The robots that can: A digital customer service future

When the robot asks your size, what do you say? 

When the robot asks your size, what do you say? 

The robot(s) that can: a digital customer service future

“我能帮你吗?” (May I help you) came the slightly feminine voice behind me.  I was caught off guard at first, thinking that I had someone walk up behind me while I was studying the store map.  Turning around, I stared down at the cute 3-foot-tall robot, which blinked up at me with an animated, smiling screen.  

“I am not sure, actually” I responded in English, intrigued.  The robot flashed for a moment on the screen, and responded in English this time “Would you like to look at clothing or jewelry, both are nearby?”

Curious now, I responded “Clothing” and the robot chirped a friendly ‘follow me’ and proceed to roll towards the nearest branded clothing section in the incredibly large shop in the suburbs of Beijing.    During the roll / walk over, I heard in my native language the retail sales opportunities on clothing in advance of Spring Festival coming soon.    By the time I found a jacket that fit, I received two further advertisements (both tailored to a male customer), and a friendly reminder to join the affinity card program to receive more discounts.  

This was not the first or only interaction with digitally enabled customer service bots or experiences while in China.   Over the course of three weeks visiting in-laws, we encountered robots delivering food to the table (with beacon technologies and IoT making it possible to track us in the restaurant after ordering), banking robots that rolled around the branch lobby helping place people in the right queues and dispensing rate information, and digital touch displays from KFC and McDonald’s that provided Mandarin and English options (and prompts / advice) for ordering and payment.       

What struck me about the experience was the rapid adoption of the digital / IoT / consumer technologies by the customers (including me), and how fast these brands/companies have adopted digital business capabilities to reduce friction and better service customers.    I found over the weeks in China, I would gravitate to these digital brands more than others I encountered.  I felt a convenience and comfort with the experience, and actually was intrigued by the next experience I might have.  


While digital capabilities are great, and the strategy is working for these sectors in the early days – the future is more complicated.   The economics in China are shifting with government intention  towards a greater services industry focus (and less towards infrastructure and agro-business).   The services industry, especially in metropolitan markets, has become the hot area for growth. 

With the introduction of digital capabilities – from robots, to IoT,  and digital engagement points (displays and beacons / tracking and tailored digital advertising), the services industry workforce will be challenged with alternative modes of customer interaction.   In a country of over 1 billion, how these brands / companies adapt their business to the digital opportunity over the long run will be a very interesting story to watch.   

Taking this construct outside China, the future implications in other geographic markets will challenge our services economy expectations soon (if not already).    What is required is a robust data / telecommunications infrastructure, the expertise to make these technologies work, and the ability to connect the digital experience with the underlying brand experience.     Understanding the digital disruption at work, and opportunities these new capabilities present will help companies differentiate in the new digital era.    

Ready to explore your digital opportunity? 

To learn more and discuss how digital transformation opportunities can help your business, get in touch at    And remember, when the robot asks what size you are, always go up a notch or two on the belt.   They can’t see the difference (yet).


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Rob McGillen is the founder, CEO and principal consultant at Practically Digital, a digital transformation consultancy focused on helping companies leverage the opportunities presented by new digital innovations.