Can empathy be automated? We asked an expert | Natalie Petouhoff

27 Feb 2023

5.5 min read

The value of customer interaction has really gone up. Just a few decades ago, someone writing a letter or picking up the phone to ask a company a question or share their opinion about a product  was not appreciated at all. On the contrary, customer interaction used to be seen as a cost and, as happens with most costs, companies would do what they could to cut back.  

In stark contrast, today we send surveys and ask customers for product reviews to show confidence in what we have created. There’s a lot more customer interaction happening, but has the quality of the customer experience also received a boost? 

When we interviewed Natalie Petouhoff, Customer Experience of Software Sales, Sales Enablement and Thought Leadership at Genesys, for our podcast she compared customer contact to a canary in the coal mine, “kind of warning you about what’s not going well with your company”. Sounds like something you’d want to hear? Well, according to Petouhoff, that’s exactly what you should be doing. “No matter what type of leader you are, I think one of the most important things [to do] is to listen to your customers and really listen to your employees. Your customers are telling you what you need to know about your company through a number of channels, in particular digital and social”.

In her book Empathy in Action, the best selling author describes four steps to successful customer experience leadership starting with - you guessed it - listening, or, as she puts it, “to truly hear what is wanted and needed, understand what that means, take some action and then learn from that action and repeat”. This is her recipe for empathy, the key word that seems to be a constant throughout her diverse body of work and one that Petouhoff describes as “really sitting in the seat of your customer and employee”. 

It’s not just the customer that needs to be heard. Inside your company, employees have valuable insight, as well. Listening to them will make yours a better company and ultimately bring down employee attrition. Needless to say that Petouhoff sees both, customers AND employees as “the two assets that are going to make you most successful”. 

Design thinking starts with empathy 

Someone logs into your website, they’re authenticated because they’ve been there before, you can see their history, what they have on their shopping cart and the FAQ’s they’ve read. “If you can take that customer journey analytics and take the data and combine it with AI, now you’re really listening”, says Petouhoff. “The key for companies right now is to really focus on how they’re using data and AI and beginning to codify what we naturally do as humans”. 

Picture walking into your favourite neighbourhood shop. As you walk in, you’re greeted in a way that makes you feel welcomed and seen. They might not know your name, but they know who you are because you’re a regular, and they’ll show it in small but meaningful ways. The girl behind the counter knows you’ve come in for the sourdough bread, which you want sliced, as per usual, but she’ll ask if you’d like any warm drinks to go with that. On the odd occasion, she’ll put a pastry in your bag, just because, and it makes your day. 

In an online setting, you can match this experience by combining customer data with AI to have a better understanding of what the customer might need. And give it to him. The bot is no longer blind, but instead uses past interactions and purchases to predict current and future needs. 

“It’s only now in this fifth industrial revolution that we have technology that can create meaningful self-service experiences which actually do reduce that call volume and we have ways to give that agent a lot of information before even talking to a customer so that they can get right at it”. This is what Petouhoff believes to be a tipping point. “We could really transform experiences”.

Adding value instead of cutting costs 

“If you arm your technology in a way and structure it and orchestrate it so that it’s very intelligent and can actually serve the customer - then you’re applying the principles of empathy”, Natalie says. It starts with getting value out of self-service and leads up to empowering your agents.  

If the customer still wants to speak to an agent after communicating with the bot, no one is starting from scratch. Instead, the agent is informed by the customer journey analytics and every step of the customer experience so far. They already know what the customer is looking for and the issues they’re facing so they’re saving time, but most of all, they’re saving a lot of frustration on both ends by creating smoother experiences for customers and employees as well.

“So, if you have someone in an interaction and you truly understand their customer journey and what they have been trying to do, now that natural upsell does not come across as ‘we’re offering everybody this particular thing’ because that’s what’s in your script and what we’ve been told to offer everyone. We could actually personalise that offer and really help the customer”. As per Petouhoff’s statement, we have now reached a point where something that was seen as a nuisance - customer interaction -  starts to be understood as the opportunity that it is.

Let’s go back to your favourite neighbourhood store. That delicious sourdough has become a staple in your weekend brunch, but after a while it feels like something is missing. That’s when the girl behind the counter, who knows you’re vegan, shows you walnut pate and changes your life forever. It’s not on a plate on the counter for everyone to try. She puts the small jar in your shopping bag just for you.

Data and AI are not just empowering the agent to know what the customer wants in a quick and efficient way, they’re also creating the perfect setting to offer personalised products and services, anticipating needs and complementing existing subscriptions. In other words, what was seen as a cost just a couple of decades ago can now actively generate profit. Sure, a lot of technology has come into play in this transformation, but the main catalyst was our perception of what the customer experience could be. As Petouhoff puts it, “If we just throw AI, data and technology at customer experience without really evolving a growth mentality, we’ll just get more of the same”.  

To find out how you can use AI to help turn your customer interactions into opportunities, get in touch with our team today.