Can Robots Be Used to Obtain Honest Customer Feedback?
CUHK research collaboration with leading robotics pioneer and Hong Kong hotel suggests service robots can provide help to hospitality operators in gauging customer satisfaction
By Prof. Choi Sungwoo
Imagine that you are trying a new restaurant, but their food is not special enough to warrant revisiting. When you check out, your server asks, “How was your food today?” Would you give the server your honest feedback, saying “Well, it’s not so great – I won’t be coming back.” Would you rather say “Yea, it was good,” hiding your true feelings? What if the server was a service robot, not a human staff? Would you respond differently?
Regardless of its valence, customer feedback provides valuable insights regarding how customers evaluate service quality. Particularly, in-person feedback allows service providers to be aware of the problem during the service encounter, and therefore, be able to provide immediate service recovery to retain dissatisfied customers at the moment of truth. Many hospitality companies, however, find it challenging to effectively obtain in-person customer feedback: they rather rely on online channels, such as email, online review platforms, and social media. Although information gathered online provides great customer insight, such post-service feedback doesn’t allow companies to fix any problems on the spot. Moreover, most dissatisfied customers fail to complain and instead engage in negative word of mouth or simply exit the company. Then, how can hospitality firms obtain more customer feedback at the moment of truth that leads to service improvement?
“The research findings demonstrated that people feel comfortable opening up and sharing their true emotions with robots which can provide valuable feedback for improving service.” — David Hanson, CEO of Hanson Robotics
To address this question, the current research suggests a novel feedback collection method: service robots. This new study was conducted by myself and Lisa Wan, Associate Professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s (CUHK) School of Hotel and Tourism Management, in conjunction with Hong Kong-based AI and robotics firm Hanson Robotics and The Mira Hong Kong hotel. In general, customer feedback behaviour is mainly influenced by social motives/concerns, such that social reciprocity drives customers to provide feedback when they are satisfied with service, while empathy inhibits customers from providing feedback when they are not satisfied. For a service robot, which is a non-social agent, we argue that the patterns might be reversed—customers are less likely to provide feedback when satisfied, while more likely to provide feedback when dissatisfied — as the social motives/concerns should be less salient in the customer-robot interaction.
Real World Setting
To test our hypotheses, we conducted a field experiment at Yamm, a buffet restaurant in The Mira Hong Kong. The experiment took place on 5 weekdays during lunch (12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.) and dinner (6:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.) in summer 2021. A total of 209 participants were initially recruited in exchange for a dining voucher. During the first three days of the experiment (Monday through Wednesday), Sophia, a humanoid service robot developed by Hanson Robotics, interacted with participants, while a human staff interacted with participants on Thursday and Friday.
After finishing their meal and on their way out, participants were directed to a service agent (robot or human staff) standing next to the reception desk. The robot (or the human staff) greeted the participant and asked about their dining experience. Both the robot and the human staff used the same name, Sophia, and were wearing a name tag. Diners were asked about the most satisfying and dissatisfying part of their dining experience (i.e., solicited feedback). After the interaction, participants completed a questionnaire stating that the survey is for the university research purpose and their responses will not be shared with the restaurant or the hotel (This was to capture honest feedback). In the survey, participants were first asked to indicate their satisfaction with the dining experience on a 10-point scale item (1 = extremely dissatisfying, 10 = extremely satisfying). Then, they were asked to indicate to what extent they were honest when responding to the robot or the human staff on percentage (“How honest were you when responding to Sophia?” I told ___ percent of truth of my feeling). View Sophia in action here.
Supporting our hypothesis, the results showed that participants who are less satisfied (those who indicated 5.77 or below for satisfaction) provided more honest feedback to the robot than to the human staff. Moreover, participants who are very satisfied (those who indicated 8.30 or above for satisfaction) provided more honest feedback to the human than to the robot.
A New Role for Service Robots?
