Lowe’s will be testing out robot associates during the holiday season at two of its San Jose, CA stores called Orchard Supply Hardware. So if a big metal object rolls up next to you and starts talking, it’s just OSHbot, ready and willing to serve.
As cool as this might seem on its face there’s ultimately the question of how this will impact the quality of customer service. One could argue that machines with their fancy programming and ability to work and work without the need for breaks or daydreams or 10-minute dance parties are superior to plain old humans. But with so much digitization happening, there’s also something to be said for the human touch.
This issue of the inherent quality of flesh-and-blood customer service is where robot substitutes could falter.
The press release for the OSHbots points out that they’re meant to answer simple questions, like pointing out where things are located in the store. That frees up the associates to work on “delivering project expertise.”
But let’s take a moment to think about how people shop, particularly for home supplies. You walk into a store and you need a gizmo. So OSHbot takes you to that gizmo. Then it rolls away to help the next customer while you stand in front of the shelf holding that gizmo, reading the front of the package, then the back, then the front again. Then you pull out your mobile device to look at the pictures you took of the thing you’re trying to build, then you call home to ask some random question, then you go back to reading the package with a “new understanding” (yeah right) of what it is you’re trying to do.
After 15 minutes, you realize that you actually need more help because you are in fact clueless and this isn’t colonial Williamsburg, so why are you even building anything? OSHbot is gone and what you really want is a person to stand there and talk to you slowly while you try to process this new information.
OSHbot could play a key role in this process. But when things are automated, companies tend to 1) cut back on human workers 2) make it more difficult for you to actually reach a human being when you need one.
So the key will be finding the balance; showing people that it’s more than just cool, it’s actually useful to have OSHbot around. And then educating them about how they can navigate the store and their own ignorance in the least frustrating way possible. That’s what will keep customers coming back.
And bonus! Here’s John Oliver’s take on why humans are better than robots at home supply stores. This is just a skit, but we’re sure that for some poor couple out there, it looks more like a documentary.