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The Parts of Customer Service That Should Never Be Automated

This is an article from the Havard Business Review written by Ryan W. Buell

In Pixar’s WALL-E, oversized humans recline on levitating barcaloungers and are dressed, primped, polished, and served, entirely by robots. Fiction? Maybe not, at least according to a wave of media coverage pointing to a dizzying array of service innovations on the horizon.

Look no further than the public debut of Amazon Go, the company’s first cashierless store. Digital imaging technology monitors which items shoppers select from shelves, and when a customer leaves the store, the person’s online account is automatically charged. Down the road in Santa Clara, California, room service robots are being designed that can navigate a hotel’s floor plan and interact digitally with its elevator and phone systems to deliver towels and beverages to guests. Various Silicon Valley startups have deployed robots that make pizzas, craft salads, and assemble artistic bistro sandwiches. In Boston, a robot works with labor nurses to schedule baby deliveries. Waiterless restaurants in China permit customers to order and pay through the WeChat app and feature robot servers that dispatch trays of food to the appropriate tables. In Japan, a robot named “Pepper,” that was conceived in part as a companion for the elderly, has honed its skills in a variety of service roles, ranging from retail assistant, to waiter, to Buddhist priest.

Managers using these forms of automation and others cite customer satisfaction benefits from increased convenience and customization, and from giving customers more control over their own experiences. They also tout cost savings — a tempting proposition against a backdrop of rising labor costs.

So is the levitating Barcalounger inevitable? Hardly.

For starters, the economics of service automation aren’t universally rosy. When a nationwide retail bank introduced online banking, customers who adopted it increased their total transaction volume and began visiting and calling the bank more, increasing costs and decreasing overall profitability. Similar dynamics can be observed in health care. Patients who adopted e-visits, for example, actually began showing up at the doctor’s office twice as often. One explanation for this pattern is that current technology is functionally limited, requiring people to seek out in-person help in addition to using automated services. But as innovation progresses, functional limitations are bound to fall by the wayside.

Another explanation is that humans are inherently social creatures who get emotional value from seeing and interacting with one another. Research shows that taking away the opportunity for this kind of connection can undermine service performance. In one study, my colleagues and I found that when banking customers used the ATM more and the teller less, their overall level of satisfaction with the bank went down.

We think this is because the deck is stacked against automation in several important ways:

  1. Service can be emotional; technology cannot. When we’re anxious about whether a check will clear or why our migraine won’t go away, we become advice-seeking. Even if it has the answers and can read the tone of our voice, or the expression on our face, people find the idea that technology “feels” and “senses” to be unnerving, and when a technology is deployed for such a purpose, the results can be unsettling. For example, customers who call MetLife to settle a death-related insurance claim are treated to digital condolences, delivered through an IVR system:

ROBOT VOICE: “We at Met Life want to express our sincere condolences for your loss.”

Automating sympathy is certainly cheaper than having a human employee comfort the bereaved, but the tradeoff can come across as disingenuous and is unlikely to be sustainable. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the public reception to Pepper’s funeral offerings — which cost $350, relative to $2,200 for a human priest — has been tepid to date.

Read the rest of the article here: https://hbr.org/2018/02/the-parts-of-customer-service-that-should-never-be-automated

Dwayne Samuels

Dwayne Samuels

Cofounder & CEO @ Samelogic. I love videos. Even more, I love using ML to understand videos.

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