He’s just received an empathy cue. Can you tell?

Screenshot by ZDNet

I adore machines.

They allow me to live faster and longer — and communicate to far-off places from my bed.

I worry, though, that sometimes we don’t entirely think their purpose through.

I’ve been drawn to this painful state on hearing of a company called Cogito. Its website offers a great — and much-needed, in these times — promise: Reduce Employee Turnover.

Clearly, I hear you sniff, this must be a company that’s elevating management skills to an exalted art form.

Well, perhaps. And then, perhaps not.

Here’s a sentence from the company’s website: “Cogito detects more than 200 voice signals in real time that reveal how customers really feel.”

Your customer service agents, you see, just don’t realize that when a customer screams, “Why have I been kept waiting for 45 bloody minutes to talk to you?!,” that customer is angry.

So here is adorable AI that helps them get it. 

Perhaps your customer service agents aren’t au fait with human cues because you make them sit with headphones on for eight hours a day, with nary a second to eat a Twix or urinate.

Cogito — pronounced Koh-Jee-Toh, rather than the Latin way — is aware of such issues: “The higher stakes of voice calls put more pressure on agents. It takes a lot to deal with the hardest problems all day, all week, all month, all year.”

Could this be because companies have structured their organizations so that it’s hard to get through to a human and, when it finally happens, customers are already in a highly pained state, no matter the seriousness of their problem?

I feel a shiver in both extremities and internal organs when I read this Cogitish wisdom: “Help make individuals better versions of themselves.”

And how does Cogito do that? By sending an “empathy cue” to tell the customer service agent not to sound as if they want to headbutt the customer from across the country.

But wait, aren’t call center workers some of the more underpaid and ill-treated of all employees? Might one idea to make them more empathetic be to treat them somewhat better?

Oh, don’t be silly. Why would you do that when Cogito promises “the first scalable way for every agent to display consistent emotional intelligence on every call.”

Welcome to the era of creating machines that turn humans into corporate machines. Why, Cogito actually uses the encouragement: “Guide your frontline workforce with human adaptive technology.”

It’s OK if your management has barely adapted to human needs. Technology can do it for your employees, without your management having to exhibit caring.

Perhaps I sound exasperated. Perhaps I need an empathy cue. But when you’re already tracked by the second in a call center — as many employees there are — do you really need one more element to trigger you?

I watched a Cogito video and saw samples of the messages that appear on call center employees’ screens. Such as: “Think about how the customer is feeling. Try to relate.”

To which some would surely be tempted to respond: “Hey, annoying machine. Think about my bladder. I’ve been wanting to go for 37 minutes. Try to relate.”

Of course, everyone loves to have a back-seat driver when they’re behind the wheel. Here, you can have a front-seat nag who just might turn you into something of a kindly psychopath.

And who doesn’t want to be offered “an automatically generated experience score” that “instantly alerts agents to the customer’s sentiment”?

Because listening to them just doesn’t do it anymore.

Here’s one more glory: Cogito tries to learn the behaviors of the highest-performing agents and then uses those to, um, persuade everyone behaves that way.

I’m sure that Cogito has the best intentions. Some of them may even involve making money.

This week, however, Microsoft suggested that even a five-minute break between meetings can make an enormous difference to, well, brain function and employee sanity.

I wonder how many breaks most call center employees get between customer calls. I fear the answer may be diddly-squat.

Ultimately, then, it seems that many companies created more and more unpleasant and aggressive working conditions so that employees would be more “productive.” They weren’t. So management found machines that nagged those employees to smile, smile, smile in order to “produce” more.

You’d think at least one or two companies would have come to realize that one of the best ways to make employees more productive is to treat them like, well, humans.

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