The Barbican’s newest exhibition, AI: More than Human, is an artistic exploration of the possibilities that modern technology presents, examining the diverse potential of artificial intelligence (AI).
A particularly striking installation is MakrShakr, a robotic bartender which can mix cocktails for customers via an online pre-order system. While undoubtedly a fun gimmick, the introduction of AI into a traditional service role raises important questions about the future of our restaurants, cafés, and bars.
The food and drink industry is no stranger to new technologies, and the latest developments are an evolution of sector staples like the sushi belt and fast food self-service machines. However, the gradual move towards AI presents unique new challenges. Principally, to what extent can automation really reflect Customer Experience value generated by humans in what is an intrinsically personal sector? While few would argue that real employees can ever fully be replaced, increased automation should come with a few health warnings.
Choosing the right persona
Finding the right persona for an AI system is the first step to ensuring customers actually enjoy using it. It’s important to have a welcoming interface, but this can be quickly undermined if the technology doesn’t work as it should. Successful AI personalities like Alexa and Siri are approachable and lighthearted when the situation dictates, but they’re primarily programmed to be as helpful as possible so people can find what they want quickly.
In the service sector, making the interface fun and playful is especially important, but there also needs to be a level of emotional intelligence present for when things go wrong. Investment in self and situational awareness so that customers feel their needs (and frustrations) are understood goes a long way. For voice services this means ensuring bots recognise emotion and intonation when customers speak. And where the technology isn’t voice based, a simple on screen message – for example an apology in the case of slow service – makes technology feel as attentive as humans would be in that situation.
This isn’t to suggest AI can ever replicate the value of existing employees, who will always be the major drivers of high quality CX. Instead, AI should complement staff, freeing them up from administrative or procedural tasks and allowing them more time to engage qualitatively with customers and build brand loyalty and retention.
Upselling is a major part of successful service businesses – everything from ‘do you want fries with that?’ to making sure diners have dessert and coffee at the end of a meal. For AI, this represents both a challenge and an opportunity. Making these transactions appear conversational and informed is key; just think of the persuasiveness of a genuine recommendation from a well-read employee at Waterstones compared with the ‘frequently bought with…’ pop-ups seen online.
Like finding the right persona, successful upselling relies on engaging customers, showing awareness, and demonstrating genuine knowledge. Recommendations should be presented as being bespoke to specific customers, not just based on the habits of other people.
Keep it fresh
Multiple conversations with the same person do not feel like the same experience over and over again – and interactions with automated services should be just as refreshing. Where an AI uses voice, this might mean mixing up the repertoire and programming varied responses to common questions. For others, different aspects can be kept fresh. In the case of our robot barman, making sure the menu is regularly updated to encourage people to come back for more will engender regular customers.
At the time of writing, the Barbican’s robot barman has already temporarily closed because of technical issues – proving that the museum exhibition is a long way from the reality of frontline customer service. It is inevitable that automation will become more widespread, we just need to make sure that the consumer, not the technology, remains king.