Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, service robot technology has been on the rise in the past few years. Robots like Hilton’s “Connie” and Softbank’s “Pepper” are already handling guest experiences in hotels, restaurants, and shops around the world. Self-service automated kiosks are here to stay, and robots are the future of customer service. The benefits of service robots are clear. They won’t spread airborne viruses or get burned out from harassment. They have the potential to reduce costs, improve efficiency, and automate tedious tasks. Outside of the occasional glitch or software update, robots are available to work 24/7 without sick leave, holidays, or PTO, guaranteeing that the hotel or car rental front desk is always staffed for customers’ convenience. But to see these gains, service robots must be designed and implemented the right way, otherwise customers — and human coworkers — will avoid interacting with them. Robot technology should not simply be added as a novelty, but carefully integrated to deliver value to customers and support employees — maintaining a balance between automation and human interaction.
In the Star Wars franchise, C-3PO is a protocol droid that serves on the front lines of galactic war, demonstrating advanced knowledge of etiquette across cultures and an ability to speak more than 7 million languages.
Though this depiction of a robot assistant is fiction, it’s not far from the robots that we see assisting on a different type of frontline: the frontlines of customer service. Robots like Hilton’s “Connie” and Softbank’s “Pepper,” though not quite as advanced, utilize these robots’ abilities in language and navigation to create better guest experiences in hotels, restaurants, and shops.
Maybe you think you haven’t interacted with a service robot, but you’ve most likely used a version of them: the self-service kiosks at the grocery store. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, such technology has been on the rise in the past few years. Service interactions evoked fears of viral contagion and “maskual harassment”; so, self-service kiosks were thrust front and center into the trenches of customer service. Now as the pandemic fears wane, service kiosks are here to stay, and robots are the future of service.
The benefits of service robots are clear. They won’t spread airborne viruses or get burned out from harassment. They have the potential to reduce costs, improve efficiency, and automate tedious tasks. Outside of the occasional glitch or software update, robots are available to work 24/7 without sick leave, holidays, or PTO, guaranteeing that the hotel or car rental front desk is always staffed for customers’ convenience.
But to see these gains, service robots must be designed and implemented the right way, otherwise customers — and human coworkers — will avoid interacting with them. Emerging evidence highlights the ways that robots can work best in customer service.
Robots Designed to be Humanlike – to a Point
Customers have expectations for interpersonal rapport and “service with a smile” — so, can a service robot satisfy customers?
Service robots that can be given human attributes (“so cute!”) — including emotional qualities — are more likely to satisfy customers. A 2022 study in International Journal of Hospitality Management found that a more human-like robot was more satisfying to customers only if perceived as female, consistent with stereotypical expectations for interpersonally-oriented traits.
To be clear, “human-like” doesn’t mean that service robots require expressive faces and human bodies. Consider how Star Wars’ robots R2D2 — and more recently BB-8 — could elicit laughter and sympathy despite having no faces, limbs, or voices. And a robot that is too human-like can feel eerie and create discomfort, known as the uncanny valley effect (see: the movie Polar Express).
More important than designing robots to look human is for customers to perceive them as emotional beings. Using the first robot-staffed hotel in Japan as a context, a 2021 study published in Journal of Applied Psychology asked 194 hotel guests at checkout about their satisfaction with their stay. At check-in, half of the guests were given instructions to anthropomorphize the hotel robots — to imagine them as beings who could think and feel — and the other half did not get these instructions. Though both groups interacted with the same service robots, those who humanized the robots had higher satisfaction — and this was due to perceiving the service robot’s capacity for feelings more than for thinking. Hotel guests were also more forgiving of service failures when they ascribed feelings to the robots than if they did not. After all, to err is human — such that customers may view failures with human-like robots with more empathy. In other words, if service robots are still in the beta version, make sure customers see them with empathy — just as they would with new employees who are still in training.
So, replacing a self-serve kiosk with a service robot is not enough for customer satisfaction — customers want an emotional connection. This doesn’t require a perfect performance or eerily human expressions — just a robot name tag that says “Jennifer” and a placard that tells customers to be considerate of their feelings is sufficient.
Robots Designed for Functionality — Not Just Novelty
While still emerging in the United States, robots are more common in Asia. An analysis of online satisfaction ratings from hotel guests showed that interacting with a service robot evokes mostly positive emotional reactions, such as around the anthropomorphized “cute” robot as a welcome agent, and the surprise and delight (especially for children) of a robot delivering room service.
Novelty plays a big role in customer perceptions of service robots, but will they continue to satisfy once every cash register and front desk has one? Beyond the novelty, the hotel guests studied also liked their functionality.
