Can a robot understand emotions? Computer says maybe after significant investment, development and trials, but right now...no

I read the Financial Ombudsman Service’s latest plan and budget with interest when it came out. I know it’s not the usual best-selling blockbuster, but it does provide valuable insight into the direction the FOS feels things will go in the short and long term future.

However, as I flicked through the pages online (of course!), the thing that really grabbed me, reading it was the information in terms of how ‘growing numbers of people use financial services exclusively online’, (page 22 if you’re interested) and the thoughts about using Artificial Intelligence in 2025 and beyond (page 40).

The old cogs started whirring, as I thought over the long term implications on complaint handling this little sentence could have.

I’d have had to have lived under a rock for most of my life not to have noticed that life has sped up a lot since I was a teenager playing with a Spectrum 128+. And the reason for that can be laid at technology’s door. Who’d have thought that even 10 years ago you could buy insurance for your home in seconds online? Or, that you could borrow money in seconds with the click of a virtual button and that it would be paid directly into your account within hours?

So, the impact on complaints handling could be huge! If people want things like borrowing money in a click of a button, does it seem reasonable that anything that has gone wrong in relation to the click of that button should take eight weeks (or seven for exceptional circumstances for payment service providers)? With the best will in the world, no one is going to want to wear that.

There’s no doubt about it the process needs to catch up with the rest of the world and that means speeding up, while remaining consistent and fair (page 17…yes I did read it).

So does this all mean that we have to start to consider robots looking at complaints, as the FOS suggests? Do we have to fill in endless online tick box questions or answer them in a monosyllabic, toneless voice over the phone so that the computer can churn out an answer that is consistent and fair?

For me, in 2019 and beyond, it’s a big no. While I accept that the world is changing, I can’t get away from the fact that fundamentally complaints are caused by pain – a very human experience that can’t be replicated by something that hasn’t ever experienced that.

How can A.I. begin to relate to the emotional side of a complaint? How can it understand the impact of a letter sent to a deceased partner? How can it comprehend the embarrassment caused by being pulled over by the police, in front of your new in-laws without insurance, as a result of an administration error? Put simply it can’t.

So for me there will always need to be a human in this process to connect with the other human in order to resolve their complaint. A human can read between the lines to uncover the unsaid aspects of the complaint. A human can connect with the other human to understand their experience of the complaint and what went wrong in their eyes. Another human can also relate to the joy of finally resolving something that has been hanging over them for months…or even years.

But, as Caroline said last week in her blog, that human must have that interest in complaints handling to want to give the best of themselves in each and every complaint they look at. They must be invested in with training to understand the knowledge and the tools that are needed to get to the heart of a complaint quickly and efficiently. If this happens humans can keep up and overtake any A.I. alternatives that would take years to develop and hone. And that’s why, both myself and Caroline, passionately believe that it’s important for complaints handling to be human above all else.

*source: Strategic Plans and Budget 2019/2020. Found at https://financial-ombudsman.org.uk/publications/plan-andbudget-2019-20.pdf

Because, nothing, tops the human to human connection that happens when you know you’ve nailed the issue and the human on the other end knows it too.

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