Can AI Deliver A Customer Experience Like A Grandmother Would?

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Sundar Pichai, then CEO of Google, introduced Google’s AI Assistant at the 2018 Google IO conference in front of 5000 attendees. The giant screen projected a simple transaction in which a Google AI Assistant made a hair appointment for a client. The interaction was so eerily natural the audience went wild. The YouTube video of that product introduction got over three million views. Its potential to revolutionize contact centers and its broader implications for customer service support were evident.

Four years later, ChatGPT was introduced by OpenAI. A giant language model, ChatGPT learns to perform tasks by consuming vast quantities of existing human-generated text. As the public has learned of its capacity to pass medical school entrance exams, write perfect term papers, and create malware around the clock, they have reacted with excitement and fear. Proclaimed the new crypto, hackers are quickly finding evil ways to use the tool.[i] Even high-tech pioneer Elon Musk tweeted in December, “ChatGPT is scary good. We are not far from dangerously strong AI.”

But can AI ever replace “grandmother service” — the wholesome, genuine connection that builds loyalty, not just efficiently performs a service? Can ChatGPT and its AI cousins yet to be created, generate a customer experience that leaves customers with such a compelling memory they want to become ardent brand advocates? Here are three features of #”grandmother service” beyond the capacity of AI.

AI Has No Heart

Living in a rural area, the only paying chores for kids were babysitting and lawn mowing. My sister babysat; I mowed yards. I got a dollar for a regular-sized yard, two dollars for a large yard, and my grandmother had a two-dollar yard. One summer, we had a drought. Yards hardly grew, so I was looking at a bleak year for spending money. My grandmother asked me to mow her yard. As always, I cut her grass and met at her back porch to get my two dollars. She put a cookie and a five-dollar bill in my hand and said the most beautiful words, “Keep the change!” It is one of my earliest memories of generosity.

As captivating as Wall-E and ET were to moviegoers, the AI inside had no heart. According to researchers, even after significant advances, AI is still far from being able to feel emotions in the same way humans do. “They can recognize and respond to emotions, but they do not have the same complex psychological and physiological responses humans do,” says software engineer Bimo Tristianto.[ii]

AI Has No Instinct

A giant cookie bowl shaped like a bright-colored clown sat on a corner shelf in my grandmother’s kitchen. It was never empty. It seemed to always be grandkid ready. She kept an extra pair of pajamas in her bottom right dresser drawer just in case a grandchild elected to spend the night instead of going home with parents. There were also extras of fun-loving items—fishing poles, bubble gum, air rifle bb’s. She even had packages of firecrackers we forgot to buy that were left behind after the previous Fourth of July reunion. She instinctively knew what her grandchildren needed before they knew it.

“Being customer-focused, not competitor-focused,” says Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, “allows you to be more pioneering.” Future perfect thinking requires a deep understanding of customers and an intuitive leap of faith in what they want or need. The two astronauts in the 1968 hit movie 2001: A Space Odyssey defeated a rogue computer named Hal, not by doing what they had been trained to do, but through an innovative solution that defied conventional machine logic. According to research, ChatGPT cannot intuit.[iii]Its responses vary widely in reaction to tiny differences in how questions are phrased.

AI Has No Soul

When I was ten, I did a very naughty thing on Easter. I secretly watched my grandparents hide the eggs. As my cousins and siblings rushed into the backyard on the hunt, I calmly went straight to all the hiding spots! They squealed with each discovery; I was far less enthused. After my cousins had gone home and only my sister and I remained, grandmother served us Easter cake. My sister got a big piece; I got a much smaller portion. I was about to object when my grandmother said, “Your sister did not find as many Easter eggs as you did. But I’m sure, as her big brother, you’ll make sure she gets her share next time.” I instantly knew she knew the truth. It was my first experience with grace.

“The customer is not always right,” said Stew Leonard, Jr., CEO of the famous grocery chain that carries his father’s name. “But it’s our job to make them feel right.” Acceptance and forgiveness are vital attributes in the customer loyalty world. Laura DeCarlo, of Career Directors International wrote, “When things go wrong, assume the client simply wasn’t paying attention and be prepared to guide them with kindness, compassion, and professionalism.”[iv] AI is wired to be accurate but not to be empathetic. When Google engineer Blake Lemoine asked Google executives whether a chatbot had a soul, he said the idea was scorned. “I was literally laughed at by one of the vice presidents who said, ‘Oh, souls aren’t the kind of things we take seriously at Google.'”[v]

AI, even in its most advanced form, is not and will not become a junior version of human. In the words of neurologist Oliver Sacks, “The correlates of consciousness root it in the life of the body, the pulse-beat of experience hungry for meaning — something lacking in a machine of even the most astonishing computational capacity.”[vi]

A report by the World Economic Forum indicates that AI will replace about 85 million jobs by 2025. It also posited that 97 million jobs will be made available by 2025 due to AI. AI and ChatGPT’s place in customer service support will be important.[vii] However, when mixing AI and customer relationships, it is vital we remember what the “A” stands for. Without the capacity for personalization as a human, it will be more successful in the “backroom” with coders, researchers, and auditors, leaving the front of the house for people who can remember to serve customers as a grandmother would.

i] “ChatGPT is the new crypto: Meta warns hackers are exploiting interest in the AI” by Sean Lyngaas and Donie O’Sullivan, CNN, May 3, 2023.

[ii] “AI and emotion: Can we teach machines to feel?” By Bimo Putro Tristianto, MLearning.Ai, Published in Medium.com. December 18, 2022.

[iii] Eliav Lieblich and Eyal Benvenisti, “The obligation to exercise discretion in warfare: why autonomous weapons systems are unlawful,” in Nehal Bhuta, Susanne Beck, Robin Geil, Hin-Yan Liu, Claus Kreβ, eds., Autonomous Weapon Systems: Law, Ethics, Policy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016, p. 266.

[iv] “What to do when a customer is “wrong,” Forbes Coaches Conference, May 17, 2018.

[v] “The Google engineer who sees company’s AI as ‘sentiment’ thinks a chatbot has a soul,” NPR (National Public Radio), by Bobby Allen, “All Things Considered,” June 16, 2022.

[vi] “Making up the mind,” by Oliver Sacks, The New York Review, April 8, 1993 (a review of Brilliant Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind by Gerald Edelman, NY: Basic Books, 1993.

[vii] “The Future of Jobs Report: 2020. World Economic Forum. October 2020.



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