The short-term significance of our research lies in exploring the operational advantage of applying advanced service technology in obtaining customer feedback. Starting from 2021, demand in the hospitality industry is returning: the occupancy rate of hotels in Hong Kong leaped to 66.4 percent in December 2021, from 58.8 percent in December 2019, according to a report produced by hospitality sector analytics firm STR. In the same period, the revenue per available room increased from HK$572.81 to HK$621.54. However, many hotels and restaurants are facing a serious staffing shortage problem. According to the quarterly survey of employment conducted by Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong Government, by the third quarter of 2021, the accommodation and food service industry in Hong Kong faced unprecedently high job vacancies. Various factors pose a threat to continuous problem of manpower shortage in Hong Kong’s hospitality industry.
The situation is similar across the globe. In the United States, for example, 37 percent of small hospitality businesses have had their operating ability restricted by staffing shortages. In the broader labor force, there is a 70 percent increase in job vacancies and a 10 percent decrease in people looking for work. Some restaurants turn to deploy service robots, which help the human staff to run food to tables and bus dirty dishes back to the kitchen. In this regard, our research suggests service robots can do additional, important service tasks—obtaining customer feedback—in addition to their simple mechanical tasks. Therefore, we show that the advanced service technologies provide substantive value in not only enhancing productivity but also gaining customer insights during the labor shortage. Moreover, automation by service robots can further help retain staff and reduce turnover by enabling manageable workloads and allowing workers to focus more on the guest experience. Hence, the new knowledge from our proposed research will help hospitality companies in Hong Kong improve overall service quality.
This is a view shared by Alexander Wassermann, Head of Hotels & Services Apartments at Miramar Group, who notes that automation and efficiency are two of the factors commonly attributed to application of robotics to any industry. “While this may be true to the hospitality sector as well, luxury hotels such as The Mira will always prioritise guest experience and personalisation of service, which are made possible with a sophisticated solution such as humanoid robots developed by Hanson Robotics.
“We are proud to have had the chance of introducing Sophia to our hotel guests in 2020 and 2021 on a few occasions as part of the collaboration with David Hanson and his team. Experimenting with various levels of guest interactions, from a wow-factor meet and greet to scripting a character for a specific role built upon Sophia’s advanced AI-algorithms, were truly eye-opening and gave us a range of ideas how such technology could be woven into the fabric of innovative services delivered by The Mira Hong Kong,” says Mr. Wassermann.
The Future of AI in the Service Industry?
On the other hand, David Hanson, CEO of Hanson Robotics, believes the collaboration with the Chinese University of Hong Kong has helped to take the industry one step forward to show the power and usefulness of “social robots.” “The research findings demonstrated that people feel comfortable opening up and sharing their true emotions with robots which can provide valuable feedback for improving service,” he says. “This technology and science is useful in its own rights. We believe this application in hospitality can be extended to other areas and could potentially help and keep people safe.”
“Experimenting with various levels of guest interactions, from a wow-factor meet and greet to scripting a character for a specific role built upon Sophia’s advanced AI-algorithms, were truly eye-opening and gave us a range of ideas how such technology could be woven into the fabric of innovative services delivered by The Mira Hong Kong.” — Alexander Wassermann, Head of Hotels & Services Apartments at Miramar Group
As its researchers, we hope this study will shed light on the useful application of service robots and contribute to the well-being of frontline employees in the hospitality industry. In line with the aforementioned labour shortage, many frontline workers in the hospitality industry fail to return to the industry; they rather open their own business or find a job in a different industry. They refuse to go back not only because of low wages and lack of confidence in job security but also because of the stressful working environment due to customers’ complaining behaviours. Almost half of previous hospitality industry workers cited emotional abuse and disrespect from customers as a factor in their decision to leave. Many workers say restaurant jobs aren’t worth the mental stress coupled with the higher chance of disease transmission.
In this regard, this research will provide valuable managerial insights into how to effectively obtain customer feedback via service robots while securing frontline workers’ well-being. While customer complaints offer constructive feedback, they often result in emotional distress among front-line employees. Employee’s’ psychological well-being has various positive outcomes including increased productivity and job satisfaction, which in turn create positive organizational outcomes such as customer satisfaction. Thus, the new knowledge produced by our research will contribute to Hong Kong’s economy and society by helping hospitality companies to apply advanced technology in improving not only their business performance but also frontline workers’ well-being.
Choi Sungwoo is Research Assistant Professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at CUHK.