Empathy is one of those precious human qualities that we don't think artificial intelligence will ever supplant. It is argued that jobs requiring empathy will be relatively untouched (and perhaps even elevated) by the rise of smart machines. But in the call centre industry, a more complicated story is beginning to play out.
Companies such as Cogito promise to "deliver empathy on an enterprise scale" by using artificial intelligence to "coach" call centre workers in real time. Cogito monitors the words, tone and pitch of customer calls. If the customer starts to sound irritated or upset, it will send an "empathy cue" that reminds the worker to think about how the customer is feeling and try to relate. The purpose is to "help make individuals better versions of themselves", as Cogito's marketing material puts it.
Can a machine really teach a human how to be more human? We are already fine tuned to pick up how others are feeling from the smallest of verbal and non-verbal cues. It is one of our superpowers. Ian Jacobs, an industry expert at the research company Forrester, says that may be true, but you should try doing it with a succession of angry people for hours at a time. "Empathy fatigue is real," he stresses.
Cogito says call centre workers, like army medics, can "become emotionally exhausted and withdrawn to the point that basic social signals in conversation become hard to recognise". Workers tend to agree. "Working at a call centre got me to the point where I hated the people that were kind to me the most — I had no reason to blow them off robotically," writes one worker in an online forum. "I have gone through being fed up and angry . . . now I have developed a sort of voluntary disassociation," says another.
It doesn't help that they are often monitored intensely, take calls back-to-back and are under pressure to resolve the calls quickly. "If you work a [store cash] register, no one is going to say a word if you pause for 10 seconds to get a sip of water or to stretch your back," writes another worker. "Try doing that at a call centre where every second is tracked. Humans are not robots or machines. A simple 10-second pause between calls would make a huge difference."
In that context, coaching can be a useful tool, says Jacobs. "The human beings themselves are so worn down by the work, they need some guidance. If you could have a buddy sitting next to you to nudge you, that would also work."
There is evidence that this type of intervention improves customer satisfaction, he says. But I do wonder if AI-prompted "empathy" ever rings hollow to the customer, and perhaps annoys them even more. (Cogito did not respond to my questions.)
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If the problem is that emotionally exhausted workers are giving a bad experience to customers, then a simpler solution would be to prevent them from getting so burnt out in the first place. That would probably mean giving them brief breaks between calls, a bit more autonomy and some variation in the work with chunks of time off the phone.
Less unhappy workers would provide a better customer service, although even then, genuine empathy with every customer is too much to expect of anyone. Many companies would resist these changes because they see their call centres as a cost to be minimised. But it was the drive to maximise efficiency that got the industry into this mess in the first place.
More than a century ago, there was a special congressional investigation in the US into "scientific management", a new way of managing people that was taking hold on factory floors. Frederick Winslow Taylor, who came up with the theory, called on companies to "replace the judgment of the individual workman" with instructions that specified, "not only what is to be done but how it is to be done and the exact time allowed for doing it".
Giving evidence to the committee, Samuel Gompers, a union leader, warned Congress that any system designed to drive the worker "to the fullest top notch of his physical and mental endurance" would come at a cost. "That brief leisure time, the minute, the half minute, or the 10 seconds of mental and physical relaxation, is necessary in order to get the best results," he said. The new system was "producing wealth but grinding man".
Call centres have proved him right. In the pursuit of efficiency, they have ground humanity out of their workers — the very quality they now want to get back. But before reaching for AI, there is a low-tech alternative. If you want people to act like humans, try treating them that way.
Written by: Sarah O'Connor
© Financial Times