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The Empathy Economy: Marrying AI and Customer Service

Erik Totten
9 min read
Mar 3, 2020

Theodore Roosevelt was ahead of his time when he said, “The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.” Of course, Roosevelt couldn’t have predicted the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and the advent of the very recent empathy economy. However, his words hold true today just as much as they did when he originally uttered them.

As a concept, AI has been around for a long time. Even so, it is only in recent years that AI has gone from just a concept to an evolving solution for businesses and organizations. Perhaps most notably, a working solution in the arena of customer service. Using machine learning and automated reasoning, AI and automation are viewed from starkly different perspectives and theories on what they can accomplish. On one hand, some suppose that AI will deliver the human interaction we see in movies like The Terminator, Ex Machina, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the like. On the other hand, AI is thought to not be developed enough to do anything but simple functions.

Before delving deeper into the empathy economy, it’s important to understand those divergent views of AI.

Robots will take over the world

One view of AI and automation is that they are both developing at such an accelerated rate in identifying human feeling and emotion that soon humans will be obsolete. It will replace people in various fields throughout the economy, even in customer service. Put another way, AI, automation, and robots will take over the world. In a general sense, this is an overly fatalistic view of the future that is found in science-fiction novels. Naturally, for many people this is a scary proposition.

There are some studies that support this theory in a very broad way. 

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, by the year 2025, AI and automation will be spread throughout most aspects of our everyday life. More alarmingly, another study by Oxford University suggests that in the next 25 years, job loss rates in most advanced nations will climb as high as 47%. 

There’s more.

A study published by Gartner in January, 2019 stated that in no less than four years your parents will know less about how you feel than the devices you use. In another study by Ohio State University, researchers used a technique used by humans to interpret human feelings with an AI instead. The AI analyzed the hue of someone’s face (which is partly controlled by blood flow, with the blood flow changes matching up to a facial expression and a general emotion) to generate a database. With this database, the researchers created a simple AI to make determinations about a human’s emotional state. In the end, the AI was often better than humans at determining the basic emotion the person was feeling. The takeaway was that AI is now better at detecting human feelings than people are. Although their conclusion is oversimplified, the researchers have already patented this technology and are bringing it to the market.

From a business perspective, an AI that can detect human emotion could also conceivably respond to it, whether from a chatbot or a virtual assistant. Simplified and applied to the empathy economy, this technology would create financial value for a business by having AI recognize human emotion and respond accordingly.

Become more human with AI

Another view of AI that is more realistic is that AI will not be advanced enough in the immediate future to replace humans. However, it will only do some of the trivial and mundane tasks (think organizing and tagging emails, responding to questions, routing calls, etc.) that take place in customer service away from the human customer service agent. By automating these tasks, the agent will then have time to do other functions of their job that they might otherwise not have time for.

With this point of view, we use AI to determine what a customer wants to then satisfy those needs within its current capabilities. Humans are still needed and required to provide compassion, understanding, and to go above and beyond to meet the expectations of a customer. Our inborn capacity for kindness and warmth makes customer service an industry incapable of being completely replaced by technology.

AI software that can examine behavior through a person’s voice and then give live feedback to call center agents is another application that is currently available. With this knowledge, agents can make more informed decisions about what might be the best solution for any given customer to deliver a more personalized customer service experience. We use this application of AI to help develop emotional intelligence in human agents. Indeed, not only are humans required, but human agents with emotional intelligence can also be a competitive advantage for businesses. 

Go from push strategy to pull strategy

The second perspective of AI is one in which the empathy economy is more visible. It is an economy that places significance on empathy by being human-focused and is situated at the very center of all business activity. In short, it is committed to providing more value and compassion for customers by spotlighting the inherent and fundamental human need to connect. It’s not just about a customer service agent being able to solve a problem, but that agent also being able to be understanding and put themselves in the customer’s shoes.

The view of AI taking over the world because it can detect human emotion and respond appropriately endorses the mistaken belief that the words we say are the sum total of our communication with each other. As we all know, communication is more than just words. It involves variables like emotional awareness, intonation, context, comprehension, social cues, and perception. Those are all things a machine will have a much more difficult time understanding, let alone relating and responding to.

Ironically, in this scenario, AI is used to enhance ourselves to be more humane and empathetic. By making use of emotional intelligence, customer service agents can engage, maintain, and appeal to new customers by delivering a top-notch customer service experience. It takes us from a push strategy of business (creating products and then promoting them to buyers) to a pull strategy (attracting customers who readily seek a product).

Empower employees to increase the bottom dollar

In the empathy economy, successful businesses or organizations are those that see the potential of human relationships and deliver arising technology to enhance an employee’s abilities. By seeing the capabilities of AI and empowering employees with new skills and technological solutions, businesses can provide and augment what they offer in the customer service arena. This bolsters long-term business success and boosts continuing brand loyalty.

The empathy economy is about reaching a goal that connects everyone in an essential, yet purposeful way. By making use of automation and AI, we encourage employees to reach a higher ideal that can also increase the bottom line. With empathy in mind, businesses strive to meet the needs of people, while also bettering the greater human condition.

Even though big data wants to put a value on human relationships, empathetic businesses push through the numbers and go forward with empathy. In an empathetic economy, businesses bridge the critical difference between innate human behavior, which is emotional and unreliable, and the model for businesses and organizations, which is predictable, analytical, and focused on results.

Businesses are an agent of change

With popular movies like Wall Street in the ‘80s, greed was good, but the world has moved on since then and is a much different place. Now more than ever, many around the world have lost confidence in the media, government, and other institutions that were once considered reliable. This feeling of mistrust and lack of faith in the system has created an opportunity for business.

According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, “Business is now expected to be an agent of change. The employer is the new safe house in global governance, with 72 percent of respondents saying that they trust their own company. And 64 percent believe a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.”

The reason for this is that customers now have access to information like never before. With that information, and through social media, customers can exert their influence to expose corporate misconduct in every area. Likewise, millennials, who are financially less secure than previous generations, are demanding more from our free-enterprise system. Failures in solving the social issues of the day have left them looking for answers that the government and other organizations can no longer provide. As customers, they want the businesses they patronize to have a conscience and, as employees, they want the businesses they work for to have a greater vision than just driving revenue and profits. In short, they expect more from their brands.

Overdeliver the customer service experience

The focus of businesses in the empathy economy is not just about buying and selling. It’s about improving the human condition, and on a more fundamental level, making people’s lives better. Greed as a noble endeavor has gone the way of the dinosaur, while compassion, kindness, and empathy are in. A customer’s positive feelings about a business are difficult to quantify, but more and more frequently those feelings can be determined by who customers are buying from.

In customer service, businesses and organizations should use the best technology available to make their businesses financially viable and successful, while also producing an intimate customer service experience. Customer service agents should focus on over-delivering, empathy, and relating to their customers. Remarkable customer service experiences are those in which the customer feels like the service and consideration they received went above and beyond. 

This view helps gradually move us in a direction that is humane and based on our capacity for feeling, while focusing on a more complete view of prosperity and contentment. As American author and journalist David H. Pink said, “Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”

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