When it Comes to Service: Beware A Technology-Based Backlash


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It’s been said that when you have a “hammer everything looks like nails.” Such is the case with technology!

For quite some time now we’ve all watched technology revolutionize the way service is delivered across the globe. For example, the Internet transformed the travel service industry as sites like Travelocity decreased the need for travel agents and apps like those created by Uber have shaken the world of taxi drivers forever.

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg predicted that “artificial intelligence” and robotic computers will replace almost all service professionals. With due respect to the genius of Zuckerberg, I question whether the need for “human service” will ever become extinct.

In support of my argument, I lean on two phenomena: a recent study by Accenture and a hypothesis referred to as the “uncanny valley.”

Accenture recently released a study of 24,489 customers in 33 countries and across 11 industries.

According to that research:

83% of U.S. consumers prefer dealing with human beings.

65% agree in-store service is the best channel for personalized experiences.

Clearly, technology will have a continually important role in service delivery, as evidenced by Accenture’s finding that 73% of study participants expect customer service to be easier and more convenient, and 61% expect it to be faster.

As for robots replacing human beings, imagine a very human-like computer functioning as a front-desk clerk at a high-end hotel. For the sake of this example, further assume everything about the robot approximates a person (skin tone, simulation of breathing, and algorithms that are able to anticipate consumer responses). Let’s even assume the robot can approximate true human empathy.

If and when all that might be possible, I am convinced there will be a strong underlying resistance from customers. A form of resistance captured in the concept of an  “uncanny valley.” In a nutshell, the “valley” refers to a decline in perceptions of machines and other animated objects as those devices take on “uncanny” resemblances to humans. In essence, the more machines resemble humans the less acceptable those machines become to us. Whether it is fear of replacement or our need to interact with service providers like ourselves, human-like machines are “creepy” and “disturbing” for most of us.

While we wait to see whether Mark Zuckerberg is correct, I recommend we merge the best human and technology solutions together in order to produce easy, seamless, consistent, humane, and emotionally engaging experiences for those we serve! BTW this blog was created, at least for now, by a real human being!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Michelli, Ph.D.
Joseph Michelli, Ph.D., an organizational consultant and the chief experience officer of The Michelli Experience, authored The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and the best-selling The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary.


  1. Good morning Joseph,

    I too agree that the more human-like a robot becomes the less we may be inclined to want to interact with it, at least past the introductory phase. Once the novelty has worn off it will still come back to the actual interaction, empathy and emotional connection that can be “delivered” to the customer.

    But, as AI advances, how soon before the emotional connection can be reached?

  2. Thank you for your wakeup call, Joseph. Like the canary in the coal mine, you always offer a valuable visionary view and an important perspective worth including as instructions to our service strategy and practice. This view is particularly important in the B2B world, always enamored with the latest golly gee whiz technology. I encourage my B2B clients to hold a meeting and invite the companies that are their customers. Invariably, people will show up instead. B2C or B2B is fundamentally P2P.

  3. If a company is on its customer experience “game”, any aspect of value delivery, including service, will have been thoroughly studied for both emotional and functional effectiveness. So, given that one, or more, of the service delivery channels used have been identified as, at least, not detracting from the customer’s perception of the supplier provision of value, it can safely be used. And, if the service delivery channel, and its performance, is seen as a net customer experience benefit, it should be used with increased frequency.

  4. Steve, your what if is a powerful one. What if computers replicate human empathy? If it happens and if we get past our resistance, it will be a very different world! One where humans become irrelevant. How frightening is that?

  5. Chip, game – set – match. I LOVE that for now it is not B2C or B2B it is P2P. Rue the day it is C2P (computer to person).

  6. WOW Michael, you nail the concept of value. I always think of it as what is left over once price is subtracted. Kudos for your always keen insight!

  7. Hi Joseph: great article. First, I don’t think it’s necessary to give deference to Zuckerberg’s opinion about the future of AI and robotic computers replacing service professionals. Lots of bright visionary people have made predictions that were massively off. No person’s predictions should be above our constant scrutiny.

    It’s not surprising that people predict that automation will take over many jobs held by people. Some of those assertions are based on sound reasoning. There are many jobs people perform today that are tedious and costly. Some jobs require consistent decision-making – something where algorithms perform better, especially when there are massive amounts of data to consider. In those situations, we should expect AI to make impressive inroads, accompanied by lots of occupational upheaval.

    In many situations, customer service requires both creativity and innovation, and AI lags far behind human capabilities. It’s premature to assert that jobs requiring those skills are ‘safe.’ But I don’t see AI eroding the demand for many customer service positions. Instead, I see it as an enhancement that frees people from a lot of drudgery they shouldered before.

    An excellent new book on this topic is Only Humans Need Apply: Winners & Losers in the Age of Smart Machines, by Tom Davenport and Julia Kirby. Davenport introduced his concepts at a recent symposium I attended in Virginia.

  8. Andrew, you are amazing! I look forward to reading the Davenport/Kirby book. The tech/human balance will be a challenge for all businesses in the decades ahead. Great points about the accuracy of prognostication. I suspect that sometimes people, even Zuckerberg, can get too close to their area of passion and “over attribute” the importance of their speciality in the grand scheme of service.


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