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Softbank commits to AI customer service

Softbank has said its new AI customer service solution will inject a “calm conversational tone” into the voices of irritated customers. 

By Greg Noone

Softbank has announced its adoption of AI customer service software. The Japan-based telecommunications arm of the Softbank Group said that the new solution would modify customer voices to make them sound more amenable to agents solving their inquiries. According to Reuters, Softbank will test the technology internally this year and next before planning to release it to the wider market in 2026. 

“We are working on the development of a solution that can convert the customer’s voice into a calm conversational tone and deliver it to our workers using AI-enabled emotion recognition and voice processing technology,” said Softbank in a press release. “With this solution, we aim to maintain good relationships with customers through sound communication while ensuring the psychological welfare of our workers.”

Photo of a woman in a call centre, used to illustrate a story about AI customer service.
AI customer service – or, at least, the potentiality of using AI to assist customer service agents in dealing with customers – is an idea that has grown in popularity among multinationals in recent months. (Photo by Shutterstock)

AI customer service a focus for Softbank

Media discourse on customer service experiences in the UK and the US mainly centres on the negative experience of consumers, who can find themselves spending hours listening to hold music. In Japan, however, increasing attention has been paid to the negative experiences of agents dealing with irritated customers, with its government now considering passing a new law to protect the former from harassment. 

Softbank has publicly embraced the potentiality of AI to mitigate this problem. In October 2023, the telco began using a 350bn-parameter LLM developed by its sister subsidiary, SB Intuitions Group, as part of its plan to provide “generative AI services tailored to Japanese business practices and culture.” Then in February, Softbank joined four of its rivals in a so-called ‘Global Telco AI Alliance’ at MWC Barcelona to develop LLMs tailored to the needs of the telecommunications sector – including the improvement of customer service via the use of chatbots. 

This work deepened in March when Softbank announced a separate partnership with Microsoft Japan to implement AI customer service solutions in its call centres. “The project, which will start implementation in phases from July 2024, is expected to reduce customer wait times and standardize responses,” said the telco, “thereby contributing to greater customer convenience.”

Popularity of generative AI in customer service increasing

Softbank is one of an increasing number of companies experimenting with using AI to upgrade its customer service departments. Swedish fintech Klarna is also an outspoken advocate of the practice, with its senior engineering director Martin Elwin telling Tech Monitor last month that the firm’s use of chatbots would likely save it $40m throughout 2024. The company’s use of the technology is mainly assistive, Elwin explained, granting agents summaries of important information about policies on calls. “It’s all about supporting information management rather than making the decision” about generating an outcome for the customer, he said.

It appears that Softbank’s implementation of generative AI in its call centres will be similar, with the company focusing on using the technology to “provide guidance in response to customer inquiries, price plan details, and procedures for making changes to contracts.” The use of generative AI to detect emotion in consumers’ voices and modify them accordingly is, however, relatively novel. Implementing such technology may court controversy among critics of AI-powered emotion recognition systems, who argue that such platforms are based on the flawed premise that a machine can divine insights about an individual’s emotional state solely through visual or auditory cues. 

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