- Service experience in the not-so-distant future
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of robots to tackle some of the tasks that were deemed too dangerous for humans. For instance, in disinfecting certain hospitals and wards, robots were used for these jobs instead of humans. To reduce human-to-human contact, robots were also used to deliver medication to patients who were in intensive care units in many hospitals. In this sense, robots were actually preferred to humans as bedside service providers.
There is even a study published in the October 2021 edition of the Journal of Service Management that indicated that in potentially embarrassing service situations, customers actually preferred to be attended to by robots, rather than humans. Titled “Service Robots, Agency, and Embarrassing Service Encounters”, the study found that the lack of emotions and inability to judge people make robots more attractive in certain situations.
A typically example is the purchase of condoms. There are many instances, when customers have walked out of a pharmacy shop with a different item, rather than the condom they originally intended to purchase. The embarrassment of having your next move known to another human puts many people off. However, this would not have been the case if the one behind the counter is a robot. The customer is sure the robot is not going to give him a quizzical look. Buying condoms from robots is akin to getting condoms from a condom dispensing machine.
In a study published in the April 2019 edition of the Journal of Marketing Research, researchers found that when customers dealt with HSRs, there was a tendency for the humans to compensate or even over-compensate. The researchers discovered that people preferred to purchase status goods, sought social affiliation, and ordered and ate more food. In finding out what caused people to behave like that, it came to light that people experienced a certain level of discomfort when they are dealing with HSRs. This discomfort stemmed from people believing that these robots are a threat to humans. Therefore the actions of these uncomfortable customers are an attempt to show that humans were still superior to robots.
It has however been found that when service robots look like humans, people tend to have favourable impressions of these robots. It is understandable that people would be afraid of those gigantic robots we see in movies such as the Transformers and Pacific Rim series. It seems when we see robots with beautiful faces and tender eyes, we are more likely fall in love with them. There are however studies that have claimed to have found the opposite. There has also been some arguments against robots having human features such as arms and feet, that do not function as expected. For instance, if a robot has arms, it is expected that it should be able to use those arms. However, if the robot is unable to make use of those appendages, the customer’s service experience is negatively affected.
Then there is the issue of service recovery, especially when the service mishap is caused by the service robot. Studies show that when HSR fail to apologise when there is service failure, customers tend to be disappointed. When the service mishap results from a robot that does not look like a human, customers do not mind too much if there is no apology. In other words, you would not be too concerned if the ATM does not apologise for a mistake it makes. However, if the ATM in question looks a lot like you, you would expect some from apology from it. If that apology is not forthcoming, you would walk away from the service experience quite disappointed.
It is true, though, that there are still many people who are not too comfortable with having to deal with robots. There are those who are so uncomfortable with the idea of being served by robots that they abandon their purchase and just leave. There are also some people who become displeased when they realise that the individual they had had a chat with via voice or text messaging turns out to be a robot. These customers feel “tricked” and people normally do not like it when they are tricked. However, the truth is that the triggering of negative attitudes towards robots will not change the drive to introduce more robots into society. Robots are coming—and they are coming in droves.
According to a report by Hyderabad, India-based, market intelligence and advisory firm, Mudor Intelligence, “The service robotics market was valued at USD 23,577.1 million in 2020 and is expected to reach USD 212,619.7 million by 2026.” According to a report from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), sales of professional service robots rose by an impressive 41% to 131,800 units in 2020.
These units will only increase in number as more and more people demand them—and as manufacturers make them more and more user friendly. For now, many of these robots do not come cheap. But if there is one thing we have come to know about technology, it must be the fact that as the know-how spreads, the cost of production will begin to plummet. There used to be a time when mobile phones were for only the rich. Those were the days when stealing mobile phones was a lucrative business. Yes, there are still some in that business but I want to believe that the profit margins might be very low.
In technologically-advanced countries like Japan, service robots are already making a real difference in the quality of life of their aging population—a population that is projected to shrink further by the close of the century. A shrinking population also means a shrinking workforce. The solution, for them, is to turn to a non-human workforce, i.e. service robots.
This is definitely just the beginning. Some have jokingly claimed that those of us in this part of the world have nothing to worry about regarding service robots. I say the joke is on those sceptics. In October of 2020, Fidelity Bank Ghana introduced a beautiful lady called Kukua to its customers. Kukua was to assist the Bank’s customers as a 24-hour WhatsApp Banking Assistant. That might not be any news until you realise that Kukua is actually not a Fante lady from Cape Coast but a virtual assistant. For now, Kukua might be sitting on a server somewhere. But eventually, when the robots take over, you never know. She might be given a body and sent over to your office by the Bank.
Come to think of it, there is actually no end to what we would be able to do with robots, especially in the area of customer service and customer experience. As customers, we are going to have to learn to deal with smart robots making our coffee or even preparing our meals. We have to get used to robot mixologists mixing cocktails for us at the bar. We have to also prepare for robots taking our orders at our favourite eatery. For me, the clincher is those robots that start asking about how your day went and asking about our families. We have already witnessed smart robots engaging in small talk, so this should not come as a surprise.
For businesses, one of the biggest challenges will be seamlessly putting both humans and non-human personnel at the front line, without customers feeling like one set of personnel is better than the other. Customers should not feel more comfortable dealing with humans than non-humans, and vice versa. If the switch between these two sets of frontline workers is not seamless, then evidently one group has no business being at the front line.
It is true that for robots to be generally accepted by humans, there is a need for them to be as emotionally intelligent as their human counterparts. This is something that many robot developers and manufacturers are still grappling with. Robot designers have done well with the looks of humanoid robots. They have done well with even the skin used on these robots. However, it is what goes on inside the mind of the robot that these designers must continue to work on. I see the emotional plane as the last frontier that robot scientists must conquer if they are to take robots to the next level. There is also genuine reason why emotionally-intelligent are needed. Studies have found that when robots are able to offer emotional support to customers, there is a general increase in the satisfaction level of these customers.
It used to be that robots were the stuff of Hollywood science fiction movies. That is no more the case. As can be seen from the ongoing discussion, robots are already walking among us. They are engaged in all manner of activities, doing their bit to help customers have better experiences. Rather than concentrate on how different humans are from robots, it will help if we accept that robots are here to stay and therefore the concentration should rather be on how humans and robots can collaborate and co-exist.
Evidently, there is still more work to be done if humans and robots are going to co-exist peacefully. The question of ethics is always going to hang around for a long time to come. The question of how much freedom and autonomy to give robots is still being answered. There are truly interesting times ahead. We all need to be ready for such times when the robots take over.