Autonomous, self-service technology can't replace human touch

Self-service and autonomous technology can be found in any number of businesses, including hospitals, restaurants and retail -- but they are not a substitute for human interaction.

Have you met NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital's new employee? A busy bee, the new worker sanitizes and buffs the floors of the hospital system's new ambulatory center without complaint.

In all honesty, the newbie doesn't have the capacity to gripe. It is a robot programmed to clean. Ambulatory center patients might notice these robots, because no longer are they consumed with reams of paperwork at a registration desk upon arrival -- patients who wear a GPS-supported smart band can simply head straight to their appointments, with directions provided via a mobile app.

The robot and paperless appointments are just two of several autonomous services that NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital (NYP) hopes will enhance the patient experience by enabling employees to focus on tasks that require greater skills and a human touch. NYP also has robots delivering meals to employee-managed dining stations on the floors of one of its hospitals, while chatbots answer questions on a website. And a video conference function on an NYP app lets doctors diagnose patients at home or on the go.

"We recognize technology is an important part of who we are," said Vishal Sheth, director of transformation at NYP. "We take every opportunity we get to remain at the forefront of healthcare, and that means providing the technologies employees need to provide an outstanding experience to patients."

NYP's new addition isn't the only robot working the customer service beat. By next year, Walmart expects to add autonomous floor scrubbers in nearly 40% of its 4,700 U.S. stores, while implementing robots to scan shelf inventory at 350 locations. And countless other businesses have or will soon have some form of customer-facing automated tool doing the work of humans -- all in the name of improving customer service and, in many cases, cutting costs.

Automation everywhere

Seemingly just about every business nowadays has a chatbot handling perfunctory customer queries on its website or customer service phone line. Most retail and grocery chains enable customers to pay for purchases at self-service registers. And many fast-food and fast-casual restaurants let patrons decide whether they want to place an order with a human cashier or on an image-driven touchscreen kiosk.

While there is certainly room for technological error and the potential for customer frustration should the technology fail, retailers and other businesses can't afford to ignore the potential of autonomous and self-service technology, several CX analysts said. This includes the next wave of technology: robots.

"There's always a kind of tradeoff with technology," said Brent Leary, a CRM and CX analyst. "Some things are lost and some new things are gained, and there are things the technology does that you didn't think of. But you always have to be open to these technologies, no matter how different they initially seem, if your main focus is customer experience. There's always a need to shift to something that's even better."

NYP cleaning robot photo
A cleaning robot roams the halls at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Protein Bar & Kitchen -- a fast-casual restaurant chain in Washington, D.C., Illinois and Colorado -- follows this approach. Several years ago, it tried kiosk-only service in one of its restaurants, but within a few months, management recognized some customers also wanted to interact with employees. Now, the chain attempts to balance automation and the human experience. Two of the chain's 19 locations have permanent self-service kiosks, created by the restaurant tech vendor Toast, placed near the entrance and within sight of human-managed registers.

"We didn't want to force customers into doing one thing," said Jon Arbitman, Protein Bar & Kitchen's senior technology services manager. "If you want to talk to someone you can, but some people are more comfortable using the kiosks."

Coming to a store near you: Robots

If self-checkout cash registers were the first major wave of consumer-facing self-service technologies, it could be argued that chatbots were the second wave. It didn't take long for the uniqueness of paying for goods without a human present to not seem unique. Similarly, chatbots seem almost old hat now. Granted, bots are still in the infancy stage and don't always recognize every word or phrasing, but customers now accept -- and even like -- that they don't have to talk to a human to accomplish basic customer service tasks.

Robots and other autonomous tools in stores, restaurants and hospitals are the next wave. This year, Ahold Delhaize USA started deploying about 500 robots to the stores of its three supermarket chains: Stop & Shop, Giant Food Stores and Martin's. The tall and thin robot, named Marty, has cartoonish eyes, but its real vision -- image capturing technology -- spots debris and spills on floors and then verbally pages human staff over the P.A. system to notify them. It also checks shelves for depleted products and runs price checks.

Ahold Delhaize didn't provide comment for this story, but it has said Marty doesn't replace jobs but rather assists employees, enabling them to focus on other tasks. Yet, human employees ultimately have to clean the messes that Marty finds and stock the shelves that the robot notices are bare.

Walmart also declined to comment but instead pointed to a company-written blog post that touts its autonomous technology rollout. Looking like a miniature Zamboni, "Auto-C" cleans floors on its own. Another roaming robot alerts employees to empty store shelves, while the "Fast Unloader" robots supposedly do just that: unload and sort boxes from delivery trucks so employees don't have to.

Many customers will undoubtedly have to adjust to the sights and sounds of robots wandering store aisles and hospital corridors. But if the robots and other autonomous services help customers without much of a hiccup, and if the shifting of human resources to other customer service jobs is evident, they will probably be accepted in little time, according to the CX analysts.

"While all these technologies have value in a multitude of areas, they still have to be appropriate to the brand experience and customer expectations," said Joanne Joliet, a senior director and analyst at Gartner who specializes in retail.                 

Consumers will appreciate self-service checkout, but only if they want to shop fast, Joliet said. Sales that require human insight, such as special apparel or fishing gear, still require the human touch, she said.

Retailers need to look at the entire journey. If I'm adding something shiny or sexy, it also has to improve the customer experience and enable employees to be efficient with their jobs.
Joanne JolietSenior director and analyst, Gartner

And that's the balance organizations have to be mindful of when implementing autonomous and self-service technology: Does it do more harm than good? Will customers be turned off by a beeping Marty as it roams aisles? Will they revolt when an order kiosk won't order?

Macy's, for example, offers a mobile app through which store patrons can scan items and pay for merchandise. It's convenient for patrons who want to shop without help -- until it's not convenient, Joliet said. Customers still have to bring those items to a checkout desk for employees to verify the purchase, remove security tags and bag the merchandise, she said.

"Retailers need to look at the entire journey. If I'm adding something shiny or sexy, it also has to improve the customer experience and enable employees to be efficient with their jobs," Joliet said.

Automate, but still understand customers

Although customer-facing technologies are part of everyday life, to some degree, businesses are rushing into it, said Jeanne Bliss, a CX coach to companies.

"You always need a failsafe," Bliss said. "There are going to be times when customers need to opt out of self-help. And while the technology means some companies will [employ] fewer people, they'll still need a higher-quality person to handle the issues that can't be solved by self-service technology."

Leary, the CRM analyst, said autonomous technology might lead to job losses, but it could also create other kinds of jobs that haven't yet been envisioned.

"It could be a win-win if companies understand it's not just about ruthless efficiency," he said. "It's only part of the experience. Companies still need to use data to understand customers and personalize experiences."

NewYork-Presbyterian doesn't want to deploy technologies for the sake of having the latest technology, said Sheth and his colleague, Shauna Coyle, the hospital system's director of innovations.

"As we look at different technologies, they need to tie back to our overall goal: improving patient outcome and reducing costs," Coyle said.

A steering committee ensures that technology adheres to NYP principles before implementation, and employees whose jobs are affected learn new skills, Sheth said.

Arbitman of Protein Bar & Kitchen said restaurant managers speak with customers to gauge their experiences on the self-service kiosks. Feedback revealed that customers thought little of the addition of bar code scanners to the kiosks. They still used the kiosk screen to peruse menus and found no benefit to instantly scanning in their orders, so the restaurant removed the option.

"If you're fully automated, you can't hear anybody," Arbitman said.

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