Two years ago I had a chance to speak with Merijn te Booij, CMO of Genesys, a leading provider of omnichannel customer experience (CX) and contact center solutions in the cloud and on-premises. And last week I had another sit down with him during the company’s annual user conference; Xperience 2019.
And with two years feeling like two decades in terms of technological developments, I was curious to get Merijn’s perspective on just how much has changed in the areas of AI, customer experience and conversational interfaces. But what really captured my attention is how he feels these technologies will impact our abilities to apply human empathy to interactions with customers to improve experiences for both consumers and employees. And on top of that, how he feels that AI will also lead to AE — artificial empathy — somewhere down the line.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. To hear the full conversation watch the video, or click on the embedded SoundCloud player below.
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Megatrends in the World of AI
Merijn te Booij: I think there are some mega trends that happened to crystallize in a much bigger way than they were two years ago. I remember two years ago, I felt that we were at the beginning of the AI explosion, and although I still think it’s on the hype cycle somewhere, it’s clearly that this is happening, right? You can’t do a convention or conference or visit a webinar without having the word AI somewhere.
Small Business Trends: Right.
Merijn te Booij: So that totally happened. So two years ago, we talked about it. Some people laughed about it. But now it’s real. And that’s probably the mega trend that came to the fore.
Small Business Trends: And it’s also it seems like two years ago, there was these things people were just starting to talk about, chat bots and conversational interfaces and how they were beginning to impact customer experience. Two years later, what do you see now?
Merijn te Booij: So the funny thing is that I was talking to one of the analysts yesterday and I explained that we did a speech bot conversational application in 1995. So the technology has been around for a long, long time. And funny enough, most of it is rule-based, by the way, and it’s not rule-based anymore. In the past, it was. So what we’re seeing is the transfer from just rule-based systems that can only apply their logic to a certain scenario, to AI-based systems that everybody wants to solve everything.
Venturing Into Machine Learning
And I think that’s where the crock sits, a little bit, right? So we see, actually, a lot of decent rule-based systems that do a specific thing rather well. And then we see the coming of age of AI and machine learning in that same domain to create conversations that go beyond what a normal rule-based system would be able to do. I think the combination of the two, by the way, is probably the best way forward. But we see the rise of the second part happening right now.
And I call it being on the top of the hype cycle because we see a lot of bad implementations, bespoke implementations, incredibly funny, hilarious mistakes. I enjoy being in this industry because I’ve never laughed so loud. I think that’s an important part, as well, all right? But we are getting there. We are seeing people that are learning how to understand what they’re getting on board when they start investing in machine learning and allowing that to learn from itself in a conversation it’s having.
Training Your AI Assistant
We’re actually doing our own test here, all right? We have Kate, our virtual assistant, running on a mobile app, and we put her here untrained. And we’re just waiting for people to ask questions to see how she trains herself. And it’s funny because on Friday, Saturday, she was making mistakes that she’s now not making anymore. So it’s moving along very, very quickly, and I think as soon as those implementation times go down to days instead of weeks or months or even years, that’s the time when it will all really become part of our mainstream configurations.
Small Business Trends: So, two years ago.
Merijn te Booij: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Small Business Trends: There wasn’t a lot of talk about Alexa and —
Merijn te Booij: True.
Small Business Trends: … Google Home when it came to customer experience from a B2B perspective.
Merijn te Booij: Right.
Small Business Trends: But it’s changed … At least to me, it seems to have changed dramatically. What is your perception of what’s going on?
Entering the Age of AI with Alexa
Merijn te Booij: It has. It has. Actually, at that same conference in Miami, we did show our Alexa integration three years ago. So we were running a conversation with Alexa on my bank account. I was transferring money. What do you do in Miami, right? You buy a ship. So I bought a yacht.
So we saw a future of what that would be. And actually, the 12 months following, we were a little bit disappointed about the penetration of these devices and the ability of these devices to really have a conversational approach to it, right? It was a really bit of a fire question, get an answer. And this kind of kept going back and forth. I think now, we’re moving to a world where these devices are becoming conversational.
And it’s not only about Alexa and Google Home, right? It’s about cars that you are able to talk to. It’s about, I would assume, set top boxes in the future, smart fridges, any sensor-derived piece of information. I still dream of the world where I can walk into my house and say, “Hi, house.”
