Employees vs. Robots: Who Is Better At Service?

This is a real question.

According to a recent report from Execs In The Know, 47 percent of companies are trying to shift traffic from traditional channels (phone, email, etc.) to lower cost channels such as chat and self-service.

It's self-service that's really grabbing headlines. 

Companies want to lower costs. With California leading the charge towards a higher minimum wage, executives feel pressure to spend less on service. Carl's Jr. and Hardee's CEO Andy Puzder recently speculated about building a fully automated restaurant with no employees. (No word on whether it will be called the Skynet Cafe.)

Customers are demanding faster, more frictionless service. That often means self-service. There's even a rumor going around that Millennials are causing this ruckus because they don't like to talk to people.

So, can robots really serve better than human employees? This post examines both sides of the discussion. 

Note: I'm using the term "robot" loosely to mean any aspect of automated service or autonomous self-service.

The Case for Robots

Imagine booking a airplane ticket in the old fashioned days.

You had to call the airline to make a reservation, which required an expensive employee to take your call. Or, you made your reservation through a travel agent, who took an expensive commission out of the price of that ticket.

Either way, you spent valuable time calling, waiting on hold, and then explaining your travel needs to the person on the other end of the line. That person needed to be compensated, and that compensation added to the price of your ticket.

On your day of travel, you had to wait in line to check-in at the airport. If you got to the gate and decided you wanted to change your seat, you had to wait in line for that too. 

Today, you book your ticket online or via a mobile app. You use the app to check in and download your boarding pass so you can by-pass the check-in counter. You can also use the app to change your seat.

Thanks to automation and self-service, air travel is much more convenient than it used to be. It's also cheaper to fly today than it was 20 years ago (in inflation-adjusted dollars).

It's not just air travel. Robots increasingly deliver better service for a lower price. 

Uber is disrupting ground transportation with it's ride sharing app. You can do your taxes on TurboTax or TaxAct using their simple, question-based system. Or, you can deposit a check using your smartphone without ever having to step foot in a bank.

Netflix recommends movies you might like using an amazing/creepy algorithm. Amazon recommends nearly anything you might like using an amazing/creepy algorithm, and then gets it to you in two days. Or, you can just install an Amazon Dash button and use it to re-order supplies with one click. 

IBM is poised to shake up the world of retail with their Watson artificial intelligence technology. In one experiment, they partnered with North Face to use Watson to help customers pick out a winter jacket.

In short, robots make service easier, faster, and better.

 

The Case for Humans

Automation is great, until something goes wrong.

Take air travel as an example. American Airlines used an automated system to rebook my flight when a delay caused me to miss a connection. That would have been great, except the dumb robot booked me on a flight to the wrong airport. I needed a human to fix it.

Guess who ultimately drives you when you order up an Uber? Autonomous vehicles haven't yet arrived, so you still need a human to drive you from A to B.

Last year, I discovered a bug in TaxAct's software. Getting past it required a full manual workaround by this human.

Order something online and you still need a delivery driver to bring your purchase to your door. My local UPS driver once delivered a package that had the wrong address on it. Some robot screwed up and he fixed it because he knew where I really lived.

Watson may win on Jeopardy, but it's not ready for retail. I tried to use Watson to find a North Face jacket. It didn't do nearly as well as the helpful, in-store sales associate.

Don't even get me started on Interactive Voice Response or IVR. That's the annoying automated phone menu that never understands anything you say.

Robots also can't do warm and fuzzy.

Sure, the automated kiosk at the post office displays "It's been a pleasure to serve you" at the end of each transaction, but I don't really feel it.

OK, so robots can fumble the service bit at times. But, what about cost reduction? Certainly, robots can save money, right?

Not so fast. In her book, The Good Jobs Strategy, Zeynep Ton profiles how low-cost retailers like Trader Joe's and Costco offer low prices by counterintuitively spending more on their employees.

These employees drive both operational excellence and outstanding customer service. They do it by making decisions that simply can't be automated. For example, spotting that "I'm lost" look on a customer's face and then expertly recommending products that customer never even knew existed.

 

The Winner

Calling a clear winner is tricky.

That's because it's not one or the other in a perfect world. When service is done right, robots and humans can co-exist perfectly.

Here's how I see it:

  • Robots are good at: simple or transactional work.
  • Humans are good at: complex or relational work.

The challenge for companies is getting both robots and humans to do their jobs, and do them well. Here's one more example. 

I recently had to call a certain satellite radio company to merge two accounts into one. This problem occurred because a I had bought a new car, and the new car automatically created it's own account (robot fail). 

Even worse, the only way to fix it was to call.

So, I called and spoke to a helpful and friendly customer service rep whose only problem was he had limited English skills. We both worked patiently through the issue and he was eventually able to fix everything the robot couldn't handle.

While I was on the phone, repeating every third sentence, I noticed that my account had an old credit card number attached to it. So, rather than fumble through this simple transaction over the phone, I updated my account with the new card number myself.

Human + robot for the win!