Reasonable imitation of empathy

Facing BriansI worked for a man who stopped by a drive-up coffee hut each morning on his way to the office. Upon seeing his car pull into the lot, the barista set about preparing his coffee so it was ready when he reached the window. The barista greeted him by name. Every eleventh cup was free, but knowing my boss didn’t like punch cards, the barista kept track for him.

More than once my boss wondered aloud how to get our organization to consistently deliver a like level of personal service across the board. The answer was, we couldn’t. The coffee hut was a one-off business, the barista was the owner, and she cared about customers the way only owners do.

It is the bane of every growing business—how do we get hundreds of employees in hundreds of locations to care the way the boss cares? The traditional approach has always been to invest in training programs and hope they work. (“Why not just hire polite people?” a training video scriptwriter of my acquaintance asked. The HR director replied, “When you need to keep over a thousand teller positions filled, you take warm and breathing and hope you can teach them manners.”) 

But zeros and ones may be poised to deliver a reasonable imitation of genuine customer care. I refer to MasterCard’s recently announced Innovation Engine. It …

… serves as a hub for the enablement of varying digital solutions, the first of which provides highly personalized and contextually relevant cardholder experiences.

In plainer English, Mastercard’s new software can quite literally know when your car is on approach, remember how you take your coffee, and keep track of your rewards points for you. Indeed, a photo in Mastercard’s press release shows a customer, fresh coffee in hand, viewing a text that reads, “Looks like this is your favorite spot. Want to make your coffee free every morning using your points?” 

Mastercard created the Innovation Engine in collaboration with Flybits and Kasisto. At its heart of is “… contextually-relevant and personalized digital engagement and servicing.” According to Mastercard,

The data contextualization capabilities of Flybits, and the conversational capabilities of Kasisto enable personalized offerings and experiences to be delivered to the right customer at the right time, providing value to today’s digitally-savvy consumer while also helping issuers and merchants reduce costs.

A Flybits press release quotes Kasisto CEO Zor Gorelov:

Kasisto’s differentiated digital conversation platform helps banks and merchants personalize how consumers explore and understand the rewards and benefits tied to their card.

The Innovation Engine promises to let consumers use any payment card on any device, make near-instant P2P and other disbursements, access trend and sales data faster than government and other services, measure digital media campaign effectiveness, and rate transactions as to likelihood of fraud.

The concept of machine-enhanced labor has been around since 1875 England, when mechanized looms took over work until then performed by artisan weavers. This led directly to the rise of the Luddites—rhymes with “Bud Lights”—a secret society whose mission was to destroy machinery. Today, Luddite is used to refer to anyone opposed to technological advance of any sort.

But great customer service has always depended on the ability to put Oneself in The Other’s shoes. In short, empathy. It takes empathy to understand a customer’s point of view, infer needs, sense moods, and discern the intent behind a question in order to respond appropriately. Empathy is a hallmark of social creatures like humans, canines, cetaceans—even vampire bats!—but to date it eludes even the most powerful AIs. 

But given sufficient data, it’s possible to correlate most-common behaviors with most-common needs and preferences, and to correlate most-common needs and preferences with most-common desired responses. 

Like, for instance, having your coffee ready for you when you show up at the window and keeping track of your points. 

Which, from the customer’s view, can look a lot like empathy.

Who knows? Technology may yet meet my former boss’s challenge. It might not be a stretch to suggest that Mastercard’s Innovation Engine aspires to simulate caring as if it owns the place.

But I cannot resist taking it a step further. The day is probably not far off when consumers will dispatch AIs of their own to do business on their behalf. I wonder if consumer AIs will be able to tell they’re dealing with merchant AIs. 

It could be a whole new level of Turing Test.

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