Intelligent automation is here to stay.
But how does it impact the service industry? Once you take human interaction out of the experience, what is left of the brand? Minus social skills, human intuition and cognition, can your brand stay true to its inherent identity?
Scene: One fine day, in the not too distant future.
I walk briskly into the dark alley, evading the bustling traffic and everything else in my way. A few leagues ahead, I can see the main road teeming with Monday morning hustle and bustle. On the opposite side of the road, I spot a Becky’s signage, placed strategically next to a string of fast-food joints, including a McDonald’s outlet and a Kebab Hut. I push on, aiming for it.
Despite the best efforts of my IoT-enabled morning alarm and repeated alerts from my Google assistant, I am twenty minutes late to work. I’ve decided to spend this considerable delay contemplating the meaning of life over breakfast at Becky’s, while I await the 9:20 shuttle to Tech City.
Things can change so much over the course of a year. A year ago, this city was just a town in the middle of nowhere. Becky’s was just a dingy old breakfast joint. If you walked into it at anything later than 8:00 a.m., you would expect to be welcomed by nothing less than Becky’s sour face, looking up at you grimly from behind the counter. With a sigh, she would put aside the Daily Today (crime section) she was reading, and shoot a barbed question from out of the blue: “So, Mr. Iyer, late for work again, are we? Your generation, I tell you! Not an iota of work ethic, the whole bunch of you.”
I’d be prepared with a retort, of course: “Oh Becky, not everyone can hold a candle to your generation’s legacy – what with the rampant corruption, wars and genocides!” And so would blossom a beautiful summer’s morning full of put-downs, back-handed compliments and patronizing remarks. It was our special thing.
I enter the recently all-automated Becky’s. Becky herself is long gone from the picture. A drone neatly sweeps across the room towards me and halts, missing my head by a hair. “Welcome to Becky’s! We’re happy to see you! Have a fantastic day!” it says. I can never get used to the enthusiasm – particularly on a Monday morning after a long weekend.
At the counter, a B-1000-GEN-I (Jenny) service robot rolls across to me and looks me straight in the eyes. She’s scanning my iris for information, and I stare back. I don’t dare blink for nearly half a minute – until she’s done – to make sure she gets it right at least this time.
“Good morning, Mr. Iyer,” Jenny croons in her androgynous voice, having recognized me as a regular customer. “Welcome to Becky’s. And will you be having your usual today?”
“No, surprise me,” I say, blinking back tears from the recent stare-down-of-sorts.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m unable to decipher you. Please repeat your order.” Jenny’s having trouble understanding my thick Indian accent.
“I will NOT be having my yoo-su-al today, Jenny.” I enunciate. “Why don’t you surrr-prise me?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m not authorized to surprise customers. Would you like me to read out the specials to you, or would you prefer your usual?” A bit edgy today, are we?
“Never mind,” I mutter under my breath. And loudly to Jenny, nodding: “Just the yoo-su-al, then.”
“Perfect!” squeaks Jenny – and after a moment of silence and staring into space: “I’m sorry, sir, all our servers are running slow today, and I’m currently unable to retrieve information from our database. Could you repeat your usual to me?”
Oh, Jenny, I sigh. You total waste of silicon, you.
I’ll admit; the above scenario is quite a stretch. Intelligent automation is no longer a thing of the future. It is here, and here to stay. The companies of today have truckloads to deliver – be they in terms fierce competition or insatiable demand. Automation and artificial intelligence are all essential allies, helping companies to adapt easily to rapidly changing consumer preferences and industry trends. This sort of change is inevitable in a product-centric industry, such as FMCG, where time and material have a significant impact on profit margins.
But what about the experience-driven service industry – or even retail for that matter? Once you take the “interpersonal” out the brand equation, all that is left is a collection of smart machines that jointly bring out an experience that is only slightly different from that of the nearest competitor.
In the race to automation, if companies choose to compromise on human elements such as creativity, social skills, basic intuition and cognition, then they are essentially depriving themselves of a valuable advantage. More and more, companies are realizing that automation without the cooperation of their frontline staff leads to adverse and often catastrophic reactions.
So how do we overcome this problem?
Intelligent automation should function to assist and enhance human interaction, rather than replace it – particularly when it comes to frontline work. It is no mystery why successfully automated companies are those that have improvised ways for their manpower and machines to coexist in a symbiotic and value-adding relationship.
Cut to Becky’s.
I mull over my cup of coffee with growing sense of discontent. If wonder if Jenny is programmed for a befitting comeback if I throw a jibe at her. Can she tell me interesting anecdotes from her personal experience or indulge me in some vehement gossip? Can she tell me if the yellow shirt I’m wearing goes with my brown eyes? Or nudge me when the pretty girl in the table next to me is throwing me a sidelong glance?
Perhaps not. But maybe this is just a small price for the internet generation to pay in the mad race towards human advancement.