In Pixar’s WALL-E, oversized humans recline on levitating barcaloungers and are dressed, primped, polished, and served, entirely by robots. Fiction? Maybe not, at least according to a wave of media coverage pointing to a dizzying array of service innovations on the horizon.
Look no further than the public debut of Amazon Go, the company’s first cashierless store. Digital imaging technology monitors which items shoppers select from shelves, and when a customer leaves the store, the person’s online account is automatically charged. Down the road in Santa Clara, California, room service robots are being designed that can navigate a hotel’s floor plan and interact digitally with its elevator and phone systems to deliver towels and beverages to guests. Various Silicon Valley startups have deployed robots that make pizzas, craft salads, and assemble artistic bistro sandwiches. In Boston, a robot works with labor nurses to schedule baby deliveries. Waiterless restaurants in China permit customers to order and pay through the WeChat app and feature robot servers that dispatch trays of food to the appropriate tables. In Japan, a robot named “Pepper,” that was conceived in part as a companion for the elderly, has honed its skills in a variety of service roles, ranging from retail assistant, to waiter, to Buddhist priest.
Managers using these forms of automation and others cite customer satisfaction benefits from increased convenience and customization, and from giving customers more control over their own experiences. They also tout cost savings—a tempting proposition against a backdrop of rising labor costs.
So is the levitating Barcalounger inevitable? Hardly.
For starters, the economics of service automation aren’t universally rosy. When a nationwide retail bank introduced online banking, customers who adopted it increased their total transaction volume and began visiting and calling the bank more, increasing costs and decreasing overall profitability. Similar dynamics can be observed in health care. Patients who adopted e-visits, for example, actually began showing up at the doctor’s office twice as often. One explanation for this pattern is that current technology is functionally limited, requiring people to seek out in-person help in addition to using automated services. But as innovation progresses, functional limitations are bound to fall by the wayside.
Another explanation is that humans are inherently social creatures who get emotional value from seeing and interacting with one another. Research shows that taking away the opportunity for this kind of connection can undermine service performance. In one study, my colleagues and I found that when banking customers used the ATM more and the teller less, their overall level of satisfaction with the bank went down.
We think this is because the deck is stacked against automation in several important ways:
1. Service can be emotional; technology cannot. When we’re anxious about whether a check will clear or why our migraine won’t go away, we become advice-seeking. Even if it has the answers and can read the tone of our voice, or the expression on our face, people find the idea that technology “feels” and “senses” to be unnerving, and when a technology is deployed for such a purpose, the results can be unsettling. For example, customers who call MetLife to settle a death-related insurance claim are treated to digital condolences, delivered through an IVR system:
ROBOT VOICE: “We at Met Life want to express our sincere condolences for your loss.”
Automating sympathy is certainly cheaper than having a human employee comfort the bereaved, but the tradeoff can come across as disingenuous and is unlikely to be sustainable. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the public reception to Pepper’s funeral offerings — which cost $350, relative to $2,200 for a human priest — has been tepid to date.
2. We still prefer having people help solve our problems. In many ways, the capacity and computational power of technology far outstrips our own. Google has become our go-to for answers to a broad range of queries; machine learning determines which ads are shown to us online, which fulfillment centers our Amazon orders are shipped from, and which movies are recommended to us by Netflix. And research shows that we’re perfectly happy engaging through digital channels to look up information. Nevertheless, when we’re looking for creative solutions to service problems, we still seek out other humans. If we get stuck, if there’s ambiguity in the information, or if we need help making a purchase decision, we still opt for a person.
3. Less work for employees often means more work for customers. Scanning and bagging our own groceries, while circumventing cumbersome (though not wholly unwarranted) fraud-prevention measures, is actually harder for us than having an employee help us who is trained to do the work. Advances in technology like Amazon Go make the customer’s role objectively easier, but automated solutions may also give us the impression that the company is expending less effort on our behalf, which can make us wonder what, exactly, we’re paying for.
But if you think smart companies will use less service automation in the future, you’re wrong. Businesses will continue to seek new ways to use technology to improve the quality and efficiency of service. Some will do better than others. Based on what we know so far, successful innovations are likely to:
1. Automate transactional interactions, while facilitating human connections. Grab-and-go shopping, or giving customers the option of hailing an Uber or Lyft, reporting a pothole, or ordering a pizza from a mobile device, improves service quality by making transactions easier and faster to accomplish. However, companies shouldn’t strand customers in a digital transaction. When they need help, an instantaneous connection to a gracious and well-informed human should be a short stroll, click, or tap away. Although the Amazon Go store does not have cashiers, it has plenty of helpful humans ready to lend support or expertise. Making the pivot to a person simple allows customers and companies alike to achieve the convenience and efficiency benefits of automated service, while ensuring the customer feels supported. If designed correctly, automated interactions should improve satisfaction and loyalty, not erode them.
2. Support employees without getting in their way. There are many opportunities to create technologies that support employees’ efforts to create value for customers. The trick is how to design these solutions so that they don’t undermine the human connection that people are uniquely equipped to make. Existing solutions don’t yet meet the mark, prompting leaders of one rapidly growing coffee chain to delay the introduction of an automated point of sale system, finding it undermined the connection they wanted to make with their customers. Breaking eye contact with a customer to review an order on a screen, or to hunt frantically for the right combination of order-entry keys, can be as distracting to an interaction as pulling out your iPhone at the dinner table. If properly designed, technology should help craft an environment that enables employees to excel comfortably, without stress or angst, while not hindering the interaction.
3. Enhance customer and employee engagement. Service can be more efficient and satisfying when customers and employees are visible to one another. Rather than increasing the gap between customers and employees, technology can be used to enhance the connection. For example, customers who order pizza from Domino’s can use Domino’s Pizza Tracker to “see” the work employees are doing for them as they’re doing it. Customers can also send pre-specified messages back to the employees who are doing the work to express their appreciation. It’s a win for both sides.
4. Engage customers in ways that won’t make human service providers cringe. If an action would be seen as annoying when performed by a person, chances are it will be annoying when performed by technology. Applying this simple heuristic will help managers avoid a broad array of common-sense technological transgressions. A customer’s time is valuable, so don’t crush them with unsolicited texts and emails. Don’t unleash auto-dialers to solicit responses for unappealing offers and digital surveys. Don’t lead customers on with an endless phone tree if there’s a very low probability they’ll actually reach a person.
Remember: the devil’s in the details of service design, but the best uses of technology are likely to make customers and employees feel more, rather than less, valuable to your organization. They’re also likely to make the service feel more, rather than less human.
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