CX Science: the effects of Humanoid Service Robots on CX
Unless they show a perfect resemblance to humans in vison and behavior, people consider service robots to be eerie and disturbing.
When faced with such robots in consumption contexts, people react with compensatory behavior: they consume more, choose group tasks to boost social affiliation, and prefer status products over regular ones.
Be mindful of the negative effects service robots can have on CX.
Humanoid service robots might work well in social settings (hotels, bars, airports) as the presence of other people offsets the potential negative effect of robots. They are also appropriate when selling status products.
Consider giving people a choice between interacting with a human and a robot.
Consider making the robots more machine-like than human-like. Unless the resemblance to a human is perfect, it's better to have a machine-like robot than a semi-human one - this helps avoid the uncanny valley.
Robots are crossing the chasm between science fiction literature and everyday life. In the search for automation and consequently savings, many companies are turning to Humanoid Service Robots (HSR): robots that mimic human physical characteristics and interactions.
Consequently, it is expected that the market for "humanoid robots will be valued at $3.9 Billion in 2023, growing at a staggering 52.1% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2017 and 20231. Of all the types of humanoid robots, bipedal robots are expected to grow at the fastest CAGR during the forecasted period." 1
And producers, such as https://www.servicerobots.com/humanoid-robots/, claim that "A humanoid robot is better able to engage with people and get the desired reaction from them because customers are put at ease and prefer to deal with automata which reflect them in some way."
Is it all roses though? How is customer experience different when the service rep is a humanoid robot? How is people's behavior different when they interact with a robot? Given that we are likely to see more and more robots in the service domain these questions become even more important.
Luckily, science is making strides towards understanding people's interactions with robots. This study, published just last year in the Journal of Marketing delves into the topic. Read on.
The Uncanny Valley
We can think of robots' human-likeness as a continuum - from the ones least resembling humans to full humanoids. In 1970, the robotics professor Masahiro Mori introduced an interesting concept: that people like the robots that do not closely resemble humans and those that look very much like humans.
What lies in the middle is the 'uncanny valley' - the zone in which robots have some human characteristics but do not resemble them fully in their look or behavior. People find robots that imitate but do not achieve full humanness eery and disturbing, and dislike them.
Why does the uncanny valley exist?
"The accounts for why humanoids cause discomfort typically draw on evolutionary mechanisms and can be unified by the idea that people feel threatened by humanoids. ... McDorman draws on terror management theory to propose that androids can elicit morality salience by violating norms of human appearance and movement" 2
People feel a threat to their identity when dealing with humanoid robots. Knowing this, how do we react when interacting with service robots? How is our behavior different in consumption context when robots are involved?
Make things right
One of the most common reactions when we there is a disconnect between how we see our current selves and how we would like to be is to compensate. That is, when there is this so called self-discrepancy, we tend engage in a behaviour that offsets it.
In consumption situations the compensatory mechanism manifests for example in consumption of products with symbolic properties (eg premium ones), engagement in activities that lead to social affiliation, and consumption of unhealthy food.
What Mende, Scott, van Doorn, Grewal, and Shanks found out is that these very same behaviours are in place when people deal with service robots. Compared to dealing with humans, when people engage with robots they:
Prefer the status product over a regular one: 31% chose Fiji water when dealing with a service robot compared to 7% when dealing with a human.
Choose a group task more often with a service robot acting as the lab assistant (38%) than with a human (26%).
Eat more. In one of the studies people ate an average of 7.4 cubes of cheese when being told that a robot produced it compared to 6.0 with a human producer. In another study, people consumed 1.860 calories when being served by a robot, compared to 1.421 when being served by a human.
Clearly, customers feel and behave differently when dealing with humans compared to interacting with service robots. Because their sense of self is being altered by the presence of a robot, we strive to make things right, which leads us to compensatory consumption - preference for status products, eating more, and preferring social activities.
Robots can definitely boost service efficiency and they easily grab people's attention. But companies will do well to also consider the potential downsides of service robots - people can find them eerie and engage in compensatory consumption behaviors.
What companies can do about it:
To easen the negative effects, give people a choice whether to be served by robots or humans; and/or consider offering the robot option to the segment of people with higher affinity with technology.
Service robots are a good option in social settings, where the presence of others offsets the negative effects to a degree.
Service robots are likely to be a success for status/premium products.
Make the robots more machine-like than human-like. Unless the resemblance to a human is perfect, it's better to have a machine-like robot than a semi-human one - this helps avoid the uncanny valley.
We are still far from the moment in which service robots will be ubiquitous. It is important though that as we advance towards this moment we also research how people's behaviour changes when dealing with robots.
My best wishes for a great day ahead!