ROBOT WARS & CX: WHEN AUTOMATION GOES VERY WRONG

One of my favourite childhood toys was a motorised robot that walked, spun, made space-aged sounds and shot plastic rockets. It was the 1980s so there were no fancy remote-control elements. Just big chunky batteries, flashing lights, whirring motors and hours of imaginative play. Many of my other toys met their gruesome end courtesy of that robot.  Clearly, I lived a ‘Toy Story’ life ever before seeing the actual movie.

Today, robots and automation are everywhere. Roombas vacuum our homes, robots mow our lawns, Alexa and Google Home control our lights and heating. AI and algorithms already control much of our everyday.

Within the CX space, automation and digital transformation are often seen as some kind of silver bullet. Implementing technology where there was once a clunky imperfect human interaction. But the sad reality is, technology is only useful if it adds true value to the customer experience, and often it does not.

Sometimes we are given a choice. We have all been at a busy immigration control point in an airport and gleefully used the e-passport gates to skip the long in-person queue. Technology adding value to an otherwise long wait, saving you 20-30 minutes. However, we have all cursed those same machines on the occasions where there is no human alternative offered, the majority of traffic forced through e-gates, the machine repeatedly spitting passports back out at us, gates not opening, queues building, the customer yearning for a simple human to run the 10-second check manually. The same machine, at that point, just frustrates.

Humans v Robots

As a cyber-behaviouralist I am fascinated by the relationship between humans and technology, and particularly the slight hysteria that some businesses have with their digital transformation and automation journeys.

Sometimes digital is amazing. I love tapping my phone for payment. I love no longer having to carry cash everywhere I go. That payment now is fast, convenient and easy. I love when the car park barrier lifts automatically as it reads my vehicle registration plate as I drive near and auto-charges my credit card. That is personal, instant and easy. These technologies make my life easier, faster, more frictionless and this is a good thing for CX. Seamless is always good.

But just because you can automate something, doesn’t mean you should. The Russian SmartBe baby stroller might just be my all-time favourite example of this. Take a moment and have a look at the first one-minute of this promotional video.

Now setting aside the absolute non-sensical fact that there is no consumer need being satisfied by this automation, my favourite part is the idea that a parent would place their precious new-born off-spring in this, and then just run along beside it, hoping nothing would go wrong.  Or later in the video, walk away from their baby, abandoning it in the stroller as they had activated ‘anti-theft mode’. If this was released on the 1st April it would have been funny. In reality, less so.

Also, in the excitement of automation and digitization, brands often undermine their own sales successes. I remember visiting the Rebecca Minkoff store in New York and was amazed to see a fashion brand make such a simple psychological mistake.

They had installed digital mirrors in their changing rooms, and together with RFID tags, showed a shopper on the mirror/screen what other items might pair well with what they had brought into the changing booth. Nothing wrong with the upsell. Their mistake was showing model images on the mirror of the item being tried on.

As you struggled to squeeze into whatever skirt or trousers you had selected, a photoshopped, gorgeous, size zero model smiled back at you from the same mirror you were using. They always looked better in whatever you were trying on.  Afterall, they had a hair stylist, make-up artists, a lighting crew and photoshop to make them look that good. Meanwhile you were sweaty, cramped, and now felt anxious you didn’t look as good as they did in the mirror, right in front of you. Consumer Psychology 101 – don’t make the shopper feel uncomfortable in the space they are going to make a buying decision.

Jump to 01:11 below in this store visit video to have a look at the concept.

Not So Fast Food

More recently, even a brand as big as McDonald’s have fallen foul of automation. Their decision to instal touchscreen ordering kiosks in their restaurants has undermined their very core product proposition, that is FAST food.

These kiosks are not there to make your experience any faster or easier as a consumer. They are a cost-reduction strategy, stripping out the need for human cashiers, saving McDonald’s labour costs or having to find labour (which is one of their major challenges in the current climate). They are a corporate cost-saving exercise.

For the customer, it now takes longer to place an order at a kiosk than it did originally at the counter through a cashier. It depends on what you are ordering, but there are a lot of clicks, swipes and back & forward via the digital kiosks. This is not CX focused automation. This is cost-saving regardless of the CX friction caused, the opposite of what automation should be.

Take a look at this customer recording their interaction. It takes 40 seconds (excluding payment processing time) to place a simple enough order, requiring the customer to select/swipe 10 times on screen before presenting payment. If this had been a cashier, it would have taken 10 seconds maximum to say “can I have a Spicy Chicken Sandwich Meal please, large, with a Diet Coke to go”

Mc Donald’s, through automation, have eroded the ‘fast’ part of their fast-food concept, sacrificing CX for cost savings.

Staying with food-on-the-go, how about this hot dog vending machine in Warsaw, that uses a complicated robot to build your hot dog (something you could do as self-service yourself, with a tongs, in under 10-seconds). Delivery takes 90 seconds and the customer didn’t really get what they’d hoped for. Automation is not always the answer.

Simply put, automation should add value. It should deliver faster, better, more efficiently or safer. It should resonate with customers across key modern consumerist values – instant, convenient, personal, or authentic.

Technology is an enabler, never the answer. And if you’re looking to waste some time on your lunch break today, here are some more robot fails to amuse.


Ken Hughes is now considered one of the World’s leading speakers on the subject of customer experience, consumer values, change, leadership and agility. His live keynotes are famous for their high-energy, thought-provoking content as well as their impactful and inspiring delivery. Ken Hughes is NOT a robot.

Ken Hughes, known as The King of Customer Experience on the International Conference Circuit, studies emerging consumer behaviour and helps businesses and brands establish deeper and more relevant connections with their customers.

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