Durham University: Customers prefer robots to be human-like

New Business School research has found customers prefer robots to have human-like characteristics when dealing with them in customer service settings, e.g. in banking, hotel receptions and when providing information. Customers prefer robots to have a human voice, show emotions, and physical embody a human not a robot.

The research also highlights that customers find it easier to interact with robots who appear human-like as they are able to apply the familiar social rules and expectations of human to human interactions.

Professor Markus Blut carried out the study alongside colleagues from International Business School Suzhou, Paderborn University and the University of Rostock using a dataset of 11,053 individuals interacting with service robots, from previous research studies.


Using this data, the researchers developed a comprehensive model to investigate relationships between anthropomorphism, which is the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to an object, and its consequences on customer interactions.

Robots’ characteristics (e.g., intelligence) and functional characteristics (e.g., usefulness) are identified as important mediators to measure the want for customers to use them, and relational characteristics (e.g., rapport) were also used, but received less support as mediators.

Professor Blut said:

“When a robot is perceived to be human-like it can better ease and facilitate human–robot interactions. During a human–robot interaction where the robot is human-like, people can easily apply the social scripts and expectations of a human– human interaction. They therefore tend to find the robot more controllable and predictable and the interaction easier and more familiar. If people feel as though they are comfortable and at ease with a robot, their chances of using the service increase.”

Different factors influence preferences

The study found a number of customer characteristics that correlated with the likelihood of anthropomorphizing a customer service robot. People’s competence with technology, computer anxiety and general negative attitudes towards robots in daily life all correlated the likelihood of perceiving a service robot as humanlike. A customer’s age, gender and experience with previous robots also had a significant effect.

Professor Blut said:

“Many companies have found that anthropomorphism can be used to increase product and brand liking in marketing, but in service robots it has been unclear whether it enhances customers’ experiences or not. Our research shows the perception of humanlike qualities in service robots can facilitate engagement with customers, as it incorporates the underlying principles and expectations people use in social settings in a person’s interaction with social robots.”

Considerations for companies

The findings have serious implications for firms intending to employ service robots on the front line, highlighting the potential consequences of employing humanlike versus machinelike robots in service firms. The findings can also be used to assess whether a firm’s customer base is ready for robot service, and which humanlike robots, and their features, to choose when offering services to customers.

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