By Vignesh Yoganathan, Victoria-Sophie Osburg, Werner H. Kunz, and Waldemar Toporowski
Robots are today a feature of frontline services in a diverse array of sectors, from hotels to hospitals and museums to monasteries. As the technology that powers the functionality of such robots developed over the years, the robots themselves have also become more humanlike by incorporating human facial features and other characteristics, such as personality. All this has made it more interesting, but also important, to study the reactions and perceptions of consumers when it comes to interacting with human-like robots. We tried to address these questions in a recently published paper, where we presented potential consumers with different scenarios involving humanlike robots servicing a hotel check-in desk. There are three important findings from this.
- Humanoid robots can bring warmth and competence to the service encounter
Overall, we found that people expect better quality services from a human-like robot than a self-service machine that performs the same function. This is because people perceive human-like robots as warmer and more competent, which are two basic aspects of how we humans judge each other in day-to-day situations.
So, in contrary to the general assumption that technology is always cold, humanoid robots can really infuse warmth into automated service delivery. Particularly in times when direct human-to-human contact is not possible (e.g., due to the COVID-19 pandemic), bringing more warmth in a service encounter is a very welcome addition. For instance, at the Third People’s Hospital of Shenzhen (China), humanoid robots receive and direct visitors and help medical staff speak to patients and each other safely via videoconferencing.
- Humanoid robots are a good replacement for self-service machines not so much for human service staff.
Importantly though, the positive impact that humanlike robots are able to produce in comparison to self-service machines only holds true if the service is being delivered by a human-like robot alone. So, if there are any human service staff delivering the same service alongside the robots, then people do not see the robots as comparatively more warm or competent than self-service machines. Why would this be? Well, anthropomorphism, or the tendency we humans have for assigning human-like characteristics or behavior to non-human entities (such as robots), is a relative concept. If you compare a humanlike object to a non-humanlike object, the humanlike object can be viewed more favorably, up to a point (too much human -likeness in an object, and the famed ‘uncanny valley’ effect will kick in!). However, if you compare a human-like object to a human, then the object will obviously not seem human enough and is likely to lose any advantage it has by looking or behaving like humans (unless of course, you happen to have a particular disliking for the human in this comparison…). Nevertheless, the collaboration with human service employees is still possible with humanlike robots, by specializing in separate areas of the service delivery process where they excel naturally (see also: Wirtz et al. 2018, Huang and Rust 2019).
- Successful deployment of service robots depends strongly on customer characteristics
Although service robots have many advantages, their implementation is not suitable for all kinds of consumers. Some consumers are simply not that keen on technology and others have an innate tendency to prefer the (real) human touch. Parasuraman and Colby’s Technology Readiness Index 2.0© offers a good way to gauge people’s disposition towards technology in general. Applying this scale, our research shows that for people with a low level of technology readiness, it makes no difference whether it is a human-like robot or a self-service machine that they must deal with. Additionally, people with a high need for human interaction are likely to experience a high degree of psychological risk where completely automated service situations are concerned, but this does not appear to be especially problematic when human-like robots are involved as opposed to self-service machines.
There are some cases of humanlike robots serving consumers successfully. One good example is KFC’s AI-enabled humanoid robot Dumi, which was launched in 2017 in China. Developed by Baidu, Dumi combines many sophisticated machine learning models to bring facial recognition, voice recognition, and online data mining capabilities to frontline service alongside human staff for a specific purpose: to interact with and take orders from consumers who speak different dialects of the Chinese language, as well as automatically determine customized offerings for them (Chen, 2017). One reason for its success is the careful targeting of segments that are high in technology readiness motivations, but these consumers also have a good reason to avoid human staff – language differences that can cause deep embarrassment when ordering.
What does the future hold?
Whether or not you personally believe that one day robots will become conscious beings, capable of thoughts and feelings akin to our own, if it were to become reality, it certainly would have a seismic effect on how robots are employed (as opposed to deployed) in service frontlines. A least, so far, we have not had to worry about the robots’ own satisfaction with their work, but perhaps our descendants in the not-too-distant future may have to deal with another Marvin….
“Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they tell me to take you up to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction? ‘Cos I don’t.” – Marvin, The Paranoid Android (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
Read more in our article:
Yoganathan, V., Osburg, V.-S., H. Kunz, W., & Toporowski, W. (2021). Check-in at the Robo-desk: Effects of automated social presence on social cognition and service implications. Tourism Management, 85, 104309. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tourman.2021.104309 or here
Vignesh Yoganathan is an Associate Professor in Marketing at the Executive and Professional Education Department of The University of Sheffield, UK.
Victoria-Sophie Osburg is an Associate Professor in Marketing at Montpellier Business School, Montpellier Research in Management, University of Montpellier, France.
Werner Kunz is a Professor of Marketing and Director of the Digital Media Lab at the College of Management, University of Massachusetts (UMass) Boston.
Waldemar Toporowski is a Full Professor and Chair of Marketing and Retail Management at the Georg-August University of Göttingen, Germany.