Service companies are striving to improve the customer experience and provide personalized services (Grewal, 2020). For example, companies are introducing innovative digital technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence and robotics) to improve customer service encounters (Lariviere et al., 2017; Marinova et al., 2017; Wirtz & Jerger, 2016; Wirtz et al., 2021). Customers are therefore becoming more accustomed to robots in their daily lives (Kunz et al., 2019) and perceive robots as independent social entities with an automated social presence (van Doorn et al., 2017), consequently referred to as social service robots. Social service robots are one example of such a frontline technology that companies employ to enhance the service encounter.
Engaging in social interactions with service robots has a significant impact at all phases of the customer’s service experience. Indeed, robot proactivity (i.e., robots mimicking human frontline employees’ proactive behaviors) elicits different customer reactions compared to human-human interaction, such as positive/negative responses or various levels of satisfaction (Krishna et al., 2019; Pitardi et al., 2021). Understanding which emotions service robots evoke is particularly important for designing the service encounter, especially in the pre-purchase phase (Tielman et al., 2014; Lerner et al., 2015). This phase is delicate because here the customer anticipates the final purchase choice through a series of considerations and evaluations (Ashman et al., 2015; Lemon & Verhoef, 2016). In this phase, a service robot can help customers to better identify their own needs and find appropriate product options, by pointing out and picking items (Roggeveen & Sethuraman, 2020).
Despite the development of research on service robots during the service encounter, further research is needed during the pre-purchase phase in retail contexts (Ashman et al., 2015). Although several researchers have conceptualized human-robot interactions as a moment of co-creation of value in the service encounter and have acknowledged the social presence of robots along with the benefits to the customer experience itself (Fernandes & Oliveira, 2021), there is still a need for empirical research on the effects of the proactive behavior of different types of robots and the unexpected emotional consequences of this type of interaction (Lu et al., 2020; Puntoni et al., 2021). Therefore, the present study aims to investigate customers’ reactions (i.e., facial expressions) to two types of social service robot behaviors (approaching vs non-approaching). Specifically, this study aims to determine whether the approaching behavior (or the sole presence) of a social service robot elicits positive or negative customer emotions. With two additional conditions including a human, the research study determines whether the reactions elicited by different approaches of the service robot are consistent with customers’ responses to relationships with front-line employees.

This study adheres to the concept of human-robot shared experience (Gaggioli et al., 2021) and responds to the call for a shift in research from robots perceived solely as objects to robots perceived as active participants in the co-creation of experiences (Rancati & Maggioni, 2021). Therefore, we use a non-functionally oriented service setting. Unlike previous studies, the service robot is not primarily a goal-directed tool that performs a specific task (e.g., guiding the consumer’s choices), but rather serves in a social context to enhance the service experience.
For this study, we used the social robot Misty II ( 150 participants (75M, 75F) volunteered for the study. In addition to participants’ demographics, we recorded their facial expressions during the service encounter to determine participants’ emotional states during the object observation. Additionally, we registered a self-reported measure of emotions. We capture the Positive Affect and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) (Terraciano et al., 2003) which assesses participants’ experience before and after the object observation.
In this study, we investigate whether the presence of another social agent (human/robot) increases the aesthetic experience of a painting when visiting an art museum. Our experimental study applies a between-subjects design and participants were randomly assigned to one of five conditions: I) robot approaching condition; II) robot only present; III) human partner approaching condition; IV) human partner only present; V) customer alone.
In the approaching conditions I and III, the social service robot or the human partner interacts with the study participants, showing some degrees of agency. The robot or human physically approaches the participants (reduces spatial distance) and looks at the participants while observing an object. In the non-approaching conditions II and IV, the social service robot or the human partner is only present; they do not approach the participants as in conditions I and III. The service robot and the human partner behave similarly, comparable to other bystanders. They show body and eye movements, but they do not demonstrate an intent to engage with the participants, for example, in order to communicate their observation of the object. Condition V is a control condition in which participants observe the object alone. In all conditions, the visual stimulus selected as the observed object is “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh. It was chosen because it has been shown to elicit complex emotions (Chirico et al., 2021). We can also assume that the popularity of the painting does not induce a “surprise effect” due to its initial exposure.
We expect that conditions I and III, which relate to the approaching behavior (i.e., agency) of the robot and the human, will differ in the facial expression analysis or in the PANAS, thereby establishing a positive effect in the customer viewing the object. Similarly, we expect that conditions II and IV, in which the robot or the human is only present (i.e., presence), will not differ. Finally, we expect that conditions I and III will differ from each other as well as from the passive control condition V. Additional results will be presented during the workshop.
Our study implements previous studies on artificial intelligence and extends previous research with a multidisciplinary approach that combines neuro-tools (facial expressions) with self-reports in the study of positive and negative emotions, proposing that consumers perceive service robots (approaching vs non-approaching differently), and examines whether this affects the service encounter during the pre-purchase phase.