportunity to make hard things as easy as possible. This will reduce capacity (time spent by people) being applied to tasks and transactions where humans are simulating technology and adding little value.
  • route calls intelligently to the right place, quickly and without the need for finger fatigue pressing buttons.
  • and where the subject or the task will potentially benefit from humanity, care, compassion or empathy… allow humans to be humans.

All of this might require changes to the operating model, to the measurements deployed, and maybe even the culture of the organisation. But the benefits can be better efficiency, a better place to work and ultimately improved customer experience.

Create the perfect customer-centric approach

As technology continues to evolve, striking a balance between AI-driven efficiency and the human touch will be crucial. By leveraging AI to streamline routine tasks and empower human agents with data-driven insights, businesses can create a customer-centric approach that blends efficiency with genuine empathy. In this ever-changing landscape, the pursuit of AI empathy should always be guided by ethical and human considerations, ensuring that the quest for efficiency does not overshadow the significance of authentic human connections in customer service. 

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