Customer Service: Human vs. Robot

Two days after her 92nd birthday, an actor arrived on the set of a prime-time television show for which she had been hired to play a part.  At the entrance of the set, she encountered a security guard who was checking IDs to verify the identity of those entering.
Due to an unfortunate set of logistical circumstances, her license was two days past the expiration date. The guard noticed the expired date on the license, and wouldn’t let her enter the set, and wouldn’t do anything to find a way to make an exception. The nonagenarian actor took a cab home, retrieved another ID, and returned to the set.

Let’s explore this situation, to learn lessons about how your company, and your employees, can remain competitive in our fast-changing world.

What’s the Guard’s Problem?

The guard’s real job was to verify the identity of those coming on the set, not to ensure their driver’s license was valid. The actor’s license showed who she was, and where she lived – the exact information needed. However, this guard either did not have the judgment, or was not empowered to exercise the judgment, to think beyond the technical limitations of the situation.

In a few years, it seems likely that this guard’s job will be outsourced, either to a computer or a remote ID reader sitting in a developing country. If no brains or judgment are involved, there is no reason to have an expensive human being sitting on an expensive piece of real estate doing a job.

Or Was the Company at Fault?

Maybe the guard wanted to exercise judgment but was instructed only to let people through his gate who had completely valid IDs, with no exceptions. Then the problem rests with the company, or the guard’s supervisors, who, similarly, can easily be outsourced. The reason is clear: The simpler the algorithm by which your work operates, the easier it is to replace you with something, or someone, cheaper.

Imagine the guard company’s customers– the producers of the show. They hired this actor and had a tight, expensive production schedule. Their goal was to ensure this particular actor was on the set at the scheduled time, not to make sure her driver’s license was valid. A producer’s day on the job is filled with thousands of moments where judgment and quick decisions are made; how do you think this producer would feel if a rigid process, that involved no judgment or discernment, held up her production and negatively affected her work?  Do you think she would praise the guard company for noticing a 92-year-old actor’s license was two days past its expiration date, or would she look for a new guard company?

The Moral of the Story

Think about the face-to-face interactions your company has directly with customers.

During these interactions, are your customers encountering the kinds of employees, and the kinds of systems, that take advantage of the most highly-evolved, most complex, most wondrous thing in the universe, the human brain?

Or, are your systems so rigid, or your employees so disempowered, that these interactions could be automated or outsourced?

There are many things you can automate or outsource, but it is important to choose the customer touchpoints where you do this carefully. After all, when you take the special human element out of a customer interaction, it’s much easier for someone to copy you, at a lower price.

More importantly, if your customer interactions are rigid, and don’t require a human touch, what does it feel like to be your customer?  I once asked a restaurant server if I could have one piece of rye toast and one piece of whole-wheat toast with my omelet, instead of two pieces of the same kind of bread, as was normally served. The server came back after a few minutes and said he was not allowed to do this, because the manager insisted their policy was only to serve two pieces of the same kind of toast to each customer.

You know those irritating number or letter CAPTCHAs you have to type into a box when you buy tickets online? They are designed to be read-only by a human being, not by some bot that wants to buy up the entire main floor of a Hamiltonperformance. There is a lesson in these letters that is anything but irritating. Do you interact with your customers in enough ways that require a human being to exercise judgment to keep thoughtful employees engaged, and create meaningful experiences for your customers?  Or can your important customer interactions be replaced by bots?

How you answer these questions says a lot about how your customers– and your competitors– will react to you in the future.


  • Steve
    Sep 02, 2016 - 13:28 pm

    Great article on Human vs. Robot. We all need to be aware of what is happening every day on this topic because many individuals will wake up some day without a job because of their lack of common sense and flexibility, and rigidness in how they performed their daily duties. Poor customer service is becoming epidemic in today’s world of increasingly alienated customers.

  • Stanley Goldstein
    Sep 02, 2016 - 15:30 pm

    The nuances of human interaction set the stage for our daily lives. Courteous common sense should have ruled the day. A quick kind retraining __WITH NO SCRIPT__should suffice to get the guard on the right track.

Leave A Reply