The Shocking Truth About Self Service

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It’s designed to speed up the process of purchase, supposed to give another option to the consumer.  It’s indented to allow the customer “in-the-know” to quickly get their item(s) without having to wait on a long line.

Shocking Truth About Self Service

And, it’s also the best method of reducing the #1 business cost; labor/payroll.  More about that later…

So why don’t self service stations work as intended?

They’re not supposed to, it’s all a scam!



If we are to believe that installing self serve check-out counters are in our best interest, why not install more and really do away with the live cashier altogether?  But that’s already happening.

Here’s an example:

Stop by your local Home Depot on any weekday and see how many self check-out lanes/terminals there are versus those with a living breathing human.  What do you see?  Two lanes with a person and 2 lanes each with 4 self checkout terminals.

Sure, on the self serve line you will see the occasional 30+ year old man that came in just to buy a few screws and picture hangers, he goes through pretty quickly.  But what about the woman trying to buy 4 bags of garden soil?  She can’t get anywhere near the human counter because all the contractor dudes are there with their 2×4’s and sheetrock.  So she struggles with her bags at the self serve checkout while the people behind her grow impatient.

I know I know, there is the self serve “assistant” that straddles the gap between the 2 lines but she’s usually too busy talking to “Freddy from Plumbing” to notice you fumbling with the keypad buttons.

Are these satellite self serve checkout lanes designed for those with physically larger items like 20 pound bags of garden soil or 8ft long pieces of wood?  Probably not, but if these lanes are intended to give the customer another option, alleged to usually be quicker, shouldn’t that option be suited for all and not just for the “experienced self serve customer”?

Shouldn’t the purchase point be geared towards efficiency?

Customer service at its best, huh?

Another customer touch point is the telephone help desk, or customer service agent.

A customer dissatisfied with their product calls the “800” number of a business.  Instead of the phone being answered by a person the customer is routed through a never ending selection of prompts to identify the issue by department, problem faced, etc.

The customer is already dissatisfied with the product; that’s the reason for the call.  Isn’t it reasonable to expect further dissatisfaction with the intended resolution process if it becomes burdensome and lengthy?

Press 1 for sales, Press 2 for shipping & receiving, Press 3 for technical service, Press 4 for billing…

What number to I press to quickly speak with a human being?  I wish THAT was an option but a button is never assigned for that, and there probably never will be!

We consumers have become accustomed to the electronic maze on the telephone that now masquerades as a business’s service desk or help center.

There are websites featuring countless “tips/tactics” to get past what is called the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology in the hopes of quickly bypassing the taped prompts. Here are some examples:

  • Press 0 (or 0# or #0 or 0* or *0) repeatedly, sometimes quickly
  • Say “agent” or “representative”, raise your voice or just mumble.
  • Selecting the option for Spanish will sometimes get you a bilingual human more quickly than if you just waited for an English-only operator.

Seems like an awful lot of steps to take to fix a problem.  It seems like the company doesn’t really want the problem resolved, at least not by their willingness to address the situation quickly and in the most humane way.  It seems to be more robotic in nature.



As Diane Withrow, Hospitality Management Program Coordinator at Cape Fear Community College, a colleague and inspiration for this article, states; “self serve maddeningly doesn’t contain the option I need”.

“Seldom is there a “speak to customer service” option to choose.  “I’m usually so frustrated by the time I’m finally connected to a human they now have a tougher task to make me happy than if I could’ve spoken to a person far sooner”.

How can automation take the place of customer service? 

And what about the overall customer experience?  Has this become subservient to the “benefits of automation”?

That’s exactly it, automation is the goal.

It is widely known that payroll costs, the costs of hiring and maintaining employees, is the single highest cost for any business.  For those businesses that are not primarily concerned with customer service as their business model, re: Home Depot et al and regardless of what is said in their commercials, reduction of these costs are paramount.

The quickest and easiest way to achieve this is to install more self service lanes in their stores.  They then are marketed as a benefit to their customers; no more waiting in line, quicker checkouts and more options to choose from. Maybe, maybe not.

But what about when you call the 800 numbers, what options do you have there, what benefits do you receive?  None!

The only options available are to control your anger while hitting button after button or hanging up.

I must admit that there are some self service options that work well; airline pre check-ins that list seat assignments and availability.  You can even preprint your boarding pass, definitely a plus versus the non-options of yesteryear.

Another self serve option I like is pumping my own gas.  Who wants to wait for the gas station attendant to mosey over to my car to “fill-er’up”?  Not me…

There are only two states in the US that ban the self service of gasoline, New Jersey and Oregon.

*“The Garden State self-service gas station ban dates back to 1949, when the New Jersey Legislature passed the Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act, primarily over concerns about the safety of consumers pumping petroleum themselves.”

That’s a lot of bunk!  The ban was pushed through the NJ Legislature to stop a man named Irving Reingold from selling gas cheaper than the crooked competition.  At the time gas was 21.9 cents a gallon, a price rigged by a gentlemen’s agreement among other gas station owners.

“Reingold decided to offer the consumer a choice by opening up a 24-pump gas station on Route 17 in Hackensack. He offered gas at 18.9 cents a gallon.  The only requirement was that drivers pump it themselves. They didn’t mind. They lined up for blocks”.

