Consumer reactions to automation
Automation is taking over a fast-growing share of customer-firm interactions. Driven by advances in artificial intelligence (AI), automation is increasingly replacing frontline employees in both the virtual (e.g., chatbots) and physical sphere (e.g., humanoid robots). Yet, to date, it is not clear how consumers react to firms that decide to deploy machines instead of humans in customer-facing settings. We propose that consumers hold a lay theory that automation implies less customer centricity: they perceive firms that automate customer-firm touchpoints as prioritizing cost cutting and profit maximization at the expense of the customer experience. Inferences about reduced customer centricity in turn make firms appear as less warm. These perceptions negatively affect firm outcomes, such as service satisfaction, willingness to patronize and recommend businesses that automate their customer service, and lead to more negative online reviews. We provide evidence for the robustness of these findings across a range of study settings, participant samples, and different forms of AI-enabled automation. Overall, these findings highlight the potential challenges for firms contemplating the automation of customer service and provide insights about how marketers can offset such negative consumer reactions.