What empathy has to do with artificial intelligence

Can conversational software with a human touch improve a customer's experience?

A woman touches a robotic hand produced by the Syntouch company during the Amazon Re:MARS conference on robotics and artificial intelligence at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 5, 2019.     / AFP / Mark RALSTON
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The Middle East, like the rest of the world, is moving towards a post-Covid-19 future. As things return to normal, companies are turning their attention back to issues such as how to optimise digital experiences.

The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) nations are home to people from diverse cultures. Expatriates make up more than 85 per cent of the populations of many Gulf countries. Two hundred nationalities reside in the UAE alone. In Saudi Arabia, while figures vary, overseas citizens are said to make up about 30 per cent of the population.

Demographics like these present a unique challenge to enterprises that are looking to provide exceptional customer experiences (CX) to their consumers.

As digital business models become the norm, customers are interested in better online and mobile-app experiences. To meet this demand, organisations must ensure a consistent experience, not only across languages spoken, but across the expectations of people from disparate cultural traditions.

Ideally, the complexities of customer service would be solved by hiring a diverse workforce, but this can be impractical. It would mean, for example, that in the UAE, each customer-service team would need 200 employees, each of a different nationality.

In such culturally diverse markets, business stakeholders need to find creative ways to cater to the range of customers, and in the digital age, this invariably means through technology.

By analysing the body language and speech of participants, AI can also help team members from different cultures collaborate

Last year, KPMG released a study on the KSA insurance sector, which revealed that 76 per cent of chief executives in the Middle East believe customer engagement in the future will be supported by virtual platforms.

When businesses do not have the means to hire huge, culturally diverse teams of customer care agents, then technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) can provide the solution. AI can improve the work of a customer care executive and guide him or her towards success in engagements that may not have been possible had the agent been working alone.

Technology systems that simulate and even surpass human intelligence have come a long way. They are now gaining commercial acceptance in industries, from construction to health care. Natural language processing – the technology that, along with machine-learning, makes conversational AI possible – has evolved too.

Accuracy and usability are now at a stage where the underlying technology can automatically pick up not only multiple languages, but variations in tone, stress, and dialects.

Technologies such as conversational AI software are attuned to cultural nuances and other audio and visual cues that allow it to discern a customer’s emotional state, attitude and even intent.

With such capabilities, virtual conversational assistants can guide agents through interactions with people who speak different languages and, due to varied cultural backgrounds, are used to different standards of customer service. For example, some customers may favour a more personal touch while others might prefer more formality.

Now that the digital economy has allowed customers to switch their engagement instantly from one brand to another with a swipe or a click, companies are under pressure to ensure that every experience is positive.

Personalisation is a major element of positive customer engagement. The customer must feel that the "person" on the line understands their needs: what they want, what they don’t, what they might want and why they might want it.

None of this is possible without that basic capability of human agents to engage in conversation and connect with people in a way that makes them feel comfortable, otherwise known as building a rapport. Building a rapport, however, can sometimes hinge on the agent’s ability to immerse themselves in each interaction. This is easier when people are supported by AI systems that provide them with context while automating background tasks such as note taking, finding the right knowledge resources, etc.

Organisations know that if they can make their service more relatable, they can increase brand loyalty and ambassadorship.

Today, organisations can embed AI assistants in their contact centres and work with employees to make them more effective in serving customer needs. Machine intelligence can thus enable agents to focus on being more empathic and deliver positive results.

By analysing the body language and speech of participants, AI can also help team members from different cultures collaborate better and even suggest how best to increase engagement with customers.

The Middle East has long taken pride in its cultural diversity. The companies that serve people as consumers can further this positive perception by ensuring customers receive the exemplary customer service, even the kind that might surpass customer experiences they might receive in their home countries.

Machine intelligence has the capacity to mimic human talents. Today, it can take empathy, undoubtedly one of our key human traits, further. By picking up on verbal subtle nuances in body language and tone, AI can help us understand one another and improve the experiences we have as customers.

Published: April 25, 2022, 8:00 AM