From chatbots answering customer queries to making personalised recommendations, artificial intelligence (AI) now plays a role in many of the interactions between business and customer.

With the sheer speed AI is able to operate at – a pace humans would fail to keep up with – the technology certainly has its merits in customer service. However, empathy does not initially appear to be one of them.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, has long been thought of as an area beyond the reaches of AI.

However, Pegasystems is looking to change that. The Massachusetts-based software company’s primary focus is Customer Relationship Management and Digital Process Automation (DPA), powered by advanced AI and robotic automation.

Earlier this month, Pegasystems invited over 5,000 members of the tech community to its annual PegaWorld conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. One of the words heard frequently at the conference was “empathy”, with the company launching its Customer Empathy Adviser.

Bringing human ethics to AI

The nature of AI means that although efficient, it sometimes operates in a way that lacks what a human may describe as empathy, or bombards customers with recommendations that may actually be detrimental for customer loyalty.

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To illustrate how this could work, the company uses the example of selling a high-interest loan to a low-income family. For AI, this could seem like a good option for business, but by applying empathy, it is possible to see that this is not the most ethical option.

Instead, the company explains that a human response might be to “make an offer, or it might be to just say thanks. It might be to pause and listen to the customer first. And it could even be to put all actions on hold, if that is what’s best for the customer”. This kind of insight is what Pegasystems is trying to incorporate into its AI offerings.

Simply put, the tool uses AI to analyse millions of data points, and then recommends the “next best action” that will “mutually benefit customers and companies”.

How Pegasystems combines machine learning and empathy

First, Pegasystem’s machine learning capabilities analyse the organisation’s marketing, sales and service strategies to determine the current level of empathy.

The tool looks at various factors, asking questions such as: is the suggestion of interest to the customer? Could it cause harm to the customer? Will the customer likely benefit from it? And Is it consistent with the customer’s recent activity? These are designed to ensure that the action has the customers’ best interest at heart.

From there, it is possible to pinpoint which actions lead to the most trust,engagement and long-term loyalty from customers and which may cause them to stop engaging with the brand. Using a sliding scale, relevant stakeholders can adjust empathy levels and see the impact the change could have.

With its new tool, companies can now “increase the level of empathy in AI-assisted conversations so they can build more trust, loyalty, and value with each customer”, leading to more sustainable customer relationships. It is about integrating empathetic considerations into every engagement while also examining possible effects for the business.

Dr Rob Walker, vice president, decisioning and analytics, Pegasystems said:

“what we’re trying to do is create a more considerate, warmer, and more caring version of customer engagement…things like seeking relevance. You don’t want to waste the time of the person you’re talking to. Insisting on suitability is empathetic. Sure, you can sell that mortgage to that customer but did you check if that mortgage could get that person into trouble and make him lose his house?  You can sell that great telephone plan but did you  make sure she’s going to use all those gigbites? “Maximising profit at every opportunity at any cost is almost certainly unempathetic.”

Providing an ethical framework for businesses

It is important to note that Pegasystems is not claiming to have found a way to inject empathy into the AI itself, but rather providing tools to allow companies to deploy AI in an empathetic way.

In other words, it provides businesses with an ethical framework which they can choose to follow when developing AI and also measure the effect. In its recent report on combining artificial intelligence with human ethics for better engagement, Pegasystems explains that empathetic AI isn’t about teaching machines to feel, but rather, using AI and rules about ethics and empathy to determine the next best action to take for a customer.

This is the latest tool offered by Pegasystems as part of its Customer Decision Hub, which helps companies use “real-time, omni-channel AI capabilities” to “build more sustainable customer relationships”.

The Customer Empathy Adviser works by acting as a guide for both human employees and virtual assistants as to what action to take when interacting with each customer in an empathetic way. It is expected to be available by the end of the year.

Pegasystems has also said that companies using the tool will be able to “optimise the empathy levels in the strategy best suited to the needs of each customer”, meaning that in reality, companies may choose to act in a way the tool does not deem to be empathetic at all.

However, the tool also offers some insight into how choosing to act empathetically may affect profit. It can predict the effect more empathetic strategies will have on their bottom line, with businesses then able to simulate scenarios at different empathy levels to see how this could affect their finances.

Although it is impossible to say that AI is yet able to act in a way that can be called empathetic, incorporating empathy, or at least looking more closely at forming a relationship with customers that considers their long-term loyalty, may soon be something that is considered when deploying AI for customer interactions.

Walker believes that this could be the new way of doing business:

“Most businesses are conditioned to try and squeeze every last drop of profit from each customer. But this predatory mentality distorts the fact that practicing a little empathy is not only good for the customer, it’s good for business.

“We’ve always believed that the only way to win a customer’s heart is to first walk a mile in their shoes. Today we’re taking a step closer in this pursuit by instilling empathy in customer interactions – which is ultimately the right way to do business for everyone.”

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