“The other gas station operators didn’t like the competition. Someone tried shooting up Reingold’s station. But he installed bulletproof glass, so the retailers looked for a softer target – the Statehouse. The Gasoline Retailers Association prevailed upon its pals in the Legislature and the bill, banning the self service of pumping gas, sailed through in record time”.

Prices went back up and Reingold went out of business.  So much for the little guy…

*facts courtesy of NJ.com



Regardless of what we are told, many self service options are far removed from the “service” my colleagues and I usually write about.  The customer experience is limited to us scanning a computer terminal in the hopes of not hitting the wrong button and having to start over from the beginning.  Or having to get out of my car in the pouring rain to pump my own gas because the kid manning the pump is in the back room playing Nintendo.

Note: since I moved to NJ 13 years ago I’m now free from pumping my own gas.

Then there are the robotic voice prompts and our futile efforts in manual dexterity while we push button after button for the opportunity to be left on hold listening to some crummy music.

Please, someone answer the phone so I don’t have to listen to Barry Manilow anymore!

Leave a comment below and add to the discussion.
Image courtesy of http://www.n3rdabl3.co.uk/

9 COMMENTS

  1. Steve, a sad but true account of what happens to all of us daily. The worst example I heard (and wrote) about is the IRS implementing a plan it called “Courtesy Disconnect”. When the calls really back up on their 800 line the just disconnect callers until the backlog becomes manageable. In 2015 it did that over 6 million times.

    I can’t wait until this year’s numbers come out!

    WHO TOOK THE SERVICE OUT OF CUSTOMER SERVICE?

  2. As long as organizations see most things service-related, including self-service, as a cost rather than an opportunity to build relationships, value and customer loyalty, there will be a continuation of the kind of situations your post describes. We’ve observed this for decades; and, rather irrespective of industry, most service technology has been a carelessly applied band-aid rather than major customer relationship surgery..

    One place we’re seeing a rapid movement to self-service is retail banking, where switching has significantly increased as consumers look for better mobile capabilities. This is especially true among under-35 bank customers, who are less tied to local branches. Bank of America, for example, has closed or sold hundreds of branches, only to see high percentages of customers remain where they are, principally because they desire the self-serve access and convenience of banking by smartphone or tablet.

    That said, financial companies like TD Bank have made great strides to build value from all points of contact, with all customers. Their CMO, Vinoo Vijay, has been quoted as follows: ““We are focused on making it ridiculously easy for consumers to find, assess, buy and use our banking products… The incredible opportunities to engage with consumers that digital, mobile, social and data create are game changing. But, as a marketer, the most important thing we can do is ensure our brands continue to build on and follow through on their promises. Only then will every touch point with the consumer… turn into a real positive.”

    It strikes me that all companies would be well-served (pardon the pun) to follow a similar service path. Incidentally, though I’ve lived in New Jersey for twenty years, I’m a Pennsylvanian – and can pump my own gas with the best of them.

  3. Self service DOES work as intended – the intention being to save retailers operational costs. I have never interpreted the placement of self-service lanes as a gesture of magnanimity or customer goodwill on the part of the retailer. Beancounters are hellbent on reducing labor costs. They prefer the fickle collection of scanners, scales, receipt printers, coin changers, paper money machines, card swipers, flat-screen monitors, and grocery belts. This assemblage, with all its plugs and connectors, reminds me of what a middle-schooler would create for a tech project.

    And surely, a dark-hearted engineer devised the robotic monotone messages, “Please remove goods from the bagging area . . . .” and, “please wait for customer assistance.” If you visited northern Virginia in 2013 or 2014 and found a pile of items abandoned at a self-service checkout, they were mine. I stopped using self-service lanes – at least until the technology and compassion for customers catches up.

    A related article I wrote might be of interest: If This is the Future of Shopping, Heaven Help Us!

  4. Hi Andrew,

    At first read I didn’t realize that we took the same side of the coin until I read your comment the second time and especially after reading how you left your items at a self-service checkout lanes.

    Service is becoming too high of a cost to ownership and fellow bean counters and we are becoming too accustomed to it. Poor service is pervasive…and we can’t even complain by phone, by email or by robot!

    Thanks much.

  5. Hello Michael,

    You well state the unfortunate obvious; that great, or at least good, service is a cost rather than an opportunity to build relationships, value and customer loyalty.

    Isn’t it strange that the ways of business have changes so much from years past when a handshake was all that was needed and your word was as good as a contract.

    Now, the bean counters (as Andrew states), as well as the lawyers, have taken over. No wonder service has turned into “self”…do it yourself since there is no one else to do it for you.

    Thanks for your comment.

  6. Hi Sam,

    Your example is more proof that the Government doesn’t do most things well and should be left out of most equations. The Postal “Service”, I don’t think so. Thanks much.

  7. Steve, I really liked your article. You articulate much about what many of us feel.
    Alas! Your voice and mine are on the losing side. The big companies will convince us (or our kids, who are more amenable to machines and non human contact) that this is the best way and all of us will fall into line as we have done with e-commerce, google invading our privacy etc.

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