Automation vs. Human Interaction: Are We Alienating Our Customers with IT?

At the 2009 Fall Penn State HRIM Technology Advisory Board Meeting, the following question was asked by an audience member: "Aren't we in the business of hospitality [and] if we use technology won't we lose contact with the customer and eliminate an opportunity to provide hospitality?" This is a hard question to answer especially for people in the industry who are over the age of 50. The standards for hospitality that were developed before the Internet, cell phones, or self-checkout kiosks were around -- and no one had even thought about social networking -- all involved personal interactions between hospitality staff and customers. A core challenge that we face now is in determining when it is advisable to use technology and when it is advisable to stick to direct customer interaction.
The Internet has changed many of the industry standards over the last 10 years, and today there is a growing opportunity to replace face-to-face interactions with computerized interactions. Customers no longer call their friendly travel agent to find a flight or a hotel. When checking-in for a flight, a growing number of customers are choosing to do it at home or use the kiosk at the airport, as opposed to standing on line. Do they really need to have a human interaction with an airline representative who now only interacts with customers when there is an issue with their flight?
In this business there are always tradeoffs to be made when it comes to the hospitality/automation debate. Years ago there were restaurants, supper clubs or diners that were owned and managed by one family. Word traveled fast, even without the Internet, identifying the good establishments from the poorly run ones. It also was a time when everyone stayed in a "local" area. Over time as travel has become a part of many customers' jobs, and leisure travel is expected annually by every family, the line between automation and hospitality has become blurred. McDonald's demonstrated early on that there was value to the customer in knowing that they can get exactly what they want and at what cost when they entered the door. Pizza HutRed Lobster and others found that the opportunity to offer consistency to a customer had value, regardless of the city. Hotels and restaurants around the world built empires on providing the customer consistent service levels at a specific price point. Today the major hotel chains all have multiple brands, each with a specific set of amenities to be available to the customer at a targeted price point. All of these major brands use technology to maintain consistency in order to meet customer expectations.
Hospitality management without the hospitality?
When the question about choosing between technology and hospitality was asked, it was not asked by a school staff member or by a member of the board, but by a second year hospitality student that was concerned that their chosen field of study may be changing so rapidly that hospitality management may just become management without the hospitality. The question was asked after the audience was told about a new product offering from Perk Dynamics, Inc. that controls the processes in a coffee shop or restaurant. Coffee shops are viewed by many as the ultimate hospitality engagement, with hand-crafted drinks prepared in a coffee house environment. Yet, coffee is going mainstream and the industry is learning that it can either make money from gourmet coffee, or lose money if the operation is not managed properly. The new software increases the profitability of the operation but the students were worried about the decrease in hospitality and customer interaction. Does it take away from the hospitality and craft of gourmet coffee? This same automation and control sparked an interesting conversation at HOST 2009 in Milan when a World Champion Barista reviewed it and commented that "this software will help a lot of coffee operations stay in business!" But this barista would never be quoted, as baristas are artisans, however from a ROI and profitability point of view many may find that a technology such as this is needed in their operation. An example such as this demonstrates that there are opportunities to use technology in almost every aspect of the industry. And in many instances, the use of that technology is not taking away from the experience that is expected of a business by its customers.
Communication and marketing efforts
This same argument of automation versus hospitality can also be seen in communication and marketing efforts. The industry has a generation of new customers that have grown up on the Internet and instantaneous communication through texting, Facebook, and Twitter. Computer mediated technology has become an accepted method of social interaction. The demand of customers to interact through the methods that they most commonly use can be demonstrated by the success of several recent examples. In a recent promotion, Outback Steakhouse offered a coupon for a free Bloomin' Onion on Facebook and signed up over 200,000 "Fans" in a week, according to a November article published by Tampa Bay Online. This interaction, although it is computer mediated and void of human interaction, opens the door to a whole new set of potential customers because these Fans have "opted in" to allow Outback to market to them real-time. Twitter and Facebook enable new methods of promotions and advertising that are not only being embraced by younger customers, but are also transforming how older generations communicate with their audiences.
The bottom line is that you cannot assume that all technology is good or bad for business. A kiosk may be the right technology for express coffee orders at a hotel coffee shop to reduce costs and speed up service, but in a boutique coffee shop it may take away an interaction point that is required to make the business a success. Good decision making tools should be utilized to evaluate technology and the overall impact that it will have on your operation. Decisions must be made based upon targeted clientele and the overall experience that is expected of your hotel or restaurant. For example, making a younger customer that has grown up in this cyber world interact with a human desk clerk when they could have checked-in quicker and derived more customer satisfaction from checking-in through a kiosk or their own PDA/smartphone, may be less hospitable. Now is a time of choice and options. Can your business afford to offer everything to everybody? Make your decisions wisely and understand that different customer sets define hospitality in different ways.
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