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One year ago, I was visiting with the CEO of a financial services company, and she was telling me about its implementation of digital employees.

“They do rote tasks, and they work on projects,” she said. “In fact, we even assign them employee numbers!”

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I was aware of digitalizing routine, repetitive tasks for digital agents to perform, and of the work that was being done with robotic process automation (RPA)—but was surprised at the idea of a digital assistant that was a full-time employee in an organization.

Now one year later, digital assistants are being taught to behave in even more human-like fashion so they can assume more responsibilities.

“We see a great deal of activity in the customer service area, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has placed so much pressure on companies to maintain operations while employees are working remotely,” said Danny Tomsett, CEO of Uneeq, which provides artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots that emulate human interactions.” We are seeing a significant momentum shift toward more customer self-service, and digital employees are part of the solution.”

There is virtually no company today that isn’t striving for a self-service approach to customer service, since few have the bandwidth to handle many live human-to-human conversations anymore. But with that comes the realization that bots in front of consumers don’t always work, and that consumers still seek human touch points.

“You’ve got to address this human and emotional gap if you want to be effective with digital self-service approaches,” said Tomsett, who referred to a recent Gartner survey that revealed that 80% of consumers still value interactions with a real person. “To bridge the human gap, you have to find ways to endow digital assistants with human characteristics, such as being able to listen to non-verbal cues, demonstrating empathy, and being able to respond flexibly in conversations.”

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In other words, when a customer tells the digital assistant that he isn’t feeling well, the digital assistant must at least be able to respond with, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”

But how do companies develop their digital assistants to this point?

“It begins with a strong design plan for the digital assistant that covers everything the digital assistant has to do,” Tomsett said. “The design usually comes from the individuals who do these tasks.”

Developing digital assistants also starts with an appreciation of what today’s digital assistants can and can’t do well.

“What today’s digital assistants do well is understand how to respond to a question that is being asked, and that they have been trained to answer,” Tomsett said. “Emotionally, they can respond at the emoji level to sentiment, such as being able to warmly welcome a customer. What they can’t do so well is to analyze and sense everyone they hear or see. They still have difficulty responding to the more subtle emotional nuances of a conversation.”

Over the next five years, Tomsett expects that organizations will use digital assistants to blend customer service with their brand identities.

“You could see the Geico gecko, which today speaks only to consumers in television commercials, interact digitally with consumers on a service line; or Ronald McDonald interact with customers if they call McDonalds,” he said. “This gives the consumer a real sense of interaction and identification with the companies and their brands.”

SEE: US consumers warming up to customer service chatbots but obstacles remain (TechRepublic)

Certainly the convergence of branding and service will give corporate marketing, service, and IT departments plenty to think about.

How far do you want your digital assistants to go with conversations? What types of IT implementations and machine learning and training models will be needed to support the effort? How will the digital assistants plug into existing marketing, sales, service, and IT processes?

“All are questions that organizations must answer, but I can say two things,” Tomsett said. “First, digital employees are being rapidly adopted by enterprises, and will make their way into more small- and medium-sized businesses. Second, the technology behind these digital assets is evolving quickly, so digital employees will be able to do more. Companies will be able to take advantage of that.”