AI and personalized customer service: Japan’s omotenashi

Artificial intelligence is creating a lot of buzz in the tech community nowadays, and recently I spoke to online merchants at our annual Rakuten Ichiba Expo about how we can use AI, the Rakuten way.

I am a big believer in AI and its future potential, but I think we need to focus on more than just the tasks AI can perform. We need to consider more deeply how it can be of service to humanity – to make our world better. I think we can all benefit from looking at how to use AI to deliver on the promise of omotenashi.

Omotenashi is a Japanese word that literally means “hospitality,” but in practice has a much deeper philosophical message. In the service industry, omotenashi implies a sense of selflessness, a full commitment to providing everything necessary to ensure the customer’s utmost comfort. More than just a word in Japanese, omotenashi is a concept meant to encourage the service provider to reach the height of possibilities in customer satisfaction, including the very anticipation of their wants and needs.

How does AI connect to omotenashi? Many of the discussions around AI focus on what AI can do: Can it drive a car? Calculate a credit score? Beat a human player at a strategy game? These are all worthy goals, but I want us to think about AI not just in terms of “what” but also in terms of “why?”

Let’s consider chatbots as an example. A chatbot is a way AI can offer not just tactical service, but omotenashi. An AI bot is capable of deep learning, and, as a result, high accuracy in making responses that are tailored to customer profiles. It potentially represents a shift from FAQ and email-based customer care to interactive dialogue. Thanks to AI, a chatbot could offer immediate responses, even to vague requests. And the manner of those response could be adapted, too – so that they suit the preferences of a business or individual user, for example. Other possibilities exist in e-commerce. The user experience could be improved vastly if the user could search and purchase products through a process of chatting with the bot – with the bot offering highly relevant recommendations on the basis of the customer’s requests and prior purchasing behavior.

In this context, we can see that chat is not simply a task that AI can perform. It is a task by which AI can improve an experience. Because AI bots can contribute to omotenashi, it makes sense for us to continue to explore its potential, learn from any mistakes and failures, and press on to make the possibilities a reality.

We joke sometimes that we must all work harder or AI will replace us. But the truth is, AI is not a danger – it is an opportunity, provided we develop it not just as a technical tool, but as a new integral way to deliver omotenashi to the world.

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