Until now, robotics has seemingly been stuck in a perpetual limbo. We were given incredibly high expectations by Hollywood and the Jetson’s for what robots are capable of. Over the last few years, however, an explosion of robotics startups have emerged. These robotics companies are enabled by breakthroughs in computer vision, sensor technologies, and machine learning. These technologies have allowed robotics to move out of highly predictable environments, like manufacturing, warehouses and factory floors, where robotics has become increasingly common over the last few decades, and into customer-facing roles.
Companies like SoftBank Robotics, with their Pepper robot, have demonstrated not only the technical feasibility of building robots for customer-facing use cases, but also proven that there is an economic benefit to have customer-facing robots in industries such as retail, hospitality, financial services, and quick-service restaurants. The real benefit to customer-facing robots, is the emotional appeal that a humanoid robot offers. Our brains are eager to identify and empathize with human faces, so by putting a face on these robots, we are able connect more easily with humanoid robots, than we are compared to kiosks and other digital displays. Forward-thinking brands are already realizing this advantage, and leveraging the fact that robots have moved from highly custom hardware/software projects, to being their own platform, allowing developers to focus on building customer experiences with robots, and spend less effort on the code required to make the robot interact in a valuable way with customers.
How brands are already leveraging robots to improve their customer experiences:
Nestlé found that Pepper, attracts 20x the amount of people to interact with it compared to a kiosk. This seems somewhat intuitive, as a humanoid looking robot, with a face, enables a much more emotional experience than a kiosk can. By leveraging this fact, Nestlé was able to sell more coffee makers by replacing their kiosks with robots.
The Henn'na Hotel in Japan has been testing how robots can serve as concierges over the past year. What is interesting about this experiment, is that by testing with a single hotel, but automating as much of the experience as possible, they are able to determine the right pieces of the customer experience to automate. They do not want to use a robot to replace a human if that denigrates the customer’s experience, but if they identify where a robot can offer just as much value as a human, then it makes sense to automate that piece of the customer journey with a robot.
Pizza Huts in Asia have also been using the Pepper robot to allow folks to place an order from their table, and even accept payments.
Lowe's is rolling out its LoweBot to more locations to free up employees to build customer relationships, not just sell products. A human being helping a customer find where the hammers are in the aisle doesn’t offer much value. However, when the robot can offload that work and allow the employees to ask questions like “What do you need that hammer for?” this allows employees to be more valuable.
Domino’s has been testing an autonomous food delivery robot in Australia. While Domino’s determines if a robot like this can actually save them money compared to a human delivery driver, what they are already are finding is that these sorts of tests improve the image of their brand, and position them as an innovative leader compared to their competitors. The value of robotics is not just the cost-savings that come from automation, but also the power to differentiate a brand from its competitors in the digital space
The use of robots in the use cases you see above is expected to triple over the next five years, as it becomes easier to create a customer-facing experience with a robot. Even just a few years ago, if you wanted to build a customer experience involving a robot, it would be a painstaking task. You would need to start with very custom robotics hardware, and build customer software to run on it. Most of the work involved would be on the engineering-side. Recent advancements in robotics technology allow companies to focus on the experience they want to delivery through a robot, not the engineering required to bring that experience to life. Robotics has reached a point where the technology can move to the background and the customer experience moves to foreground.
In the same way that iOS and Android enabled developers to focus on a limited selection of hardware with a centralized distribution channel (the App Store and Google Play), robots too have become a platform. As robots become a platform for customer experience, companies can focus on running short robotics experiences with their customers to identify opportunities for robots to bring value without sacrificing the customer experience. We will see more and more use cases for customer-facing robotics experiences over time. The brands that will have the most success with robotics will be the brands that are running short experiments to validate experiences that robots deliver, and enable their employees to focus on customer relationships.
See how Solstice is building customer experiences for our clients using robotics: