Is The Move to Self-Service Better For Your Organization Or The Customer?


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Many organizations bust their backs trying to deliver excellent Customer Service. However, it might surprise you to learn your Customers want self-service—and the reasons why might surprise you even more.

Attest is a company that does consumer research, and they’ve got several great reports that I’ve been reading. In particular, two stats from their US Food and Beverage Report from July 2021 emphasized to me how essential a topic this was. We discussed them on a recent podcast:

  • 72% of Gen-Z prefer self-checkout options over cashiers in grocery stores
  • 68% of shoppers want virtual try on tools for clothes and makeup

Self-service has been one of the most significant trends in all business in the last two decades. So, why? What’s the human thing behind it? When do people want more or less human interaction?

Self-Service Versus Full Service 

The first stat above suggests a generational shift from a traditional way of doing things. It could be that younger people want to do things a new way.

Reference Points also play a role here. People who have been shopping for a while (e.g., older generation X,  Boomers, and Silent Generation) form Reference Points about what that interaction should be like. For example, if you’re used to full-service checkout, anything different from that might bother you. You might feel self-checkout is extra work. However, the full-service checkout isn’t as ingrained into your expectations as a younger shopper (e.g., younger Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z). So, you might have a more positive reaction to self-service than older people.

For me, I would use self-service sometimes and not others. It’s a tradeoff between speed and efficiency. For example, if I have a full cart of groceries at Publix, self-service would be a no-go because it would be a hassle. However, at McDonald’s, I would probably use the self-ordering screens to speed up the delivery of my heart-stopping meal. In both cases, my choice to use or not use self-service has to do with how easy it is for me.

These examples bring me to the most critical question every organization should ask: is the move to self-service going to make customers’ lives easier?

Motivations for Wanting Self Service Vary

Most organizations like self-service because it reduces their labor costs. Improvements to the Customer Experience are secondary to saving the company money. So, some self-service helps, and some hurts. These outcomes, both positive and negative, occur by chance because the customer is not at the center of that decision, overhead is.

Customers have their reasons for wanting self-service, too. My grocery store and McDonald’s scenarios with self-service cover efficiency. Other reasons could be that the interaction will be complex, or the decision process is still happening. For example, I belong to the Freedom Boat Club, which is a subscription service with access to a company’s fleet. When I need a boat, I can call and work with someone or go on the app and use self-service.

I always choose self-service. For efficiency? No. Quite the opposite.

There are times when I parse my options for the better part of an afternoon. I would feel mortified to put someone through my decision process of which boat to choose for what location and how I will use it, which involves trying lots of different options, comparing the outcomes, going back to the first one again, and so on. (Freedom Boat Club Customer Service reps, you’re welcome.)

Another example of my preferring self-service over customer service is when booking flights. For instance, I like to know what seats are available and where in the plane. I also look at the different planes that are flying the route. In business class, I only want an odd-row-numbered seat because the odd row are by the window. I would rather choose and peruse these details for myself than communicate them all to someone else.

However, in both of those examples, I am an expert on what I want (read: very, very picky). If you don’t know much about boats or planes or business class particulars, then talking to a person might be more helpful for you.

People want to feel like they’re in control. How much control they want will vary by segment, and it depends in part on how expert they are. Experts will find self-service empowering, whereas non-experts may find it worse or intimidating. Therefore, having different options will give you the opportunity for the best results.

Other motivations might drive people to self-service, too. For example, hating the conventional experience might cause people to skip human interaction. Car buying is a great example here. Many online car interactions have grown in popularity over the years.

Another example of a motivation toward self-service might be feeling stupid because you don’t know about something. Learning about it from a YouTube video feels less embarrassing than admitting you don’t know what you are doing to another person face-to-face or on the phone.

Why Do We (Not) Want Interactions?

A tremendous evolutionary psychology book called The Rational Animal suggests we all have fundamental human needs. However, those needs percolate through the layers of culture, socialization, and technology, which changes how those needs manifest.

Therefore, we still have a fundamental need to connect with other human beings, but what constitutes connection has changed. For example, young people see texting as a valuable way of communicating and consider texting as being social. Older people might not, and instead prefer talking on the phone or meeting face-to-face. So, both groups still need socialization. However, we want it in a way that feels comfortable to us, and what is considered comfortable changes over time.

Does that mean that we want to have small talk with a sales clerk? For some people, yes, but for others, no.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

There is an old movie, Field of Dreams, where a farmer in Iowa plows under acreage of his fields to build a baseball field based on the urging of a mysterious voice whispering, “If you build it, he will come.” Spoiler alert: He built it, and the “he” came (and bring a handkerchief because it’s a beautiful moment.)

But movies aren’t like real life. If you build self-service, your customers might not come unless you help them.

For example, in the old flying days, you used to check in at a desk beforehand after waiting in a long line. Then, self-service terminals emerged right next to the check-in line. I love technology, but I didn’t venture to the self-serve kiosks without help. Airline employees were combing the queue to convince us to try it. Once I did, I never waited in the check-in line again. Now, I don’t use the kiosks either; I check in on my phone.

Would I have ever tried it on my own? Probably. If I saw other people like me using it, I would have eventually.

My point is that they knew we passengers needed some help making the transition, and the airline invested in resources to train us. So, I recommend the same for you. When moving to self-service, invest in training your customers on how to move to that environment.

So, What Should You Do with This Information?

The critical advice is self-service is usually an opportunity for firms to cut costs, which is excellent. However, self-service can also be an opportunity to improve the customer experience. So, look for those opportunities. Am I serving a segment that would be open to this? Am I serving an expert segment that knows what they want and gets through the interaction without problems?

Also, are you serving segments where the common problems or hiccups are predictable and easy to articulate? In that case, things like an AI chatbot can be like a quasi-self-service instrument instead of something where you have to interact with another human being to get your answer. Using this can improve the customer experience if it is more straightforward, efficient, and less stressful for that segment.

However, it would be wise to train customers on self-service once you introduce it. Even though customers want it and like using it, they might avoid it if it’s new.

Self-service presents a real opportunity. Moreover, there are more ways to interact with customers and provide customers with an experience that offers a chance to meet people where they are. However, when implementing self-service in all of its various forms, ask yourself if you are doing it to improve the customer’s overall experience or imposing it to save the company money? Hint: the second one is not a great long-term strategy.

If you have a business problem that you would like some help with, contact me on LinkedIn or submit your pickle here. We would be glad to hear from you and help you with your challenges.

There you have it. No promotions, no gimmicks, just good information.

Think reading is for chumps? Try my podcast, The Intuitive Customer instead. We explore the many reasons why customers do what they do—and what you should do about it. Subscribe today right here.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


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