Relevance of research
Humanoid service robots (HSR) are on the rise. Designated by scholars and practitioners as the workforce of the future, their introduction into many service contexts and industries is fueled by advancing technological developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation (Rust & Huang, 2014). HSR are becoming an integral part of frontline service operations (FSO) to fulfill socially assistive positions across several service sectors such as healthcare (Holland et al., 2021), hospitality (Tuomi et al., 2021), and retail (Amelia et al., 2022). Here, they support or even replace frontline service employees. The increasing relevance of the topic in practice is also reflected in the remarkable increase in research in the field of service robots in recent years (Lu et al., 2020).
Nevertheless, prior studies on the interaction with and acceptance of humanoid service robots were conducted primarily with a focus on a HSR vs. human employee perspective by applying comparative (experimental/quantitative) methods. Thus, the current discussion of HSR in frontline service encounters lacks consideration of the fact that “human-robot interaction analysis requires a different approach that recognizes that humans’ relationship with technologies is multifaceted and context-dependent” (De Keyser & Kunz, 2022, p.68). This goes along with the identified lack of scholarly research on the ethical and moral considerations of de-humanizing service encounters by introducing HSR. These considerations range from privacy concerns and biased consumer outcomes to concerns related to loss of customer autonomy, social isolation and more (Mariani et al., 2022).
Research objectives and research question
Against the background of the blind spots regarding the impact of human-robot service interaction listed above, this research seeks to answer the following research question:
How can humanoid service robots in frontline service encounters put the customer experience and well-being in jeopardy?
To narrow this research question down and make it more approachable and assessable during our empirical design, we further established two guiding questions for our two empirical studies (see “methodology” below) to facilitate the course of our two-study research. The guiding questions helped us collect the relevant insights and knowledge to successively answer the research question above.
These guiding questions were:
(1) What are the ethical concerns and negative outcomes experienced by customers interaction with HSR?
(2) How should service providers manage HSR in frontline service operations to account for customers’ concerns and prevent threats to their well-being?
Our methodological approach acknowledges the lack of conceptual underpinnings regarding the contextual and relational character of human-robot service interaction (HRSI) and its impact on customers’ service experience and well-being. We thus used an exploratory research design with two complimentary studies to (1) understand what constitutes the service experience for customers interacting with HSR and what factors negatively influence the service experience and (2) determine what service providers using HSR in FSO can do to actively address ethical concerns and threats to customer well-being.
The first study was designed as a problem-centered interview study with service customers (n=41, age range 19 to 71 years old) who had had either prior experience with HSR in a service setting themselves or were familiar with the technology through prior research or experience in other contexts. Thus, a purposive sampling approach was applied to account for the novelty and distinctness of the topic.
The second study was conducted as an exploratory study using expert interviews (n=27) with company representatives working for companies that either actively use HSR in their FSO already or manufacture HSR for service application. Service providers from various fields were integrated, among others hospitality, gastronomy, human care, and transportation.
All interviews were transcribed verbatim and checked for correctness and accuracy and then exported to atlas.ti 22, a qualitative data analysis software. We followed a systematic stepwise recursive process in the thematic analysis of the data (Boyatzis, 1998). Transcripts were coded independently by both members of the research team. A code system was established and built inductively, based on the in-depth textual analysis. New codes were created in an iterative fashion to capture the meaning of initial code groups (Thomas & Harden, 2008). Co-occurrence matrices in atlas.ti were applied to hierarchically organize individual codes in the shape of a coding tree. In an iterative process, the data material was merged, and the two members of the research team independently formed the main categories, discussed the content and labeling and, after several rounds, agreed on a final set of themes.
The preliminary findings (analysis ongoing) decode the major concerns faced by customers interacting with HSR across various service encounters. They reveal customer concerns addressing the personal (e.g., privacy, rapport), the social (e.g., fear of substituting human labor), or the interactive (e.g., service quality) level of the HRSI. As customers interact with a HSR in a specific service encounter, they form expectations about the performance level of the service. Their evaluation of the service experience is based on the perceived performance level in terms of contextual (type of service, i.e., information-processing vs. people-processing), transactional (i.e., task complexity, convenience), and relational (i.e., empathy, emotionality) performance.
Originality of the paper
This research is among the first to openly address critical components of customers’ service experience with HSRs to assess ways in which they can put the customer experience and well-being in jeopardy. It presents negative consequences of unfavorable human-robot service interactions to pinpoint current boundaries of HSR-implementation in service settings.
Scholarly (re)search for determinants and interdependencies of emotionally and psychologically stimulating service experiences with HSR is still in its infancy. This research thus motivates scholars to strive for a better understanding of the ways in which HRSIs can cause negative impacts on customer well-being to inform technological development and contextual implementation in service settings. It reveals interdependencies of personal, technological, and contextual determinants to lead to concerns and threats to customer well-being, thereby creating awareness and leading service providers and managers towards a more customer-oriented design and application of HSR.