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Article 5 min read

Here’s why AI is the key to more empathetic customer experiences

If empathy is what makes us human, then artificial empathy helps us deliver richer, more personal customer experiences at scale.

By Cristina Fonseca, Head of AI at Zendesk

Last updated August 10, 2023

No two customers are alike. Just as no interaction with any one customer is always the same. Various factors, both within and outside your control, can influence a customer’s emotions and require a different approach.

With artificial empathy, you can now tailor experiences for how a customer is feeling at any given moment. It’s a level of personalization that goes beyond favorite channels or curated product pages—one that is easily scalable and deeply responsive to real-time change. And one that will ultimately help you build deeper connections with the people you serve

71% of customers believe that AI will make customer experiences more empathetic, according to Zendesk research.

If it feels strange to outsource a kinder, gentler response to a machine, rest assured. According to our research, 71 percent of customers already believe that AI will help to make customer experiences more empathetic. The trick is knowing when and where to use artificial empathy to elevate, not degrade the experiences you deliver.

Your unexpected partner in empathy

Empathy and AI may seem like strange bedfellows, but when used in the right way this technology can have a major impact in delivering a more personalized experience. According to our research, customers agree: 67 percent want AI that can adjust its communication and tone based on how they’re feeling.

Let’s be clear, though—detecting and responding to customer emotions isn’t the same as actually feeling them. Your AI doesn’t know what it’s like to have a frustrating customer experience and it shouldn’t pretend to, but it should know exactly what to do when engaging with a customer who is.

The fine line between listening and feeling

Customers want AI that listens to them—not pretends to know what they’re going through. Here’s an example of a good interaction and one that misses the mark.

A chatbot that listens and empathizes:

“I hear that you’re upset and I’m sorry for any inconvenience. I’d like to help you out as best as I can. Can I help you process a refund or get you to someone that can provide additional assistance?”

A chatbot that tries to imitate a customer’s feelings:

“I’m sorry you’re upset. I know that it feels terrible to not have an important package show up on time.”

We found that nearly three out of four customers feel like their emotional state is often ignored over digital channels. It’s here that artificial empathy can play an important role. By detecting and responding to changes in customer behavior, AI can empower businesses to become more active listeners—offering tailored solutions or escalating to a human agent as needed.

Nearly 3 out of 4 customers feel like their emotional state is often ignored over digital channels.

By better understanding what customers are thinking, feeling, and doing at scale, support teams can address the real-time needs of each individual customer. This helps companies push past transactional engagement to build deeper relationships and rapport.

The importance of keeping humans in the loop

Studies have shown the positive effect that AI can have on promoting more empathetic experiences, but it cannot (and should not) be expected to do everything. Without careful consideration of the specific roles that AI will play, you risk creating worse outcomes for customers.

There will always be instances where AI should immediately escalate to a human agent. And without proper training and refining from its human counterparts, AI may misread emotional cues and give inaccurate or inappropriate responses.

Find the right roles for AI

AI can help, but it can also hurt your ability to deliver a more personalized, empathetic experience. Here is a quick list of where AI shines and where it falls short.

  • Detecting customer sentiment in real time

  • Adapting tone or response to changes in how a customer is thinking or feeling

  • Escalating upset customers or complex issues to a human agent

  • Offering tailored solutions based on customer sentiment or issue type

  • Helping companies understand what issues or topics are causing dissatisfaction among customers

  • Replicating or pretending to share human emotions

  • Unilaterally dealing with a complex issue or an irate customer

  • Automating one-size-fits-all responses for a wide spectrum of human emotions and customer needs

Your AI is only as good as the data it learns from. At Zendesk, we train our AI using a robust library of sentiments based on billions of real-life customer service data points. Even so, there’s simply no replacement for human-to-human connection when it’s needed. In fact, 81 percent of customers want AI to automatically send them to a human based on how they’re feeling.

Without careful consideration of the specific roles that AI will play, you risk creating worse outcomes for customers.

Using sentiment analysis, our AI can determine exactly where a customer falls on an emotional scale. It looks for important cues like the type of language used or whether customers are using capitalization or multiple exclamation points. Words or phrases that indicate that a customer has reached out repeatedly to find a solution can also flag the need to get an agent involved.

In every case, customers get their issues resolved as quickly as possible with a response that matches their unique needs.

A valuable tool in your personalization toolkit

Customers are humans. While it may be impossible to predict how any one interaction might go, you can now scale your ability to make them feel seen and heard—whether they reach an agent or a bot.

By leveraging this real-time feedback on how your customers are feeling, you can create a more personalized and responsive experience. One that feels more empathetic and human—even if the tool that enables it is not.

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