Robots, including in-store physical robots and virtual chatbots, have been increasingly employed to substitute human employees in customer service provision. These customer-facing service robots (SRs) can be defined as “system-based autonomous and adaptable interfaces that interact, communicate and deliver service to an organisation’s customers” (Wirtz et al., 2018, p.909). For these roles, SRs are often programmed to simulate customer-facing employees, engaging in different tasks with different intelligences and mimicking human-human interaction (Huang and Rust, 2021; Pantano and Scarpi, 2022). As a part of this, SRs may also be designed with physical and/or non-physical humanlike features, which can be stereotypically feminine or masculine, and which can affect customers’ emotional, cognitive, and behavioural responses (e.g., Blut et al., 2021; Tay et al., 2014). Despite a growing number of empirical studies, there is currently a lack of comprehensive synthesis of the extant literature related to the impacts of anthropomorphic design and gendering of SRs on consumer behaviour, which is vital to determine how further research can make meaningful contributions.
Anthropomorphism in SR literature refers to either perceived human-likeness (Blut et al., 2021) or design attributes of a robot (Lu et al., 2020; Wirtz et al., 2018). Anthropomorphism can affect customers’ reactions towards SR interactions in various service contexts, including public service (van Pinxteren et al., 2019), home service (Letheren et al., 2021), hospitality (Lv et al., 2021; Yam et al., 2021; Yoganathan et al., 2021), and retail (Whang and Im, 2021). Customers’ resultant emotional, cognitive, and behavioural responses can be positive or negative. For example, customers served by humanoid robots have a higher tendency of adoption (Blut et al., 2021; Sheehan et al., 2020) and re-use intention (Moriuchi, 2021); higher satisfaction (Yam et al., 2021); more positive evaluation (Li and Sung, 2021); closer emotional connection (Araujo, 2018); and more willingness to purchase (Yoganathan et al., 2021). On the other hand, researchers reveal that anthropomorphism of robots has the potential to harm human-robot interactions, causing greater discomfort and negative attitudes toward the robot (e.g., Kim et al., 2019; Mende et al., 2019). However, research on anthropomorphism of SRs has focused more on positive than negative effects such that less is known about the latter, especially the outcomes brought by the uncanny valley theory in customer-SR interactions (Wirtz et al., 2018).
Robot gendering refers to assigning gender onto a robotic platform through characteristics such as name, voice, and physique (Bryant et al., 2020; Robertson, 2010). Prior research examining effects of anthropomorphism of SRs often conflates gender with anthropomorphism by using gender-stereotypical features or characteristics to convey human-likeness (Crolic et al., 2021; Yam et al., 2021). However, gender-stereotypes have long been recognised in a technology context (e.g., Nass et al., 1997) and can impact how customers perceive and evaluate services (Pitardi et al., 2022a). For instance, Tay et al. (2014) demonstrate that participants show more positive evaluation and greater acceptance of a female-gendered healthcare robot and a male-gendered security robot due to gender-occupational role stereotypes. Broadly speaking, male-gendered robots are perceived to deliver a sense of intelligence, dominance, and competence while female-gendered robots provide a feeling of affection, communality, and particularly warmth (Ahn et al., 2022; Borau et al., 2021; Eyssel and Hegel, 2012; Seo, 2022) which plays a crucial role in customer-SR interactions (Choi et al., 2021). These findings raise important questions regarding how researchers and practitioners imbue robots with humanlike features.
Research on SRs in specific situations is beginning to emerge. During service failure, customers attribute more blame to a human employee than a SR (Belanche et al., 2020a; Leo and Huh, 2020) due to the robot’s perceived low level of agency (Gray et al., 2007). However, it is less clear how blame would be attributed to a humanlike versus non-humanlike SR, considering the impact of perceived thoughtfulness and/or agency brought by human-likeness (Waytz et al., 2014; Yam et al., 2021). While humanoids are more able to recover service failure than non-humanoids (Choi et al, 2021), it is unclear whether there would be any differences caused by gendering. Another important context to note is embarrassing service encounters (e.g., body measurement) in which a humanlike SR can have unfavourable effects on consumer embarrassment due to its resemblance with humans (Pitardi et al., 2022b). However, it is unclear whether human-robot gender congruity versus incongruity (Pitardi et al., 2022a) would have more or less favourable effects in embarrassing service encounters.
The field of SR research is in its infancy (Wirtz et al., 2018) and prior research is fragmented (Lu et al., 2020). Pioneering studies have systematically identified key dimensions of robot-delivered frontline service (Wirtz et al., 2018) and synthesised the impacts of SRs on customers and service employees (Lu et al., 2020), indicating the non-negligibility of anthropomorphic design in customer-SR interactions. Although van Pinxteren et al. (2020) innovatively conducted a systematic review of humanlike communications in conversational agents, a comprehensive literature analysis of anthropomorphism and gender of SRs and their impacts on human-robot service interactions is lacking. Aiming to overcome the gap and highlight the importance of discussing human-likeness of non-human service agents, we will undertake a systematic review to investigate the effects of anthropomorphism and gendering of SRs. The paper will provide a definition of gender of a SR which is missing in previous studies, describe the relationship between anthropomorphism and gender, and clarify the role of anthropomorphism and gender in human-robot service interactions. It will also identify knowledge gaps and key areas of interest via a research agenda for humanlike SRs. The paper will contribute to management and marketing literature as well as the SR literature by answering several research calls for understanding a robot’s design in general (Lu et al., 2020) and the robot’s humanlike characteristics (Blut et al., 2021; Choi et al., 2021; Xing et al., 2022) including gender (Belanche et al., 2020b; Choi et al., 2021) in particular. It could also provide theoretical support for organisations to deliver better service for consumers.