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When automation hinders the customer experience, hit the reset button

I read an article in the January 15, 2019 issue of the Wall Street Journal that pointed out the limitations of a robot-staffed hotel, the Henn na, or “Strange,” Hotel, in western Japan.

As it turns out, over half the hotel’s 243 robots have been culled due to guest complaints about their ineffectiveness. The in-room robot assistant, named Churi – while adept at handling simple requests such as adjusting room heating and lighting – mistook a guest’s snoring for a question, responding in the middle of the night: “Sorry, I couldn’t catch that. Could you repeat your request?”

The hotel’s main concierge robot was removed after being unable to respond to routine guest requests such as flight schedules. And the robots “manning” the front desk require human support to perform tasks outside the scope of repetitive, programmed tasks. For example, while the robot is able to validate a method of payment, it is unable to make copies of passports for foreign guests.

The hotel is “staffed” with two robot luggage carriers that can only reach about two dozen of the more than 100 hotel rooms due to their inability to navigate uneven surfaces inside the hotel and maneuver around inclement weather to reach annex buildings outside the hotel. Even within the hotel, delivering luggage to those guest rooms that are accessible, the robots were said to be “slow and noisy, and would get stuck trying to go past each other.”

There is a place for robots and other forms of cutting-edge technology in hotels and other settings. When these service enhancements are genuinely useful by reducing customer effort, increasing safety, or delighting customers with a bit of unexpected whimsy, they enhance the customer experience. But if the priority is labor reduction, productivity, and efficiency at the expense of the customer experience, it may be time to hit the reset button on your priorities.

Illustration by Maha Mohtaseb.

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