Skip to Content

Learn how to get the most out of AI with our latest tips and resources.

Customer Relationships Are Frayed — Can Generative AI Mend Them?

74% of customers experienced a service or product problem in the past year, with 63% feeling rage about the negative experience. [Credit: Nuthawut Somsuk]

Customers aren't just fed up with bad service – more of them are seeking retribution for their bad experiences, a new survey reveals. The solution: more digital empathy.

An astounding $51 billion of global online sales were influenced by artificial intelligence (AI) during Cyber Week 2023, for targeted offers, product recommendations, and generative AI-powered chat services. It remains to be seen whether generative AI has yet had an impact on the overall customer experience.

For all the talk over many years about the importance of customer experience and customer relationships, customers are still unhappy with the service companies provide. But generative AI promises to change everything about how brands interact with customers. Improvement can’t come soon enough. 

The case for change

  • 74% of customers in a survey experienced a service or product problem in the past year, with 63% feeling rage about the negative experience. 
  • The number of people seeking revenge for the bad experience has tripled in less than three years.
  •  32% of these annoyed customers named and shamed the offending brands on social media, a 2x increase since 2020. 
  • The 5th Salesforce State of Service report found 73% of customers expect companies to understand their unique needs and expectations, but 56% say companies treat them like numbers.

The customer view

What’s missing from customer relationships? Digital empathy, which refers to brands making meaningful, human-like connections with their customers in a virtual environment.

  • Anyone that’s ever screamed “speak to a representative!” into the phone or been frustrated by impersonal chatbots understands the need for human empathy for their problem.
  • This is hard to achieve when customer interactions are not personalized and customer data is locked in many different systems. 

What the difference looks like

Ninety percent of service pros already using generative AI for customer service say it helps them serve customers better. Service reimagined around generative AI can yield: 

  • Smarter chatbots that automate smarter, more personalized responses capable of analyzing customer sentiment.
  • Automatic creation of better knowledge articles so customers can solve their own problems.
  • Automatic identification of internal experts across the organization to solve more complex customer problems.

What is digital empathy?

Digital empathy requires being aware of customers’ emotions, tone, and language, and anticipating their needs and problems, virtually. Because so few companies (15%) integrate customer data across departments, digital empathy is hard to achieve, which is why it’s so hard to improve customer relationships.  

Of course, bad customer service (and angry customers) have been around since the telephone brought customer service to the masses. What’s different now is the internet has given emboldened consumers a public megaphone to complain and shame companies into righting a perceived wrong. That can have serious reputational consequences for a brand.

Time to reset your customer relationships

Companies have been focusing on customer experience for decades. The market for customer experience management technology is $10 billion and growing 16% annually. Companies hire Chief Customer Officers and Chief Experience Officers, and undertake “customer journey mapping” exercises to better understand the lifecycle of customer interactions. 

So why aren’t things better? 

“We don’t think of customers as individuals with emotions who we’re thankful to for paying for something we’ve created,” said Brian Solis, digital anthropologist and author of several books about customer experience. “We still think of customers as numbers, graphics, spreadsheets, and percentages.” 

That thinking may be understandable given the pressures of the current economic climate. But as recent Harvard Business Review research found, businesses that reimagine how they operate to become more customer-centered will thrive. 

The key is senior leaders who establish and champion a customer-first culture, and align data, systems, and people to unite around the customer. Presently, only 15% of companies have a unified view of customer data and the ability to make use of customer data insights. 

Leading companies that integrate data across departments can gain a 360-degree view of customers and use that insight to become more digitally empathetic.

For example, Einstein GPT, the world’s first generative AI for CRM, offers AI-created content across every sales, service, marketing, commerce, and IT interaction. 

Customer service is likely to take a huge leap forward thanks to the just-released GPT-4, which is capable of processing, understanding, and interpreting not just text but audio, video and images. The possibilities are mind-boggling. One example: it can recognize visual and audio cues during a service or sales call to determine a person’s emotions, automatically escalating cases. 

Here are some ways that generative AI, layered on top of customer service technologies and integrated across sales, marketing, and commerce, will transform customer relationships: 

Smarter chatbots

Is there anything more annoying than a chatbot that gives canned answers, or a menu of choices that don’t address the problem? Generative AI, used with existing AI, automates the creation of smarter, more personalized chatbot responses grounded in trusted CRM data that can truly understand, anticipate, and respond to problems. It also powers better informed answers to nuanced customer questions, by analyzing sentiment and recognizing patterns. All of this will help human agents, who can review responses before they reach customers.

Better self service

Generative AI’s bread and butter is automated content creation. It will be used to draft knowledge articles based on service case notes, messaging history, and data across sales, marketing, service, and commerce. This means customers will have a much deeper, intuitive, complete pool of information to self-serve, taking some pressure off call centers and agents with case deflection. 

Faster case swarming

Service agents can better handle more complex problems when they draw expertise from across the organization. This is called case swarming. Using generative AI, lessons from previous swarms can be shared and broadly applied. It can identify who has the best skills to address issues, and can recommend resolutions and communications to fast track and even automate many aspects of the swarm. 

Customer experience is about creating a human connection built on trust. Salesforce’s AI development, for example, prioritizes built-in product guardrails that help users identify high-risk processes, assess the potential for harm, and mitigate risks strategically while still meeting their business needs. 

Too often, though, impersonal, rigid, siloed technology takes companies further away from their customers. The opportunity now with generative AI promises to change that. 

“The word experience is the emotional reaction to a moment,” said Solis. “What businesses miss is the emotionality of their customer’s experience. But the opportunity is there, for the first time, to introduce personalization, emotionality and, most importantly, empathy into all touchpoints at scale.” 

The state of service

See how trends like generative AI are reshaping customer service. 8,000 service pros weigh in.

Lisa Lee Contributing Editor, Salesforce

Lisa Lee is a contributing editor at Salesforce. She has written about technology and its impact on business for more than 25 years. Prior to Salesforce, she was an award-winning journalist with and other publications.

More by Lisa

Get the latest articles in your inbox.