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Service Robots Rising: How Humanoid Robots Influence Service Experiences and Elicit Compensatory Consumer Responses

Jamie Ludwig

For more than half a century, the concept of human-like robots has captivated people’s minds. In literature and pop culture, the mechanical creations have been imagined as helpers or even friends of mankind, but also as adversaries capable of mass destruction and murder. No matter what sort of attitudes robots provoked in theory, the idea of them coexisting en masse with humans have provoked remained completely abstract. However, as technology has developed in recent years, the conversation has shifted from “if” to “when” humanoid robots will have a place in our daily lives. One question that’s often left out this discussion is: What will humans feel toward robots when that happens?

The service industry has been an early-adopter of human service robots (HSRs), which have been touted by business media as a way for companies to stay on the cutting edge of technology, increase buzz, and engage customers on a social level vs. conventional self-service machines. But while human reactions to robots has been studied in the robotics field, there hasn’t been much research comparing their specific reactions to humanoid compared to HSRs. Despite this, it is essential for companies and marketers to understanding how humans will respond to HSRs in order to meet their business goals, grow their consumer base, and inspire brand trust.

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What the Researchers Did:

In order to find out more about how humans respond to HSRs, a team of researchers from Florida State University, Babson College, and University of Groningen, The Netherlands, reported the results of seven studies that use four distinct HSRs as stimuli. Taken together, the studies explore whether or not consumers exhibit compensatory behaviors (such as purchasing status items or overeating) in response to HSRs, and if so, what sort of perceptions did they have of HSRs that drives this behavior. For example, do humans perceive HSRs as a threat to their human identity?

Key findings:

  • Though robots with human-like features are designed with the goals of appealing to humans and inspiring trust, the response they elicit is often aversive. This may be due to the fact that while robots may be programed to imitate humanness they can not truly replicate human qualities.
  • The uncanny valley concept suggests humans feel heightened levels of discomfort and overall sense of eeriness when faced with robots. In a consumer context, this results in increased compensatory consumption such as status spending or consuming more calories.
  • From a financial standpoint, HSRs may benefit firms by triggering a rise in consumer spending.
  • Since service employees (human or robot) represent the company, consumer discomfort with HSRs could undermine brand trust, customer satisfaction and loyalty.
  • Firms should deliver positive customer experiences, so marketers need to understand the circumstances in which consumers have adverse experiences with HSRs.

Results:

Though more research is needed to determine how humans react to HSRs in the future, based on the findings of these seven studies studies, the authors determined that due to the uncanny valley concept, consumer discomfort and compensatory activities rises when they deal with HSRs. Firms may wish to invest in HSRs that are less human-like vs. which have been shown to generate a more positive response among consumers compared to those who are designed to look like humans.

What does this mean / takeaway for future:

Organizations who are currently using or considering the use of HSRs in consumer settings should take heed of these findings. While HRS may be conceived as a way to show consumers companies are technologically advanced and inspire brand engagement, these findings indicate that while HSRs may drive consumer spending, that may be because they generate discomfort, compensatory behaviors—which can result in negative attitudes toward the company. Replacing human workers with HSRs too soon may increases chances for upselling and promote greater spending on food items, but the interaction might trigger a decline in loyalty and trust, which can erodes the customer/company relationship over time. 

 Marketers are on the front lines of making transitions to HSR technology a positive experience for consumers, so they must understand what types of consumption-related behaviors are triggered by HSRs vs. human workers or other types of automation. As more research is done in this area, marketers shouldstress the importance of the consumer experience and satisfaction when it comes to HSRs and advocate for a slow introduction of this technology over time.

In addition, marketers should conduct market research to look for ways to determine customer response to HSRs in varying contexts. For example, consumers might have a more positive response to HSRs in a quick turnaround setting such as an airport food kiosk than in a more traditional restaurant that relies on repeat customers. Market research can also help determine varying levels of technology readiness and anxiety among the company’s consumer base,  so that messaging and campaigns can be tailored to help all consumers ease into interacting with HSRs.

Conclusion:

Companies must value consumer experience over bottom line when adopting new technologies of any kind. The use of Human Service Robots may create more opportunities for upselling, they have been demonstrated to cause uneasiness, discomfort, and compensatory behaviors among consumers. Therefore, companies should take a slow approach to incorporating them in their business operations or risk losing customer loyalty. Marketers can help make this transition smoother by encouraging introducing HSRs at a slow pace, changing approach (such as using more robot-like service robots versus humanoid robots), and creating campaigns and messaging for consumer groups who are more and less open to new technology. Both companies and marketers should be mindful of new studies when it comes to how humans react to HSRs (or conduct research of their own) as consumer attitudes toward these technologies shift over time.

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Jamie Ludwig is a freelance writer and media expert based in Chicago.