The Human Touch of Automation: A Customer Experience Experience

by Ken Mueller on May 13, 2014 · 11 comments

zioskThe other night we celebrated my son’s graduation from college by heading out to eat at one of the local Red Robin restaurants. Because it was a Saturday night, and because three local colleges had graduations that day. Plus, that Red Robin is right in the heart of the tourist area of Lancaster.


Despite that, we got there at just the right time and were able to get a table rather quickly. At the table, we were greeted by a rather call tablet-like computer kiosk that gave us the chance to order beverages and appetizers, which would be delivered to the table. It also gave us the opportunity to join their email list, play games, and listen to music, if we so desired. Plus, at the end of the night, we were able to pay our bill right there.

I loved the convenience. But what I loved even more was the amazing customer service provided by our waitress, Lisa. From the time we got there to the time we left she was attentive and took care of everything for us. She even used the table-top kiosk to put our order in for appetizers. From my perspective, Red Robin has found the perfect way to use automation: it enhances the experience of human interaction without replacing it. And they’re not the only ones: Panera is trying something similar, as is Chili’s. In fact, more and more restaurants and other businesses are starting to think in terms of this kind of thing, with the use of what are known as Ziosks.

I’m not a fan of automation replacing human workers. That said, automation should be used to solve problems, not just for your own sake, but for your customer’s sake. If automation can speed up the process for your customers, and reduce errors, then it’s a wonderful thing. If it streamlines the system and improves customer experience, you’re on to something.

But if automation is just there to make things easier for you, and it interferes with customer experience, you need to think again.

With Red Robin, and I presume others, they’re not trying to get rid of staff. They’re trying to make things easier for both staff and customers, while saving time and reducing error. Our waitress was able to provide better customer service than most, because of how well the restaurant has integrated automation technology into its culture. In fact, I think she was more attentive and responsive than servers I’ve had at other restaurants. The kiosk freed her up to deliver food more quickly, and spend more time, not less, with her customers on a very busy day.

For automation to be effective, and worthwhile, there needs to be a human touch. In fact, automation should enhance the human interaction, not the other way around. For too many businesses, the humans are there just to maintain the automation. That’s backwards. ATM’s still haven’t replaced bank tellers and customer service representatives, as was feared. We still need those people.

Oh, and machines break down from time to time. I guess it’s their version of a sick day. And on those occasions, the humans are much more reliable.

Feel free to try it that way, and feel free to try to replace humans, but any successes you have will be short term.

Business is about people, on both ends of the equation. Use automated and computerized systems to supplement and enhance the great work of your staff, and you’ll gain a reputation for superior customer service and experience.

Oh, and for the record, we were so well pleased with the food and customer experience that we’re already talking about going back. And that’s  lot for someone  like me, who isn’t really a fan of chain restaurants, to say. And in case you were wondering, this was the bad boy I ate: the Royal Red Robin.

2014-05-10 18.07.31

What are you favorite examples of how automation makes customer experience better? Are you implementing anything like this in your business?

The Designer Foodie
The Designer Foodie

I've blogged about the Ziosk as well (here)! Neat little devices. My opinions about it were mixed but I can definitely appreciate how it would streamline things when the restaurant is busy. Also, graphic designers were most definitely given work because of them, so my verdict on them is: they're good. I liked the ATM reference you made, very true!


My experience the first time with the Ziosk was similar to biggreenpen's. I  think it's great. and like it for all the reasons that you mention, Ken. However, my two boys were enamored with the technology and were fiddling around with it. They clicked through to one of the games (were they tricked? They were naieve and didn't know better, I think.). They didn't play it, but just because they clicked into it for 5 seconds we got an extra charge on our bill. My wife was none too happy because she saw it as a way for Red Robin to pry some more money out of customers who might not be paying attention to what their kids are doing. We complained about our charge, and the manager removed it, but I don't think he heard the larger message.


Hi Ken, I am so glad you blogged about Ziosk because my March experience with one led me to wonder what others thought. I'd say my experience was more mixed than yours, and it is because the Ziosk did not enhance "great customer service" -- there was definitely more of a tone of "just use the tablet thing-y" from our server (in my opinion).  There was definitely a bit of "cool" factor having it on the table, and it does enhance ability to understand the menu options (and, as our server noted, to not have to handle a sticky menu ...). The kids at the table (big and little) were interested in the games. BUT ...... it almost tricked someone into paying for a game (it'll just be added to your bill) and when it suggests a gratuity as you're paying your bill, not surprisingly it does not start at 15% then give you the option to add more. // My main objection was centered around the customer service part. When it was time to pay, our server said we could pay her or pay at the Ziosk, noting "it's really easy!" When some of us said we were kind of old school, she repeated "it's really easy!". Maybe I was seeing it through a choosy/picky filter as it was my first time with a Ziosk, but I definitely had a sense of "please use this instead of me" from our server. Probably an important component for training ....

KenMueller moderator

@biggreenpen  This was also my first time using the Ziosk, and clearly had a better experience than you. I think the key is how it is integrated into the overall customer experience equation. My family experienced it at Chili's just last week, so I'll have to ask them what they thought of it as compared to Red Robin. Im sure that some of the difference is specific to each chain, but even within that, I'm sure each individual restaurant would also be different. It all comes down to the culture of the organization.


@KenMueller @biggreenpen  I would be interested in your family's experience at Chili's. I definitely agree that the culture of the organization drives how something like this is integrated (and the degree to which that makes your dining experience better/worse/different). I do worry (as a parent who has sat through many a meal with a tech-loving kid) about the rapidity with which a distracted family can rack up charges. The print about that is pretty small! 

KenMueller moderator

@biggreenpen At Red Robin it was pretty clear that it cost $1.99, but that gave you full access to everything on there, so you wouldn't be racking up any fees. That said, I'm cheap, so there was no way I was going to pay for games or music. I did use it to sign up for their birthday club so I get a free burger or something on my birthday. 


  1. […] and the wait staff’s – experience a great one. Ken Mueller, in his article “The Human Touch of Automation: A Customer Experience Experience” states, “They’re trying to make things easier for both staff and customers, while […]

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