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Balancing Customer Service with Next-Gen Automation

Technology can speed up and improve guest service for the hotel industry, but the question then arises of how to make sure technology improves guest satisfaction. The combination of technology and people is designed to improve service, however recent research suggests that service technologies can impede development of employee-guest rapport and lead to lower service evaluations. For example, a kiosk might help guests check in and get to their room faster, a feature which could certainly improve a guest’s satisfaction. The popular theory is that if the front desk is busy, guests will most likely be happier if they move ahead with an electronic check-in process. However, the fact remains that when guests bypass the front desk, the hotel staff has missed an opportunity to welcome those guests.

A new study from the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University ( zeroes in on this issue of how to combine technology with personal service to improve guest satisfaction. The report, titled “Cyborg Service: The Unexpected Effect of Technology in the Employee-Guest Exchange,” by Michael Giebelhausen, applies social equity theory to determine when (and why) technology can improve guests’ satisfaction with the service process and when it diminishes the guest experience. Together with his colleagues, Giebelhausen, an assistant professor at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, conducted a series of studies that examined the use of technology in the hotel check-in process.

Equity theory: balancing guest/employee/cyborg interaction
Overall it was discovered that technology helps improve the service experience, but it must be used in an appropriate fashion. The researchers found that guests are not as happy when they have to divide their attention between technology and the desk agent. For example, when guests have been welcomed by the desk agent, they find it awkward to have to switch to using a kiosk because the guests feel that they are unable to respond to the agent’s welcome; the participants in this test scenario worried that using the technology, instead of interacting with a welcoming desk agent, might seem rude. On the other hand, in a scenario where the desk agent was busy, participants reported that the technology improved their satisfaction, since they were able to complete their check-in process.

The report refers to equity theory which suggests that if a guest feels the scale is tipped to the left and the employee is contributing more to an exchange, psychological discomfort arises due to the cognitive dissonance of not reciprocating. On the other hand, if the balance is tipped to the right, and the guest feels that the employee is not responding appropriately to his or her efforts to build rapport, anger results. Technology can modify both interactions.

The studies indicated that creating a social space between the technology and the staff helped remedy the possibility of unbalanced social relationships between staff and guests. For example, guests could be welcomed at the door and then use a kiosk that is not directly next to the desk (or the door). This allows the hotel to welcome the guest, allows the guest to respond to that welcome, and then gives the guest the “social space” to use a kiosk or other technology. Thus, frontline employees should still develop a rapport with guests, but when technology acts as an “equity barrier,” the employees should provide guests with “social space,” without abandoning them entirely. In the study, Giebelhausen suggests that the goal is to set up the technology so that it works together with the guests and the hotel’s employees.

Glenn Withiam
Director of Publications
Cornell Center for Hospitality Research

What was your first job?  
Picking green beans at the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station

Who inspires you?  
Anyone who has persevered in the face of adversity.

What are your hobbies?  
Bicycle riding and running

What technologies excite you?
We live in an age of miracles that we can electronically communicate, look up information, and so forth in a heartbeat. Medical advances are also quite impressive of late.

Words of Wisdom:  
Whether you’re speaking of publishing or hospitality the answer is the same, don’t let technology get in the way of being a mensch.

What is one other job that you would like to try?
Professional chef

Who would you invite to lunch?  
Mark Twain & Theodore Roosevelt

Top movie/book:  
Some Like It Hot

Favorite vacation spot:
New York Adirondacks, but I love the Grand Canyon, Crater lake, Acadia, and the Oregon Coast.

Glenn Withiam is the director of publications for the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research. To download complimentary copies of any of the research reports from the Center for Hospitality Research, visit

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