When robots take over frontline jobs, will humans still be needed?

In the Star Wars film series, C-3PO is a protocol droid that serves on the frontlines of intergalactic warfare, demonstrating advanced cross-cultural etiquette and the ability to speak over seven million languages.

While this depiction of a robot assistant is fictitious, it is not far removed from the types of robots we see assisting in various frontline capacities today: the frontlines of customer service. Robots like Hilton’s “Connie” and SoftBank’s “Pepper,” while not quite as advanced, can utilize language capabilities and navigation to create better customer experiences in hotels, restaurants, and stores.

You may think you have not interacted with a service robot yet, but you likely have used a version of one: the self-service kiosks in grocery stores. This technology has been on the rise in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerns over virus transmission and “mask harassment” drove self-service kiosks to the forefront of various customer service roles. Now, as pandemic fears subside, kiosks will remain, but robots are the future of service.

The benefits of service robots are apparent. They cannot transmit viruses through the air or become mentally drained from harassment. They have the potential to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and automate tedious tasks. Aside from the occasional malfunction or software update, robots can work around the clock without calling in sick, taking holidays or paid time off, ensuring there is always staff on hand at a hotel or rental car counter to assist customers.

However, for these benefits to be realized, service robots must be designed and implemented properly, or customers—and human colleagues—will avoid interacting with them. Emerging evidence points to how robots can best function in a customer service role.

Design robots to resemble humans—to an extent
Customers expect rapport and “smiling service” in interpersonal interactions—can service robots satisfy customers in this way?

Service robots that can be anthropomorphized (“So cute!”) —including being imbued with emotional traits—are more likely to satisfy customers. A 2022 study in the International Journal of Hospitality Management found that humanoid robots were only more satisfying to customers when perceived as female, aligning with expectations of stereotypically personable characteristics.

To be clear, “humanoid” does not mean service robots need an expressive face and human body. Consider R2D2 and the more recent BB-8 from Star Wars—even without a face, limbs or voice, they manage to be amusing and elicit sympathy. Robots that appear too humanlike, however, can feel uncanny and off-putting, known as the “uncanny valley” effect. [See: The Polar Express film]

More important than designing humanoid robots is allowing customers to perceive them as emotional beings. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, set in Japan’s first hotel with robots, asked 194 hotel guests about their satisfaction upon checkout. Half of the guests had been instructed beforehand to perceive the hotel robots as beings that can think and feel, while the other half did not receive this guidance. Despite interacting with the same service robots, those who perceived the robots as beings were more satisfied—because they sensed the robots’ ability to feel, not just think. When hotel guests believe robots have emotions, they are more forgiving of service failures. After all, to err is human—so customers may view humanoid robots with more empathy when they slip up. In other words, if service robots are still in beta testing, be sure customers approach them with empathy—as they would new trainees.

Replacing self-service kiosks with service robots, then, is not enough to satisfy customers—they crave an emotional connection. This does not require perfect performance or uncanny human expressions—just a name tag that says “Jenny” and a sign asking customers to be understanding of her feelings.

Design robots to be functional—not just novel

Robots have gained more popularity in the U.S. than Asia. An analysis of online satisfaction scores from hotel guests found interactions with service robots primarily evoked positive emotional reactions, such as to personable, anthropomorphized “cute” robots acting as greeters or delight and joy from robots delivering amenities to guest rooms (especially for children).

Novelty played a large role in customers’ perceptions of service robots. But once robots are at every checkout and front desk, will they continue to delight? In addition to novelty, surveyed hotel guests also appreciated their functionality.

So far, functionality has been the most important aspect of human-robot interactions and the greatest determinant of the customer experience. Placing robots in service roles often leads to unrealistic expectations of high efficiency and error-free performance, but like any technology, minor malfunctions and user errors can frustrate the experience.

We can look to the example of self-service checkout lanes, also intended to increase efficiency and lower costs. Major supermarkets like Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Panera Bread have eliminated cashiers altogether. Unfortunately, as self-service checkout became ubiquitous, customers grew frustrated with the technology, feeling it was clunky to use and angry at losing various services like grocery bagging.

Call centers handling high volumes of calls and routine requests have long used chatbots and automated systems to gauge customers’ emotional tones. As noted in a 2018 review in Harvard Business Review, Aida, a virtual assistant for a Swedish bank, can handle simple transactions, leaving less monotonous tasks to humans. Aida can also determine if a customer sounds frustrated and send that person to a human if their service issue is not resolved.

However, human service agents should not be left only to interact with irate customers, leading to fatigue and turnover. Ideally, a function of service robots could be to act as a shield—if you will, a “bodyguard”—intercepting abrasive or demeaning customers so human agents do not have to face them. The ability to distinguish technologically-frustrated or concerned customers from abusive ones can help human agents welcome robots joining the team.

Over time, as service robot technology becomes more ubiquitous and integrated into daily life, their novelty will fade. For robots to succeed long-term in a customer service role, it is important to strike a balance between utilizing their benefits and maintaining a human touch.

Match robots to customer segments and tasks

Even with personable, highly-functional robots, your customer base must be willing to engage in service interactions with them, requiring both psychological and technical readiness. While humanoid robots have existed in Asia for some time, customer acceptance remains a major barrier in the U.S.

Are robots right for your company? Industries requiring highly personalized customer service, rapport, trust, and problem-solving may not be ideal for service robots. More standardized and automated services like checkout transactions, hotel check-ins, and concierge services are better suited.

Also important is the nature of your customer base. For successful robot interactions, customers must be both confident in and willing to engage with robots. While hotels have had great success with greeter robots, high-end customers may refuse an invitation for robots to come to their hotel room to deliver extra towels. They prefer a human voice or face. The customer segments most confident in and willing to accept robots tend to be younger tech-savvy males. Other customers may doubt their ability to interact or not believe robots can effectively assist them. Companies must also consider in what ways technology may hinder rather than help if it cannot serve most customers effectively.

To manage customer service interactions with robots, human agents are essential. They are needed on-site to guide customers in interacting with robots as needed. To avoid situations like grocery store self-service checkout lanes, do not simply leave customers to fend for themselves by eliminating the human service option altogether. In short, robots and colleagues make the most effective service teams.

Introduce robots as colleagues—not replacements

Introducing robots to frontline customer service roles can be both relieving and threatening to human agents. Placing robots at front desks and counters can reduce monotonous tasks and exposure to rude customer behavior, but human colleagues may doubt the robots’ capabilities—or fear they are too capable and will take their jobs.

Be clear that human agents are indispensable to successfully integrating new technology into a business. For customers, they help anthropomorphize robots (“Have you met Jennifer, my new robot colleague?”), ensure the robots’ functionality, and take over when functionality falls short, and their own comfortable interactions with the robots serve as an example for any initially skeptical customers.

To increase comfort with robot teammates, managers should convey that the goal is not replacement but successful integration of robot and human labor for the best customer experience. Managers provide help through effectively communicating information about the robots’ capabilities and limitations, as well as providing technical training and incentives for developing expertise. Additionally, managers should convey how the new technology can shield agents from the most tedious tasks and unpleasant customers, and interacting with it may even be enjoyable.

While robots may take over some standardized and routine frontline roles like grocery cashiers or hotel front desk agents, humanity’s diversity and complexity will likely still require human involvement in these forms of service. When agents realize their roles are becoming more engaging—with robots handling dull, repetitive work or abusive customers—they may fully welcome the inclusion of that robot in their next happy hour invitation.

Service robots are an emerging technology, and interactions with them may lead to unexpected benefits beyond customer service. Pok Man Tang, a management professor and co-author of the 2021 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found early evidence that interacting with personable service robots can increase customers’ openness to diversity: both acceptance of nontraditional products and attitudes toward disadvantaged service agents.

Ultimately, whether people continue to enjoy customer service from robots comes down to the technology’s social capabilities, humanness (not too little, not too much), and functionality, as well as human (customer and colleague) acceptance. Robot technology should not be treated simply as a novel new toy but carefully integrated to provide value to customers and support for agents—striking a balance between automation and human interaction.

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