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People Love Robots In Customer Service   

The majority of customers have a positive experience when dealing with service robots, according to new research
The majority of customers have a positive experience when dealing with service robots, according to new research


  • Interacting with robots mostly triggers emotions of joy, love, surprise, interest, and excitement for customers 
  • Discontent is mainly expressed when customers cannot use service robots due to them malfunctioning 
  • Using robot servers can be a huge differentiator for a hotel chain, creating a novel and unique experience for customers 

Whilst the tech whizzes of our world might not yet have provided the hoverboards, self-lacing trainers and dog-walking drones witnessed by Marty McFly in Back To The Future , the speed of technological advancement since the turn of the 21st century, has undeniably elevated our standards of living and productivity. From driverless vehicles to 3D printing, and smart hubs that run our households for us and remember to put milk on the weekly shopping list (the film did get some bits right!), tech is making life easier. 

Despite these benefits, such strides have also given us humans cause for worry – from those who feel they simply can’t keep pace with new gadgets and gizmos to the technophobes who fear we’re sleepwalking into a Terminator film. 

However, despite our new tech tools being rather clever, they are by no means infallible. There are countless anecdotal experiences from friends and relatives we can all attest to (perhaps our own experiences as well!), from smart hubs being unable to decipher regional accents of users, or getting into a spot of bother at the supermarket when self-scan checkouts fail to identify items. No doubt frustrating, but such scenarios provide the quiet comfort that we humans still have dominion over our subservient machines – at least for now. Similarly, whilst automated phone systems which parrot overly polite instructions and platitudes function perfectly well, they’re also rather effective at riling up customers who would prefer a less scripted and more responsive human interaction.

Whether we like it or not, it seems an aversion to tech will make little difference to its adoption in the wider world, with a stonking 82 percent of Brits believing it to be inevitable that we will become more and more dependent on technology in the future. 

And perhaps this, if grudging, acceptance of change is chipping away at our dislike of digital? A new study has revealed that a previously tech-averse contingent may be warming to a more robotic world, particularly in the service industry. 

Research by Dr Zhibin Lin, Professor of Marketing at Durham University Business School, alongside colleagues from Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, Audencia Business School and Jimei University found that interacting with robots creates joy for customers when they are used in hotels. 

The findings from Professor Lin and his colleagues indicated that the feeling of “joy” was an overwhelmingly common emotion, felt by over 60% of hotel customers dealing with robots in a customer service role. In a separate qualitative analysis, “love” was felt by 20% of people and “surprise” by 12%.

Technophobia was found to be neither rife nor negligible as “Fear” was registered as the second most felt emotion by customers, encompassing 28% of the reviews. Those more powerfully negative feelings made up a far smaller amount of the feedback percentage. “Anger” was at only 5%, and “Sadness” at a tiny 1%. A further 4% were recorded as feeling “Neutral” toward their robot assistants.

The data was obtained through 9,707 customers reviews from two major social media platforms; Ctrip and TripAdvisor, encompassing 412 hotels in eight countries. Appropriately, the researchers deployed a machine learning model to identify those hotels which had reviews on robot customer service, and to group the emotions each customer felt. 

If we take a deeper look at Professor Lin and his colleagues’ research methods we also learn, as research has previously indicated, reviews based primarily on star ratings can lead us astray from what we want or need and do not give us a truly informative account of the customer’s experience. Recognising the value that more qualitative data can bring, Professor Lin’s team used written reviews as a measure of customers’ satisfaction with the service – keeping human experience at the heart of their investigation.  

For example, one reviewer said: “There is a very cute intelligent robot as an advisor, which can answer intelligently with the guests, which is very popular with children”. Another said: “I especially like the small robot. It answers all questions” and added they were impressed by the abilities of an egg chef robot to cook omelettes to a high standard. 

Professor Lin suggests that greater exposure to and better effectiveness of robot assistants is perhaps why public opinion is becoming more favourable. “Service robots have been increasingly adopted in hospitality service settings in recent years and large hotel chains have gradually adopted their services for housekeeping and butler services, interacting with customers and fulfilling concierge and front-desk tasks”, he says. “Previous opinion has been that customers felt uneasiness and discomfort when being served by robots, however this research suggests that customers actually, on the whole, have more positive interactions with robots and enjoy the experience of being served by one”. 

But is there still cause for concern as robot capabilities increase? If robots can assume the role of affable conversationalists, demonstrating the same attractive characteristics typically found in people, this may lead us to think our best efforts may no longer be enough to distinguish us from the machines as emotionally superior and receptive. After all, we can wake up on a bad day, harbour emotions of anxiety and grow tired of an overwhelming workload. Robots on the other hand can be programmed to exhibit an unfailingly polite and disciplined demeanour to the letter. Whilst customers of robots are always guaranteed to get “service with a smile” it does put pressure on human workers to be as effective, as fast-paced and as pleasant as their artificial colleagues.

But, on the other hand, just like the glitchy supermarket self check-out, the tech isn’t foolproof. Professor Lin’s study findings show that service robots sometimes malfunction, or are incapable of responding to unexpected customer requests, which can create frustration in even the most mild mannered customers. Professor Lin contests that hotels with a clientele composed of, for example, business customers, should reduce the use of entertaining or funny robots because this would undermine the brand of the business. 

An interesting nuance in the data was that cultural disparities also emerged from Professor Lin’s findings. The results from China suggest customers are not so fearful of robots’ presence. It was more common for negative emotions to be triggered by the unreliability of the robots, rather than their sheer existence. The western results, based on Trip Advisor, however suggested people seemed more uncomfortable around the robots because of their preconceptions, with some reviewers likening them to Doctor Who Daleks. Mercifully, these machines were only on a quest to deliver room service, not mass destruction! But, such nuances further illustrate the idea that, to win people over, exposure to technology is key. Additionally, making robots as humanised as possible stops such disparaging distinctions being made. 

Both results however were united in harbouring some negatives across cultures. As Professor Lin’s research finds, whilst much of Chinese customers discontent was expressed when service robots were unable to fill requests, and some Western customers disliked being served by machines full stop, some customers, regardless of nationality found fault with robots’ impersonal nature and lack of flexibility. 

One reviewer for instance said: “I was told a robot could deliver for me. Seriously? I like people. Real people“. Another said: “Technology was cool e.g. robots but felt a little impersonal/functional and frustrating at times”. 

The researchers contend that though the majority of customers have positive opinions and experiences with robot servers, negative experiences are still there. Therefore, managers must learn from them and focus on improving service quality, increasing functionality in human-robot interactions. 

The reality is that technological advancements across different sectors will only become more of a mainstay. There is a wealth of research and our own observations to show this is the case. Businesses should therefore be mindful of reconciling the extremely tech averse with progress in a way that gets them on board rather than scares them off.  

Until these concerns are eliminated, like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, they’ll be back.  

By, James Dugdale

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