Guest article by Alexander Henkel. (Alexander Henkel co-organize Let’s Talk about Service LTAS 2022 event. Read more here).

Social robots are increasingly deployed to interact with consumers in the marketplace, taking on service roles such as serving and seating customers in restaurants, greeting and directing visitors in hospitals, and offering concierge services in hotels. This integration of robots into the organizational frontline transforms service interactions for consumers and employees alike. However, it also challenges some fundamental principles of service theory and with it the roles and role interplay in service encounters (Lariviere et al., 2017; Subramony et al., 2018). As a consequence, we need to revisit one of the most prominent and long-standing service encounter theories: role theory (Solomon et al., 1985).

Role theory encompasses three key elements: (1) role enactment or behavior, (2) role expectations, and (3) role congruence that together result in six propositions (Biddle, 1986; Solomon et al., 1985). It has been applied to explain behavior, mechanisms, and outcomes of service interactions between (human) social actors for over three decades (Biddle, 1986; Henkel et al., 2017; Schepers and van der Borgh, 2020).

First, due to the abilities of social robots to give verbal and non-verbal human-like cues to express emotions and intentions, and the human-like mental schemas they evoke, role theory is ideally suited to integrate the multidisciplinary wealth of research findings on social robots in service settings based on the roles that robots assume in service interactions. A review and analysis of extant research findings through the lens of role theory is featured in our article.

Second, the changing nature of human-robot service interactions (HRSI) has implications for the core principles of role theory. Adapting and extending Salomon’s original propositions, we advance robotic role theory. This theoretical perspective offers an alternative for service scholars to treat each interplay of consumers and robots as singular events (cf. Solomon et al., 1985). Another strength of robotic role theory is that it considers the interplay of actors in HRSI while other commonly used theoretical bases such as TAM (Davis, 1993) or CASA (Nass et al., 1994) mainly focus on one actor and are hence ill-suited to explain crucial constructs in the service field, such as value co-creation (Čaić et al., 2018).

The resulting theoretical basis considers the peculiarities of robotic service while respecting the interactive elements of service encounters between social actors. Robotic role theory thus can serve as a theoretical foundation for future empirical research on robots taking on service roles. Examples include questions such as: What mental schemas do consumers have of different types of social robots in different service roles? What associations for which frontline roles evoke beneficial or unfavorable consumer role behaviors and how can these be managed through robot design? How do consumer role expectations translate from human to robotic service encounter? What general robot role behaviors are essential for robot role performance and thus generalizable across service contexts? How should robots be introduced in service networks to ensure role clarity for employees and consumers alike? How can robots support the formation of employee role clarity? How does robot aversion or fear of being replaced affect the emergence of congruent role expectations of employees? A rich, non-exhaustive list of future research avenues for HRSI is featured in our main article.

Overall, it seems like longstanding theories, such as role theory, that were initially developed for human-human service interactions can serve as excellent bases to explain also human service interactions with robots as non-human social actors. The strength charm of starting from a traditional, human-only perspective lies in its incompatible elements. It is the very contemplation about necessary amendments and additions that offer fruitful ground for future research endeavors. We hope that our account of robotic role theory achieves just that.

Alexander Henkel co-organize Let’s Talk about Service event

Alexander P. Henkel
Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Management
Open University of the Netherlands

Image credit: Alex Knight.