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Exploring the Attitudes of Frontline Employees Towards Humanoid Service Robots in a Retailing Context
Authors: Laurens De Gauquier (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Malaika Brengman (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Kim Willems (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Nanouk Verhulst (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Albert De Beir (Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Flanders Make), Hoang-Long Cao (Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Flanders Make), Bram Vanderborght (Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Flanders Make)
Humanoid service robots (HSRs) are drastically changing the servicescape, as they are capable of executing tasks previously only performed by frontline employees (FLEs). Currently, service providers shift from mainly relying on FLEs to including HSRs within the existing workforce. Rather than replacing the human workforce, HSRs have the capability of augmenting the work of FLEs. Yet, relatively little attention has been paid to FLEs’ attitudes towards HSRs applied in the context of service interactions. This study aims to explore two key questions: (1) How do FLEs perceive a HSR’s ability to perform technical and social tasks required in a customer-oriented service setting? and (2) How do FLEs experience working in an employee-robot team for providing frontline services?
This study was conducted in a branded chocolate store located at Brussels Airport. A HSR (Pepper robot) was posted alternately inside and in front of the chocolate store for a couple of days. Passengers could participate in an entertaining quiz via the HSR. After participating, the HSR provided a code to receive a coupon that could be redeemed at the counter. As such, the HSR was used to attract passersby and lure them into the store. Eleven FLEs (two males; age range 20-64) were interviewed regarding their attitudes towards the HSR.
The transcripts were content analyzed using NVivo. Considering both technical and social skills, expectations and concerns of the FLEs were addressed. Regarding technical skills, most FLEs expect the HSR to be an extra help for both basic service roles (e.g. providing general store information) and more complex service roles (e.g. giving product recommendations). While six FLEs were concerned about the HSR taking over too many tasks, they believed the HSR is not able to handle some physical tasks (e.g. filling storage racks). Regarding social skills, the FLEs perceive the HSR as an augmentation of the workforce. An employee-robot team is also perceived to work in two stages: the HSR can greet and build some initial rapport with the customer, which can subsequently be taken over by the employee who then becomes the main company representative. Still, the HSR is perceived to provide a dehumanized service experience, as it is currently unable to show genuine emotions. For the same reason, the HSR is (still) not perceived as a real colleague.
This study provides both theoretical and managerial insights. Theoretically, a categorization is provided of FLE’s attitudes towards HSRs’ technical and social service delivery skills. Managerially, the results are valuable to retailers who must leverage the qualities of both FLEs and HSRs for efficient employee-robot customer interactions.