Machines serving people: A continuous debate
Thursday, September 04, 2014
Every time when a machine replaced labors in an assembly line, we gave a big round of applause. Now, when machines are replacing the service staff in hotels, shall we make a big toast to celebrate a new revolution? Or shall we mark it the beginning of "the end of humanized service" in the hospitality industry?
As customers, we probably have had enough negative experience with those automatic services provided by machines, such as calling the cable or telephone companies. Now that Starwood is introducing a "Botlr," or robotic butler to the Aloft Hotels, will the hospitality industry follow the same path of other businesses, offering more "cold" automatic services? Or can machines replace human beings in the hospitality industry when providing exceptional customer service is still the core of the business?
Probably not, because the only thing that sets a hospitality business apart from its competitors is the business' friendly and well-trained staff who provides the service, not those fancy decors or high-tech amenities.
According to NBC News, while "47 percent of U.S. employment is at risk of being replaced by computerization," Starwood had no intention to replace any employees with Botlrs. Rather, the robotic butler in the Aloft Hotels is designed to help the service staff with small tasks, allowing the service staff to have more time for face-to-face interactions with customers.
Being a hospitality professor myself, I cannot deny the fact that more tasks and jobs in the service industry will be completed by machines or computers in the near future rather than by human beings, but I also believe consumers can decide how they will be served — namely, by machines or real human beings.
As I suggested in last week's discussion, the self-service and the robotic-service concept may work better in limited-service hotels because travelers who stay in those hotels may not want sophisticated customer service anyway. Accordingly, it seems to me Starwood has made a smart decision by testing the robotic-service concept in the Aloft brand. If it turns out customers favor the services provided by machines, Starwood will then introduce the same concept to other Aloft Hotels or even other brands within the chain.
When all consumers are using machines rather than real human beings for certain tasks, the service staff who used to perform those tasks will then be replaced or trained to do other jobs. Similar to the case of central reservation centers in hotels, CRCs will probably be replaced by "mobile service centers" soon, when more and more customers choose not to make reservations on the phone with a real person, and instead, they make travel arrangements online or on mobile apps.
I believe that, in the near future, human interactions will continue to play an important role in the service industry even though at the same time, more tasks will be completed by machines. There are hopes, however, for the customers who prefer human interactions — there are banks and insurance companies hiring more real persons for their customer service centers now than before because they want to differentiate themselves from the competitors by having real persons to answer service calls.
The hospitality industry will probably follow a similar model by developing a variety of products and brands for customers with different preferences. There will be places where machines serve people, but at the same time, there will be other places where human interactions continue to be the focal point of the business.
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