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Digital “Employees:” Interviewing Hans de Penning, CEO and Co-founder of Neople

How AI digital “employees” are transforming the workforce and redefining the future of work in customer services
By Neil Hodgson-Coyle
November 24, 2023

As AI-powered technology takes the lead, a multitude of benefits have been made available for consumers and companies. Neople recognized this when they started their venture earlier this year. Their sophisticated AI assistants now complement firms' customer services, helping human staff in their everyday role, increasing efficiency, reducing burnout, and enhancing the customer experience while saving time and money.

The Dutch startup is fortunate. The Netherlands has the highest density of AI startups in the European Union. According to a report on a strategic action plan for AI, the Dutch government wants to implement policies and initiatives to strengthen the country's position in AI on the global market. Some of those initiatives include incentivizing the use of AI in public and private sectors and using AI to deal with modern challenges. We sat down with Hans de Penning, CEO and Co-founder of Neople, an AI startup doing just that. We discuss the Dutch startup ecosystem, the challenges the market brings, some of the ethical concerns of AI, and what he thinks the future will bring.

Neil: What was your inspiration to get Neople started?

Hans: In previous companies, myself and the other founders worked with AI on a daily basis. As we have seen an explosion in AI possibilities over the last years, we wanted to make it easy and accessible for everyone to use. Instead of delivering this service as a consultancy to companies, we believed it would be better to bring the AI itself in the form of a digital employee. One that works where you already work, in the way that you already work - so everyone can utilize these technologies.

Neil: How would you say Neople differentiates itself from other companies that use AI robots for customer support?

Hans: Most AI robots in customer support are directly customer-facing, and - let’s be honest here - are not of amazing quality. Our Neople really work together with the support officers, helping them with answering incoming questions and performing tasks. It’s really the personal assistant of the Customer Support employee, that helps them make their work more enjoyable.

The Netherlands AI-coalition received a funding of 276 million euros to invest in the first part of the AiNEd Programme. The coalition is a partnership between public and private bodies, and the program aims to accelerate the development of AI in the country.

Neil: How optimistic are you regarding the growth prospects in the Dutch market for the AI industry?

Hans: In general, the Dutch market has been full of pragmatic entrepreneurs that are not afraid to try out new things. Not many companies have ever hired a digital employee before - so that’s quite a new experience. However, we do believe that there is no reason why a Neople should only work in the Netherlands, speaking unlimited languages and having support officers all across the globe.

Neil: What would you say are the biggest challenges for a company like Neople in The Netherlands?

Hans: One of the challenges of course is that in the upcoming years, many (established) players are entering the market, having deep pockets. Being in the Netherlands also doesn’t help, as the real big players are not in Europe and many investments are made overseas. However, this situation can also be a benefit for us, where we know the local markets and regulations better.

Data safety and privacy are amongst the concerns regarding AI. The amount of personal data collected by AI systems can lead to mistrust in AI systems to keep personal information private. The Netherlands AI strategy report however, ensures the government “advocates an ethical, trustworthy and responsible use of AI with respect for human rights and consumer protection, and based on a well-developed legal framework”. The Dutch AI coalition has developed the concept of Ethical, Legal and Societal Aspects, known as ELSA Labs. The idea is to work together with government, schools, companies and other organizations in order to develop responsible usage of AI.

Neil: There are a lot of concerns when it comes to the use of Artificial Intelligence, such as personal data safety and privacy. How does Neople ensure the data protection of their customer’s clients?

Hans: At Neople, we believe this is super important. Our first hire was a Privacy & Security officer, who made sure that our Data Processing Agreement was in place and our privacy policy was updated. Next to that, We’ve taken technical and organizational measures to minimize and protect access to personal data.

Originally from the United States, Black Friday has become popular all around the globe in the last few years. For one day, at the end of November, stores would offer discounts up to 20 percent on their products. Fifty percent of people in the Netherlands will reportedly buy something on Black Friday. For customer support agents, it can be a particularly overwhelming time of the year..

Neil: Black Friday is coming up on the 24 of November, and is an especially busy time for companies. During the last days of the month, stores offer a big discount on their products, and consumerism grows exponentially. What are Neople’s hopes and expectations for Black Friday?

Hans: We want to make an impact by helping people with their work. We know that during peak season like Black Friday, a lot of pressure is being put on the customer support officers. Our Neople are never tired and never sick, and are fully willing to help everyone throughout the day. Next to that, they make sure that all consumers get a polite answer every single time - something that many humans sometimes forget after a negative experience.

Neil: Some people can get frustrated or have a negative experience when talking to a virtual assistant at a certain company. Why is Neople different?

Hans: Most experiences with virtual assistants have been with the classical chatbot: pre-trained fixed conversations that didn’t allow for contextual understanding, or any variety in the answers given. Our Neople are trained differently, on large datasets, and are able to answer on the basis of what we have trained them on. Next to that, we personalize them in the right tone of voice, and have them work in the systems where you are already working. We position our Neople next to the employee instead of the front of the customer.

Neil: One of the common worries or fears about AI is that it is replacing or it will fully replace human’s jobs in the future. What is Neople’s take on this matter? Do you think AI will replace human customer service fully?

Hans: We believe that with every technological advancements, jobs will change and jobs will disappear. At the same time, there has never been so much automation as now - yet we are still very busy. Old jobs are disappearing and new jobs arise - no one knew of a software engineer 100 years ago..

What that means for customer service - we believe there will always be room for human interaction. But you could wonder whether answering the same question over and over again every single day is humane work in the first place. We believe that AI agents like Neople are better at answering these kinds of questions, and make room for more ‘human’ questions requiring more empathy and problem-solving.

Neil: What does Neople see happening in the future of the company, and in the AI field?

Hans: We hope to see that everyone has a Neople in the near future. An AI assistant that’s easy and accessible for everyone to work with, that’s collegial, friendly, and personal to you. We believe that this will be the trend in the larger AI space, that through interactions we will get things done. The gap in communication between technology and human interaction will become more natural. Next to this, we believe AI assistants that integrate into a company, can improve the employee well being. Especially in Customer Service, where the pressure is high with complaining customers and solving rough client cases. With a Neople, employees can focus on the important stuff.

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