business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

It’s probably the single worst discussion any of us can or want to have. A medical prognosis that you are seriously ailing and nothing can be done. In other words, you are likely to die soon. And yet, a hospital in Freemont, California, found a way to make it worse.

The message was delivered by a robot.

According to news reports about this sad incident, the story manages to get even worse. The elderly patient who was the subject of this news has difficulty hearing, so he needed his granddaughter, who was sitting nearby, to repeat the medical report to him a second time.

Let’s be honest, there are countless ways to go with this story. First, these kinds of robots - featuring a video screen displaying messages from a doctor - might actually be enormously helpful to the future of medicine allowing any of us to consult remotely with world-class specialists no matter where they or we are located. It might free up doctors to spend their time on critical cases. And, as a medical expert explained to USA Today, many doctors struggle with having these difficult discussions person to person. In many cases, the robot is actually better, which speaks to a completely different discussion on the importance of training and empathy.

But let’s think about that in context of the discussions we’ve had here in recent weeks about how robotics will likely be integrated into the customer experience in stores. Certainly there is no discussion in a supermarket that will rise to the emotional level of an end of life diagnosis, but still there’s a lesson to be learned in removing all humanity from customer interactions.

The goal, in short, must be to use new technology to enhance the customer experience and to aid staffers in improving customer interactions wherever they occur. Not eliminate them completely.

As we are seeing already, robots can be effectively used for inventory management, floor cleaning and certainly, in a sense, at self-scanning checkouts. In years to come, we are likely to see technology actively engage with customers in helping them find products, build recipes and possibly even provide cooking instructions. (Replace the doctor-in-the-hospital-robot with a Gordon Ramsay-in-the-supermarket-robot, and suddenly in-store discussions take on an entirely new slant.) What might be critical to store success in the future is redeploying staffers to further enhance the experience by guiding shoppers in many of the same ways, except with a distinctly with a human touch.

While no discussion will come close to end-of-life, store staffers will still require training and an emphasis on solving customer problems. Done right, we may find the human touch is just what’s needed to keep stores relevant and profitable.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@mnb.grocerywebsite.com . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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