Functionality is by far the most important aspect of human-robot interactions and the greatest determinant of customer experience. Placing robots in service positions often gives people false hope for efficient and error-free performance, but as with any technology, glitches and user error can frustrate the experience.
We can learn from the case of self-checkout kiosks, which were also originally intended to improve efficiency and reduce costs. Big box stores like Walmart and Sam’s Club and Panera Bread have been replacing cashiers entirely. Unfortunately, as they became ubiquitous, self-checkouts slowly became hated by customers, due to frustration with using the technology and irritation at the loss of services (e.g., bagging groceries).
Call centers that deal with high volumes and routine requests have long used chatboxes and automated systems to assess the emotional tone of a customer’s voice. As reviewed in 2018 in HBR, Aida is a virtual assistant at a Swedish bank who can help with simple transactions, leaving less monotonous tasks for the humans. Aida can also tell if customers are frustrated and can send the person over to a human if the service issue cannot be resolved effectively.
However, the human service employees should not be invited to interact solely with abusive customers, which would induce burnout and turnover. Ideally, a function of the service robot could be as protection — a “bouncer” if you will — who blocks abusive or derogatory customers from human agents. The functionality to differentiate the technologically frustrated or fearful customer from the abusive one can help human employees welcome the robot to the team.
Over time, as service robot technologies become more widespread and integrated into everyday life, their novelty will wear off. To ensure the long-term success of robots in customer service, it is important to strike a balance between utilizing their benefits and maintaining a human touch.
Robots Matched to Customer Base and Tasks
Even if you have anthropomorphized and highly functional robots, your customer base must accept robot service interactions, which requires both a psychological and technical readiness. While humanoid robots have long been present in Asia, customer acceptance is still a major obstacle in the United States.
Are robots right for your company? Industries that have highly personalized client services that require a rapport, trust and problem-solving are probably not a great place for service robots. Services that are more standardized and automatic are a better fit, such as cash register transactions and hotel check-in and errands.
Yet, the nature of the customer base also matters. In order to have a successful interaction with a robot, customers must have both the confidence and the desire to interact with the robot. While hotels see a lot of success with concierge robots, high-end clients may demur to invite a robot to come to the hotel room with extra towels and prefer a human voice or face. The demographic that’s most confident and ready to accept robots is a predominantly young and male consumer base. Other customers may doubt their own capability to interact or may not believe that the robot is functionally able to assist them. Companies also must consider where tech can become more cumbersome than helpful if the robot is not able to help the majority of customers effectively.
To manage the customer-robot service interactions, human employees are essential. They need to be present to guide customers through the robot interactions as needed. To avoid being like the self-checkout lane at the grocery store, don’t simply put your customers to work and remove the option for human services completely. In short, robots and coworkers are the most effective service team.
Robots Introduced as Coworkers – Not Replacements
Introducing robots to customer service front lines can feel relieving and threatening to human employees. Putting robots front and center can reduce monotonous tasks and reduce customer mistreatment, but human coworkers may be skeptical of robots’ functionality — or may fear they are too functional and will steal their jobs.
Be clear that human employees are an essential part of the successful integration of new technologies into a business. They help anthropomorphize the robots for customers (e.g., “have you met Jennifer, my new robot coworker?” ensure robot functionality, and take over when not meeting expectations, and their own comfort interacting with the robot serves to role model for customers who might otherwise be skeptical.
To increase comfort with robot teammates, managers should communicate that the goal is not to replace humans but to successfully integrate robot and human labor for the optimal customer experience. Managers help by effectively communicating about the robot technology — its functionality and its limits — and offering reward programs for technology training and expertise. In addition, managers should communicate how the new technology can protect employees from the most tedious tasks and unpleasant customers, and might even be fun and enjoyable to interact with.
While robots are likely to take over some front-line jobs that are standardized and routine — the grocery cashier or hotel front-desk clerk, for example — the diversity and complexity of human nature is likely to still require that humans are involved in even these forms of service. When employees realize that their tasks become more interesting — with the robot dealing with the monotonous tasks or abusive customers — they might just want to include that robot in the next happy hour invitation.
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Service robots is an emerging technology, and service robots might have unexpected benefits beyond the customer service interaction. Management professor Pok Man Tang, one of the authors of the above 2021 study in Journal of Applied Psychology, has discovered early evidence that interactions with anthropomorphized service robots enhance customers’ openness to diversity: both their acceptance of nonconventional products and attitudes toward minoritized service employees.
Ultimately, whether people continue to enjoy robots in customer service will depend on the interpersonal skill and human-ness (not too little or too much) and functionality of the technology, and the acceptance of the humans (customers and coworkers). Robot technology should not simply be added as a novelty, but carefully integrated to deliver value to customers and support employees — maintaining a balance between automation and human interaction.