Moving Toward a World of Consumer Control with Machine Learning
This is what I would really be looking forward to. “Can you do this for me? Can you do this for me?” And we’re not there, but the experience is moving towards these devices, it’s moving towards that world, away from the enterprise control. Which I think is a good thing, because consumers will get control over their own experience and define where they want to go with it. So I’m actually looking forward to it. I’m pleased that this is happening. I’m also pleased of the fact that it’s still somewhat fragmented. So you need systems that align you to make sense of it all. And Genesys just uniquely positioned to do exactly that.
Small Business Trends: How are those customer experiences or those consumer experiences starting to play a role in how things are going to be done in the enterprise?
Merijn te Booij: That’s a good question. I think the enterprise has always been somewhat lagging in adoption of consumer savvy technology. And I think UC (unified communications) is a really good example of that. I think that the way that UC has developed within the enterprise would have been burned a long time ago by the way consumers are actually talking to each other…. Slack is the only one that kind of started stepping into that a little bit. But it’s still, that’s a very fragmented, underwhelming world, as far as I’m concerned. Not really providing as promised to the masses.
Looking at the Lag in Adoption
So it is a bit surprising to see the lag of adoption within the enterprise to take those smart assistants or just in general, right? The ability to have a traditional messaging channel, which consumers are using all over the place, and I am doing it. I’m using WhatsApp with my parents, and they’re in their 80s. So this is a very normal channel and it’s very late for enterprise to actually adopt it. We’re very email-focused still, I think. And I see more and more cloud software coming into the actual enterprise, but it’s still a somewhat traditional world that has some silos that need to be broken down.
Small Business Trends: Tools like these different smart assistants, voice assistants, they’re allowing consumers, at least, to use natural language to get things done and request services or get information. I’ve kind of seen a stat around. A lot of companies that are spending … Let’s say the traditional spending is about 80% spending to help their agents do their job.
Merijn te Booij: Right.
Keeping the End User in Mind
Small Business Trends: Another 20% around allowing the end users to start to get more of their answers fulfilled by giving them the power of these tools.
Merijn te Booij: Right.
Small Business Trends: But in the next five or six years or so, that starts to look like it’s going to shift and there’s going to be even more of that budget spent on allowing tools for self-service tools.
Merijn te Booij: It’s not necessarily our industry, but it’s an interesting adjacency.
Small Business Trends: Okay.
Taking a Cue from Gen Z
Merijn te Booij: Actually, my teenage kids, right? If you see the tools that they are using today, which are, by the way, all cloud-based, and they don’t really like applications anymore. They’re much more focused on the ability for their devices to community and allow them and within context do what they’re doing and what they’re trying to get as a result. They’re 16 and 17 years old. But right now, the oldest Generation Z person is turning 25, right? So they’re coming into the workplace. And they are looking at tools that are very, very different than what we grew up with, right? So my daughter, for instance, does all her homework on an iPad.
Small Business Trends: Wow.
Merijn te Booij: And every piece of homework that she does, I have realtime insight into. So she’s very used to being measured in realtime. I mean, we know exactly when she did a test what she scored. And I was just imagining that back in my day, if my parents would have known the way I built up my curriculum throughout the year, it would have been a disaster. So they have changed their approach quite a bit.
And I think that that mentality and that tool set and the ability to be okay with that realtime monitoring, that realtime comparison constantly with other people, but at the same time, having the tools to work in the cloud and do cloud business, is going to be very normal for that generation. So when we then confront them with tools like, for instance, Excel as a spreadsheet application, they will look at that and frown upon it. I’m sure about it. Right? So that’s not what I want to use. So it’s a very video, photo-oriented domain and environment that is all very seamless in the applications or the tools that they use to do their job.
Which is, for us, interesting, because if we think about those people coming into the contact center domain —
Small Business Trends: Right.
Changing the Technology of the Workplace
Merijn te Booij: … looking at the desktops that we now provide, we’ll probably have multi-demographic desktops that we need to start working on, which is an ability to support a 25-year-old at the same time a 55-year-old will look for a different tool set and is used to using a different tool set, as well. I’m fairly sure that the next generation will be very easy, and we see it today, already, to leverage realtime information as it pops up because of the changing of the circumstances. Where if you provide that to my generation, myself, it’s really difficult. I try to be an agent. I had somebody else needed next to me to do the buttons. It was really complex.
