The Empathy Economy: Emotional Intelligence in Customer Service


The “empathy economy” will help define the new reality of human and machine interactions in the customer service industry. A takeoff on the sharing economy, the empathy economy will grow due to brand mania and increased automation in the workplace.

Consumers are inundated by brands in their day-to-day lives, and these brands sometimes create personal meaning in our consumer-based society. Brand loyalty has been championed by brands like Gucci and Tesla, who have both a dedicated customer base and “fans” who admire the out-of-reach products. This frenzy around name brands has created a deeper emotional market for industries to navigate.

In tandem, the use of automation is becoming more widespread due to its ability to increase efficiency and reduce the burden on human workers. However, in many circumstances, human intellect, emotional intelligence, and empathy are needed to resolve a problem. The empathy economy recognizes these human capabilities as critical for customer-focused companies—differentiators that will help them successfully grow their businesses in a time of widespread technology use.

As technology continues to become more capable and artificial intelligence blurs the line between humans and machines, customer-centric companies will need to carefully determine the most appropriate circumstances in which to leverage automation or augment human capabilities to drive the best outcomes within the empathy economy.

Emotional intelligence for better communication

Through evolution, conversations have emerged as the main method by which humans work to resolve problems and build relationships. Within these conversations, empathy enables humans to understand another’s position and fosters a trusted connection that is critical to the exchange, ultimately leading to the desired outcome.

On the surface, the concepts of empathy, conversations, and emotion seem simple and natural, but the nuances of effective interactions are quite complex. Good communication relies heavily on how words are spoken, not simply the actual words spoken.

Human emotion in the enterprise

Understanding emotional subtleties is important for businesses, as customers’ emotional states can have a significant impact on a brand’s success. According to a recent Cogito survey conducted by Frost & Sullivan, 93 percent of consumers say interactions with a customer service agent impact their perception of a company. Further, 80 percent of customers believe a personalized experience is crucial to their satisfaction.

Brands need to be primed to handle various scenarios that require different levels of emotional intelligence. For non-sensitive interactions, customers choose the fastest means possible, such as self-service apps and website portals, to get a rapid answer to their simple question. When it comes to more complex issues, however, customers want to speak with a human who can diagnose and appropriately respond to the complexity and emotional breadth of the problem.

Consider an insurance company, where customers are often calling to deal with difficult and complex circumstances such as death, accident, or financial loss. Bots are incapable of providing the emotional support required in these situations, and such robotic coldness can be off-putting to customers, affecting customer perception and business outcomes. Improper application of automation can backfire, creating the opinion that a company does not value its customers.

With the pace and stresses of modern life, more and more people want to pass along their emotional burden to another human, one they trust understands their needs and will work to resolve an issue. Customers want someone to resolve the problem at hand and to have an interaction in which they feel heard and understood. This desire to be heard results in an increasing need for employees to be knowledgeable about their companies’ products and services and to comprehend and display emotional intelligence.

Augmenting human empathy with A.I.

The empathy economy concept reinforces the fact that human jobs in the call center are not only required but can serve as a competitive differentiator for companies. Humans’ instinctual capabilities for compassion and empathy may make service jobs immune to a complete technology takeover, but A.I. can serve to enhance human skills. For example, A.I. is already being used by my company, Cogito, to augment human behavior and improve communication skills.

Backed by extensive behavioral science research out of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, Cogito delivers A.I. software that analyzes behavior through voice to give live feedback to call center agents and an instant measure of customer perception. The result is agents who are more empathetic and attuned to a customer’s emotional state, which allows them to provide better, more personalized, and contextually based customer service. The technology is being used by Fortune 500 companies like MetLife, Humana, and Zurich Insurance to enhance employee productivity and increase emotional intelligence—all to improve customer interactions and deepen relationships.

To be successful, organizations must realize the value of human connection and provide emerging technologies to amplify employee capabilities. By investing in employee skills and human-empowering technology—and realizing the significance of augmented intelligence—companies will provide better customer service offerings, increase brand loyalty, and support overall business success.

As a reaction to widespread automation, the empathy economy showcases the innate, enduring, and essential desire to connect with other knowledgeable and caring humans, whether at home or at work.

Empathy for better business

As the empathy economy continues to take hold, it will fundamentally change customer engagement, forcing brands to find the right blend of automation and human interactions. Brands must tailor interactions to meet the unique preferences of consumers. Although it may be counterintuitive, technology will play a critical role in humanizing the way a brand connects with their customers. Companies that adapt to this new economy will take the lead in growing customer lifetime value; in fact, 95 percent of consumers in our recent survey say empathy from the agent impacts their spending with the company.

By combining the best capabilities of humans and machines, the service industry will be a prime example for how human-aware and human-empowering technology can help brands deepen and evolve trusting relationships with their customers.

Joshua Feast is the president, CEO, and co-founder of Cogito, a developer of voice-analysis software for businesses. Follow @joshuafeast

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