To Robot Or Not, That Is The Massive Question

Technology and artificial intelligence (AI) is impacting all of our lives and most of it is in a positive way. However, the influx of technology is causing many issues, and I’m not just talking about the astronomical overuse of mobile phones, although this is a huge problem. Many industries are facing a bleak future as technology takes over more and more jobs, and retail is certainly going to face this issue very soon.

We are already seeing this with the introduction of technology in warehousing, where autonomous robots fulfil orders faster and more efficiently than employees. One example has seen labour cuts of 80%, while fulfilling the same number of orders in a space of 25% to 40% smaller. What business wouldn’t want these massive benefits?

So if robots are that good, how soon will we see robots serving customers in store? Imagine the benefits:

  • They will always be on time
  • No challenging attitudes and performance management
  • No sick leave, penalty payments and annual leave
  • No lunch breaks to cover
  • No staff turnover, your best workers (robots) will always stay

Wow, wouldn’t that make managing staff a lot easier!! Well, there is a long way to go before we can enjoy the above benefits, if they actually turn out to be benefits. Robots are at work already in some stores, however their role is generally as the first point of interaction to answer basic questions and direct customers.

Make no mistake, robot technology is rapidly improving. I have already talked about the explosion of chatbots and how their technology is improving dramatically, so expect physical robots to also do the same. However, the technology still has a long way to go and I’m personally hoping it will be years away as I love the human interaction when it is done well – that’s the problem it’s often not!!

The problems facing the humans who are designing the robots are certainly challenging.

  • Conversational AI, which fuels intelligent chat and voice interfaces, does not truly understand natural human language. Conversations with Alexa or Siri are generally command based and transactional leading to fragmented, disconnected conversations and slow response and resolve times.
  • Robotic technology cannot pick up on tone of voice, body language and slang making it very challenging for robots to build rapport, develop trust and problem solve.

Solving these two big issues will certainly take some time.

Make no mistake, these challenges will be overcome, I’m just not sure how long it will take. I love this quote from the US Retail Doctor Bob Phibbs who said “anyone who is not adding value to a customer is in danger of being replaced by a machine!” This is already happening here in Australia with Woolies and 7-eleven recently introducing scan and go technology.

How do you bullet proof yourself and your team against technology? Be the best at providing an awesome experience to customers, be great at problem solving, ask probing questions to find out customer’s needs, present the right solution and introduce relevant complementary products. It will take robots years to get really good at this, if they ever do!

Roger Simpson – CEO, The Retail Solution and Author of “The Ultimate Retail Sales Experience” With over 35 years’ industry experience, Roger Simpson is recognized as Australia’s #1 Authority on customer ROI in the retail industry and as a global expert on staff coaching, customer service, and selling skills.