Small Business Trends: Right.
Merijn te Booij: And that will only increase … when I look at 10 years from now, I think that agents will get questions that they just never answered before. And so their job is going to be to entrepreneur with that knowledge. To find the answers to questions, and probably then build it into a bot or a micro-bot that they can expose and test to see whether this is really the answer, right? So you’re going to almost crowdsourcing answers into a community of customers that might be struggling with the same thing. So that world’s going to be incredibly interesting but very different than what it is today.
Small Business Trends: So, how important is the employee experience going to be to the delivering customer experience going forward?
Improving Your Employee’s Experience
Merjin te Booij: Absolutely crucial. I think one of the biggest benefits that we see right now with machine learning or AI capabilities is the ability to let go of somewhat constraining paradigms, like QA-ing and routing and service-level elements that are still dictating a lot of the experience, right? So there’s still a lot of people that believe that if I get a customer in my queue. I’ve got about 20 seconds to get them to a target. Which is nonsense.
I think that the better play would be to say, “I’m going to let go of all these restrictions of non-variable volumes to make them totally variable and flexible.” And I’m going to say, “I’ve got 1,000 customers and I’ve got 100 agents.” So who are the 100 people that I really need to talk to right now? And that’s what I want my humans to do. Instead of having the first come out of the queue, “I want to change my address.” Oh, well, there you go. And the second one, “I want to do a payment.” Well, there you go. The number 100, “I want to change my address again.” So I got suddenly 100 people that are tied up doing stuff that I’m sure a bot will do much better.
So I’m trying to focus on the people and I’ve got somebody in my queue that is really upset. Or I am actually thinking about leaving you as a company. Or I want to buy something and I’m totally happy because I just got married, so I want to merge my … Those are the things that you want to talk to. Those are the people you want to have, right?
Using Technology to Drive a Better Outcome
Because that’s where you can derive a better outcome to have a human talk to it. Address change, a bot should be much better in that because they will like it because it’s replication of work. They will not make mistakes like humans will. Grumpiness, etc. doesn’t matter. The only added value a human could have is the fact, “Hey, I was born there,” or, “I lived there,” or, “I know that neighborhood. It’s lovely. You should go buy your milk there,” right? That’s what a human could add. I actually think that’s where bots can be empathetic to what customers are looking for. That’s how you take a user or a person and train the bot to actually do that, as well.
So I think it’s going to be a great experience for agents, and I also think that the value of agents and the way they will be rewarded is going to go up. And I think that’s just a good thing, because that will make it a much more interesting job to do.
Small Business Trends: I love that you threw empathy in there, because I think a lot of times, that’s where humans can shine.
Merijn te Booij: Yeah.
Small Business Trends: Are there any areas, when you look at AI … And a lot of times there is some pushback with the folks who feel like, hey, is my job going to be in jeopardy here? But do you see AI being able to do things much more efficiently, but allowing human agents to actually showcase their empathy.
Looking at AI and Empathy
Merijn te Booij: Yeah. I think that’s the opportunity that we have is to leverage the potential of the human for the interactions where it matters most. So make those moments really count. Actually, the theme of the conference. And I strongly believe in it. And I also believe in the fact that there are certain elements that are inherently human.
We live in a human economy. People make human buying decisions. There are elements that a bot will struggle to do, which is true empathy. Little white lies or understanding irony, sarcasm. The ability to relate back to the future or the past; something that is just born into you, right?
I always use the example of Franz Kafka. For the people that read Franz Kafka, that’s an utterly depressing experience, right? If you read it in English, it’s actually a little bit better than when you read it in German, because that’s totally depressing. But he made those books and he wrote those books that we now consider art based on his suffering, right? So what he experienced through life.
Can AI Create Art?
So when people ask me, “Can AI produce art?” I think it can. Because art is always in the eye of the beholder. But can it truly be an artist? I think I struggle with that, because I don’t think AI will have this suffering element to go through life and understand what this all means and then expose it into the art that we now see.
So I think that’s where the difference is. And I think that the future might be darn interesting when you look at 10, 20 years from now. I think skills like art and languages and elements like that, although speech is a very commoditized world, I do think that those skills will become more and more relevant in the future of our industries. Which I’m excited about, because those are skills that are really talking about society as a whole.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.