Is your customer service already robotic?

Cloud-based software, automation and even intelligent chatbots are all being increasingly used to provide quicker, more responsive service to customers in a wide range of industries. But could intelligent customer apps and programs one day replace human reps and assistants completely?

Day by day, it appears we are inching toward just such a possibility. Just this past May, for instance, the former CEO of McDonald’s responded to the growing $15-an-hour-minimum wage campaign in some parts of the U.S. by suggesting that “it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging French fries.” Around the same time, the payments services firm MasterCard announced it was starting to test a customer service robot named Pepper in Pizza Hut restaurants across Asia.

Still, the repeated refrain that “robots are coming to take your jobs” ignores a crucial aspect of some types of customer service (though certainly not all): it’s the fact that people who spend their money with businesses still expect to be able to deal one-on-one with a fellow human being for many different reasons.

Richard Shapiro, founder and president of a company called The Center for Client Retention, said as much following the Pepper announcement:

“There are too many interactions at restaurants performed by robotic servers who show no emotion and never engage the customer in a conversation,” Shapiro wrote. “The staff is not solely to blame. Managers don’t understand the value of hiring the right people and providing appropriate training.”

As a MarketWatch article about Pepper noted, “Although at first robots may be an interesting marketing gimmick, time will tell whether diners like interacting with them. People will come in for that, but whether they’ll return is another story.”

For now, there’s a message that customer-facing businesses can take away from this: If your current level of customer service is already robotic, emotionless and unengaging, yes, maybe robots can indeed replace your human service professionals. But will that solution really ensure that your customers keep coming back? If they don’t feel that you’re treating them as special and valuable, the answer might be, “No.”

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