Can Digital People deliver empathy at scale?

Can Digital People deliver empathy

Can Digital People deliver empathy, and at scale?

When it comes to Digital Customer Service, organisations often feel like they have to choose between two separate paths.

Empathetic interactions?

Or volume and scale?

But it doesn’t have to be a case of either-or.

AI, in the form of bots and empathetic Digital People, can deliver both.

Empathy is important – it makes us feel human and connected.

But delivering customer service at scale in our modern world via automated communications can feel the exact opposite – cold and robotic.

Finding a way to connect and engage directly with customers, with emotion, is key to achieving world-class customer service.

The only way to deliver a personal human touch that empathy requires – at scale – is through automating and augmenting customer service with AI.

And what’s more human-like than a Digital Person or avatar that can show emotion and take the conversation with a customer to the next level?

Granted, early attempts at digital people tended to be hit and miss.

Creepy even.

People either loved them or loathed them.

I recently sat down with Mia Lander from KPMG, Michael Spiegel from State Trustees and Rik Johnson from Curious Thing to discuss whether they believe digital people can deliver empathy at scale and here is what they had to say.

More than a pretty face

Digital People don’t just have a face, they have a personality and an AI brain.

Ava, a Digital Person developed by Soul Machines and being trialled by Suncorp Group’s insurance brand AAMI, interacts directly with customers who are investigating insurance online.

Ava has a wealth of insurance knowledge, a personality, and the emotional intelligence to adapt her face and tone to suit what she reads from her interaction with customers.

As with any generation that is first to experience a ground-shifting technology, engaging with a digital person can take some getting used to – but as the technology improves, so does acceptance.

Research from Soul Machines found that 85% of customers trust Soul Machines’ Digital People in the financial services industry and 81% find them likeable.

Meet AVA, AAMI’s new Digital Person that can convey empathy when dealing with customers. Source: AAMI website

Digital empathy for all? Horses for courses

As the technology enters the mainstream, it’s important to recognise that not every customer wants to engage with a Digital Person – and not every contact needs empathy.

Some interactions lend themselves to digital empathy and use of avatars – some don’t.

The areas where Digital People can best augment the human touch and build empathy will depend on the nature of the contact and the topic.

As psychologist Mia Lander, who heads KPMG’s voice group explained, the extent of the problem will determine the need for empathy – or not.

“If it’s simple, I probably don’t need empathy, I just want my problem fixed, quickly.

Get it done, and do it properly.

Empathy could be more helpful for more complex issues – for example, if you have to tell someone something distressing.”

Rik Johnson agreed: “I’m pro digital people. However, I don’t think AI can truly be empathetic – but you can certainly emulate it”.

Rik explains that we need to be mindful that not all people want or need empathy, they may not want human emotion at all, especially in situations like debt collections.



“If someone’s going to call you to say you haven’t paid your bill, you don’t want them to judge you. You would rather talk to a robot – but not a robot who’s going to follow you with their eyes. You’d rather talk to somebody who’s not going to look at you at all. But then there’s going to be other conversations where people will want social interaction.”

The age of the customer might play a role too.

Findings from Mia’s research indicate differences in the way adults of different ages interact with technology across the lifespan – with the results not always what you would expect.

She says offering empathy through AI-based technology may be most welcomed by, and most effective for, older people – despite their reputation as being technology averse relative to younger generations.


Because older adults are more used to having empathy in their real word dealings with people and may be more likely to miss it if it isn’t incorporated in their digital interactions with organisations.

Power to the people – choice is essential

Both Mia, Michael and Rik agree on the importance of giving customers the option to engage with a digital human – and alternative forms of engagement if they don’t.

“People have to be given the power to choose. It has to be about what works for me – not the business,” Michael said.

At times, even customers who embrace engaging with digital people just want a break from technology altogether – avatars, empathetic AI, Zoom calls or otherwise, as Mia explained: “Let people opt-in…People don’t always want empathy. There are times I just want the video off. It gets tiring.”

Building an empathetic digital person

So if digital people are the next big thing on the AI customer service block, how do you build an empathetic one?

Developers draw on psychology, neuroscience and cognitive sciences to enable emotionally intelligent and engaging conversations between consumers and brands.

The key to those conversations is conversational design.

And like fast food versus fine dining, quick isn’t always best.

While most technology is designed around efficiency and speed, empathy isn’t about being fast.

It’s about being better.

Efficiency and speed are not what you want to execute.

Quick is not always best when it comes to being empathetic.

How you design the conversations your digital person will have with your customers is much more important than the need for speed.

When we use language, engage in conversations and make small talk we are not simply conveying information – we are conveying warmth, personality, empathy and emotion. All of that needs to be built into the AI.

To do that, you will need a partner that understands how to design and write empathetic text and conversations.

You need to control the type of language you use, including mirroring the customer’s word choice for example. Because when you’re ‘speaking their language’, people feel like you understand them – and that builds connections.



More than words matter

Importantly, conversational design goes beyond words.

Understanding all the nuances that go with it is critical too.

How long to pause between messages.

How to use the camera to emulate expressions.

How to detect sentiment through body language so the digital person can deliver an appropriate response.

When you get that empathetic conversational design right, and apply it in appropriate contexts, a digital person can deliver very real results.

Affordability driving a Digital Person boom

As with all new technologies, avatar technology has been on a learning curve.

Now, digital people have come of age, the maturing technology behind them is becoming more affordable.

People assume it’s expensive.

It can be.

Just ask American rapper Will-I-Am who paid US$1 million to have an avatar made – of himself.

But with off-the-shelf solutions for digital people now available for a relatively small investment, new cost-effective solutions will drive uptake by organisations looking for an empathy edge.

Expect to see more empathetic digital people coming to a screen near you.

Watch this space – or rather, face.

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About Kath Blackham 1 Article
I am a global leader in Conversational AI, and the founder of VERSA. VERSA is a leading digital transformation agency that’s powered by Conversational AI. We help heads of Marketing, Customer Service, and Digital Transformation to integrate conversational, voice, and AI technologies. The result: our clients create better conversations with their customers, leading to a superior customer experience.

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