Lessons from Fabio: why you can’t robotise your customer service

We all love a good tech novelty, be it an AI toothbrush or a new egg whisk you can have Alexa operate. But as fun as they are, it only takes time for the novelty to wear off before you find that fun new gadget isn’t as great as you thought.

Chatbots and automated assistants are one such tech novelty looking for their place in the world. And it’s exactly this disillusionment that happened to Fabio the ShopBot. Fabio managed to hold his job at Scottish supermarket Margiotta for all of one week before being fired for confusing the customers.

But despite Fabio’s failure, his story tells us a lot about the use of bots in customer service.

Tech novelty

Fabio the Pepper robot was the UK’s first automated shop assistant, and with that title came buckets of novelty-born interest. For a short time, Fabio seemed to succeed at his new retail job, offering high-fives to customers, and even hugs.

But when the novelty wore off and regular customers grew used to him, the illusion shattered. It became clear that Fabio added very little to the customer experience. In fact, he detracted from it, repelling customers who appeared to be actively avoiding him.

And so it was that poor little Fabio found himself fired and packed off back to the factory.

Banking on bots

Fabio’s failure at his first retail job demonstrates one key element of customer experience. Whether in a physical setting, like Fabio, or online with chatbots, you simply can’t bank on bots alone when it comes to customer service. This is because there are many things customer service bots can’t do (or at least, can’t do well).

The fact is, the human ability to think around problems is key to customer experience, both in store and online. Bots don’t have the emotional intelligence or flexibility. Without these human skills, automated customer service assistants can’t handle complex queries, such as emergencies or upset customers.

With Fabio, this was demonstrated with his inability to help customers simply looking for items. When you ask where the beer is, ‘in the alcohol section’ seems more sarcastic than helpful — yet this was the closest to an answer Fabio could offer hopeful customers. A human would never have such issues. They would understand the full semantics of the query, rather than its top-level interpretation.

Automated popularity

Despite these negatives, automated assistants are growing in popularity when it comes to customer service. While Fabio may have been the first physical automated retail assistant in the UK, chatbots have been gaining widespread use online.

When used correctly, customer service bots are brilliant at helping your human agents optimise an already good experience into a great one. Be it a touch of automation to retrieve needed data, or a chatbot handling an FAQ, automated assistants take care of the repetitive, simple or manual jobs. Even better, they’re good at them.

Meanwhile, you still have your human employees doing the harder tasks. They handle the complex queries, the challenges that need thought and that are, frankly, less tedious to deal with. The trick is blending your bot use with human service. It’s all about ensuring your brand still has that human touch — not forcing a Fabio on them in a bid to be ‘cool’.

Human touch

It isn’t just human flexibility that makes real employees so integral to customer service. The friendly, personable face they give your brand can’t be underestimated. Automated assistants are great for quick, simple help, but not so good at providing warm service.

The aversion to Fabio that left customers seemingly avoiding him reinforces the sentiment that robots will be useful, but they’ll never fully replace the need for human interaction. This is particularly true when it comes to customer service. Bots may be novel, but they’re also irrevocably alien.

It wasn’t for lack of trying that Fabio failed where humans succeed. The robot tried desperately to be sociable and human, offering high-fives, compliments and hugs to customers. But as others have pointed out, he was just a little too overbearing and invaded personal boundaries. Fabio’s ‘personality quirks’ ended up creeping customers out.

Emotions running high

While Fabio may not have managed to perform on the frontline of customer service, he did prove that when used right, automation is readily welcomed into our processes. To the surprise of many, there were tears amongst the supermarket staff when Fabio was fired and boxed up to be returned.

There are always fears that automation will be met with resistance due to fear of job loss. But Fabio demonstrated how, conversely, automation can improve employee’s jobs. Dr Oliver Lemon discussed how the human team saw the automated assistant as an enhancement because he could deal with their most frequent and boring requests. He also explained how this revelation was a surprise because he and his team had thought the employees would feel threatened by the bot.

Automation is new, but implemented correctly, employees are embracing it rather than shunning it. After all, who doesn’t like having their own assistant?

The future of robots and automation

Whether it’s hardware or software, automation is a powerful tool that can help your team optimise a good customer experience and make it something great.

But just as Fabio highlighted, the key to incorporating any form of automated assistant, is careful deployment and successful integration with human team members. Bots have their uses, but humans still want to be served and supported by their fellow humans.

So rest assured, the great robot takeover isn’t as close as you thought.

Author bio: Niamh Reed is a copywriter for automation specialist Parker Software, a leading software company that offers live chat software and business process automation to businesses worldwide.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 308,692+ people.

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