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Qualtrics on how AI can help make the customer experience feel more human

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 19, 2024
Qualtrics believes that the combination of AI with its store of experience data can help brands go beyond mere customer satisfaction to build lasting emotional connections.

Brad Anderson speaks at Qualtrics X4 in London June 2024
Brad Anderson, Qualtrics (@philww)

Brands have always been about emotion — our connection as consumers to a business or its products is often as much about how they make us feel as it is about what it does for us. As we become ever more digitally connected, brands can collect more and more data about those experiences, but going digital creates a paradox. In the past, that emotional connection was built up by highly personal individual encounters with the product and the people providing it, supported by mass-market advertising and branding — but now, automated interactions are supplanting many of those human encounters. How do you build an emotional connection through a chatbot?

This is the conundrum that Qualtrics is taking head-on. The vendor's products collect and analyze experience data — not just surveys, but also posts on social media, online reviews, and the conversations consumers have with a brand through chats, phone conversations, video calls and so on. Earlier this month, it brought its X4 conference to London and I caught up with Brad Anderson, VP Product at Qualtrics, to understand more about how the vendor is using that data to infuse empathy into those automated interactions, and what this means for the future of how brands connect with customers (and employees).

The Qualtrics line on this starts with a seemingly provocative statement, which my colleague Derek Du Preez has already noted in his previous coverage of the vendor. As Anderson tells me:

I would argue, in a digital world, organizations that are using the right AI are actually more human than the organizations that are not using AI.

This is not as counter-intuitive as it sounds. It’s really a criticism of the poor experience that past attempts at automation have inflicted on consumers. The ‘right AI’ is able to lift the quality of those automated interactions so that they appear to have more humanity. He goes on:

How do we take the human elements and make that digital experience more human? That requires not just understanding, 'Hey, is the customer asking about password reset?' But, 'What's the emotion that the customer is feeling? And how should I adjust based upon what the feeling is? Is it fear? Is it anxiety? Is it anger?'

What we're able to do with our technology is, we can identify 57 different emotions by just looking at the language that's being used. And we can identify the intensity of that emotion — because something that is mildly annoying versus something that is really annoying is a very different experience...

This is the challenge that every company has, as long as everything moves to be more digital, how do they not lose the human connection and the human experience?

Emotional connection

This takes the customer experience beyond simplistic measures of satisfaction into the realms of emotional connection. Qualtrics likes to reference a 2015 study by consumer intelligence specialist Motista published in Harvard Business Review, which found that the lifetime value of a consumer is 52% higher if they feel emotionally connected to a brand rather than just highly satisfied. Achieving this kind of connection means not only resolving issues in a purely transactional manner, but also being sensitive to the emotions the customer is feeling at the time of the encounter. He gives an example:

Okay, the call may have been marked as resolved. But this customer was very frustrated. What our customers then are able to do is, are they able to have that trigger some kind of an action for [customer service or] customer success in the follow up?

Irrespective whether the interaction is purely digital or involves a human agent, adding AI to the mix to identify behaviors or experiences that do require further intervention — and perhaps suggest next steps — can lift the encounter from the purely transactional to become more empathetic. He sums up:

The question that I think every organization has to be asking themselves is, in a world of scale, where more and more of the interactions between a consumer and the brand is going to be digital, how do you drive customer connection at scale? That's where AI has to come into play.

To be effective in this role, the AI has to be trained on the right data and given the right context. It has to be sensitive to the person's intent, and to the emotion surrounding that intent. This is where Qualtrics believes it has an edge over vendors whose AI models are trained on more generic data, because of the experience data it has been collecting from the start. Anderson says:

We have the customer experience and the employee experience from more than 20,000 organizations and that is data that will never be public. Think about it. Organizations are not going to publish the raw results to their employee engagement scores and their customer engagement scores. But we have access to all of that. We have the rights and we do this, we anonymize that data, we aggregate it, then we have a view of what best practices are. So when our AI is coaching an individual, that is the kind of data that we have that nobody else on the planet has, to really help understand what are the next best actions you can take to drive that connection.

Qualtrics also sees an important role for its experience layer in the interactions employees have with existing transactional systems, across ERP, CRM and HCM. The pitch to enterprises is that it can provide the engagement layer between people and those enterprise systems. He goes on:

We sit as a layer on top of all of them, and we can take a feed of all of the operational data that they collect. And then we can help bring all the pieces together...

Our data actually complements all of those data sets, because what we can can bring in here is what your employees and your customers are failing and trying to accomplish. You marry that with the operational data, the operational data tells you what is happening... Experience data tells you why it's happened.

You need the what and the why. The what is the operational data. The why is the experience — and that's what we uniquely bring.

My take

Bringing empathy to automated interactions seems to be the next big move in customer and employee experience. With its track record in experience data, Qualtrics appears well placed to be a prime mover here. I see this as part of a broader trend in which digital connection allows vendors to focus much more on customer outcomes rather than simply selling products. This marks a move from the pre-digital world in which most customer relationships were purely transactional and enterprise technology was solely concerned with tracking those transactions. With today's digital connections, it becomes possible to measure and track much more of the customer's context, including goals and outcomes — which include emotions.

In my own case, I can think of brands that I have emotionally disconnected with because of the way I feel they have treated me, leaving my relationship with them purely transactional. I can think of others where I feel a strong emotional connection, and even if they let me down, I'm going to give them every chance to put it right, because I want to carry on being their customer. Building and nurturing those connections is hard work, but maybe digital engagement, supported by AI, will make it a little easier in the future.

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