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Let's leave empathy to real people for now

Dean Anderson, Director of Customer Services
17 February 2022

If you know me, or have followed my previous posts on LinkedIn, you’ll know how much I like technology and how passionate I am about using it to improve customer experiences. Computers and software can do amazing things and over the last couple of years we’ve done some truly innovative projects with tech to improve our customers and colleagues experiences. Artificial intelligence has come on in leaps and bounds and does so much to improve the services we offer.

If you want to ask a straightforward question, pay a bill or set up an appointment, you’re probably more than happy dealing with a machine. Of course you want simple transactions to be done easily and to feel respected and taken seriously – but you probably don’t need someone asking what sort of day you’re having when you just want to know what time something is being delivered.

Tech is great for these transactional queries, but what about the more complex stuff?

We all have times in our lives when things get complicated, when emotions come into play and your feelings are as much a part of the equation as process, facts and figures. A computer might be able to tell you it’s sorry you’ve had a bad experience, but it will lack the empathy only a human can give.

When you work in a sector like affordable housing, there are situations every day where empathy is as important as the resolution. Whether it be customers struggling to pay their rent, ASB, trouble finding work, or people having other challenges such as poor health that stop life running smoothly - empathy is needed. 

This is where one of our greatest assets – our people – have the edge on even the smartest of smart technology. Humans have capabilities that no machine learning can rival when it comes to picking up the smallest clues that someone needs some extra help. Just a kind word in the right place or a willingness to flex the policy at the right moment, can turn a crisis into an opportunity and help make someone’s day just a bit better.

For me there is a sweet spot where technology, human expertise and empathy meet. Good systems – like our Help Hub or chat bot - can make sure that when customers have those transactional questions, they can get answers quickly with no need for human intervention. This frees our people up so they can have the time and brain power to focus on meeting our customers’ more complex needs, using that key human skill that the tech can’t do yet – empathy.

Just this week I heard how one of our teams gave a customer a couple of weeks’ grace on their rent payments as they were in-between jobs and short of cash. The decision was quick and painless for our employee and the customer. They could have taken a ‘computer says no’ approach, but when people speak and empathise with people, you get a human response that works for the customer and the business.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring on the technology-front, but I’m sure that nobody has yet written an algorithm that could consider all the potential options and consequences in a scenario like this as fast or as well as a person can. Ultimately sometimes our role has to be doing what feels right – rather than taking decisions based purely on facts.   

So, true to form, I’m going to keep delivering new technology to help make our business run more smoothly and improve the customer experience. But for now, there’s no replacing our people and the uniquely human value they bring.

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