Jamie ThorpeJamie ThorpeJune 5, 2019
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7min443

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.

What’ll it beep?: The Makr Shakr robotic bartender on display at the Barbican. Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

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.

Armed revolution: A visitor interacts with Alter, one of the robots featuring in a new exhibition at the Barbican Centre. Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

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.

Supersized potential

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.


Georgia LeybourneGeorgia LeybourneApril 3, 2019
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6min392

Millennials and Generation Z may be the customers of the future, but retailers right now need to concentrate on the customers of today – and that means embracing the over-50s.

This generation has money to burn…and is increasingly spending it. In 2016, the over-50s spent more than the younger generation for the first time, according to AOL, and 62 percent of the over-50s aim to spend their savings, according to a survey by Sunlife.

In addition to having more to spend than younger generations, the over-50s are also potentially far more discerning and demanding in their retail habits. Less likely to opt for fast fashion and far more likely to invest in the big ticket items, the over-50s have also experienced the change in retail experience over the last few decades, transforming from the traditional cash registers to the POS systems now present in stores across the globe, which means their shopping habits and expectations are more of a complex mix than those of the digital native generations.

Quality of experience

Of course, the over-50s may not be digital natives, but technology has dominated the workplace for decades. They may not use technology in the same way as Millennials and Gen Zs; they may not be as susceptible to the online influencers, or post their latest purchases on Snapchat, but social media and the quality of online experience are both still relevant.

From customer acquisition strategies to the actual in-store experience, capturing and retaining this affluent generation will require more finesse and greater understanding, as well as excellent timing; the technology is there for the taking, but it’s about how and when it’s used for this generation. The over-50s do not have the same filters as the younger generations when it comes to the online and social media deluge – to avoid rapid disengagement, a more subtle and nuanced approach is key.

This issue is particularly key in-store where the quality of the customer/store associate interaction is a fundamental part of the experience for a generation that is less willing to embrace self-service. But – and to be frank – this is not easy.

Tech-savvy over-50s will have typically started the buying journey online, especially for those big ticket items. They will have a pretty good idea of what they want to buy but will also value the chance to look and feel in-store to determine product quality – something that is still tough to achieve online.

Furthermore, this generation also wants to enjoy the buying experience, to add the quality of a great in-store interaction to the pleasure of making an acquisition. This is where technology is here to help; the cash registers, long queues and lack of personalisation commonplace in retail of the past would not have added up to a great in-store interaction, whereas now, the more targeted, knowledgeable, and streamlined approach could be exactly what this generation is after.

Capture the moment

For the store associate, two issues are therefore key: timing the interaction with the customer and having a depth of information and knowledge that can add value to the online research. Barge in too soon, and the customer will be affronted. Be unable to offer any more insight and knowledge to the discussion and that customer could well walk.

For retailers, however, this is the moment. It is a perfect time to upsell; a brilliant opportunity to create a strong relationship and create a brand advocate, straight from their Point of Sale (POS) devices. The customer has researched enough to be confident to make a purchase and has the money in hand, but just needs a push towards one product or the other.

Developments in technology means that store associates can be armed with both up to date stock information, as well as offers and promotions, plus an inherent interest in the product area is invaluable. Add in access to customer history, including recent purchases, and the foundation is laid for an excellent, personalised interaction – the store associate can upsell, and the customer has a great experience.




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