I was struck recently by a TV advertisement IBM has been running. A group of managers are sitting around a table facing some sixties songwriters asking them to write a song for them. When the songwriters ask why the managers reveal that when their customers call them they are faced with interminable waits and a barrage of requests to key in numbers. In the end the managers admit their customers hate them. The implication of the advertisement is simple these managers need IBM. There is of course another solution to this company's problem and that is a highly trained and motivated customer service group, which answers the phone. Why is this solution seen as so remote that the advertising agency feels you will see the inevitability of using more technology to solve this companies problem, is it simply because this is an IBM advertisement?
Actually I think some thing else is at work and to understand it I would like to take you to the supermarket. The basic process of purchasing some thing at the supermarket has changed little up until recently. A customer selects their purchases then waits in line to pay at a cash register. The cashier totals up the customer’s purchase takes the customer’s money and returns any change to the customer. Up until now the technology that has been introduced into this process has been focused on making the cashier more efficient. Scanners scan the customers selected purchases and total up the customer’s bill, cashiers enter into the cash register the amount of money the customer gives him and the cash register tells the casher the amount of money to give back in change. Both technologies the scanner and the calculating cash register help the cashier do his job with greater speed and accuracy.
Recently a new technology has been introduced which does neither of these things, the self-service lane. These self-service lanes consist of a touch screen a scanner, scale and an enclosed conveyer belt. The idea is that customer checks him self out. The benefit to the supermarket is that three such lanes can be attended to by one store employee as apposed to the one cashier required for a regular lane, a considerable cost savings in man power.
The problem is that the customer is now required to do the work of the cashier. Since ordinary customers are not cashiers the process of totaling up the cost of a purchase and paying for it has become less efficient. For example to buy a bunch of grapes the customer must navigate through three to four screens before the produce is weighed and can be added to the total. On the other hand a cashier would key in the code for grapes from memory weigh the grapes in half the time. Other inefficiencies are introduced by any item or process that does not confirm to the “norm”. The result is a much less satisfactory experience for the customer who now is required to fulfill the function of the cashier.
Basic economics would tell you that if customers did not like playing cashier then they would not patronize stores who use these new self-service lanes and stores would either be forced to remove the self-service lanes or lose customer. But this is not what happens. The economics of using self-service lanes are so attractive so all supermarkets are installing them and the customer will be left with no choice.
Both the earlier technology of the scanner and calculating cash register and the new technology of the self-service lane were implemented to reduce cost. There is one big difference between the two however. The first two technologies reduced costs by making the cashier more efficient, this does not change the relationship between the customer and the supermarket while it improves the efficiency of the cashier and thus improves the customers shopping experience by reducing check out times. The new self-serve lane saves costs by shifting work previously done by the cashier on to the customer and makes the process of checking out less efficient and thus degrades the customers shopping experience.
At least one delivery service, which has introduced a self-service web site, has both given the customer a choice and compensated them of their trouble. This company gives their customers the choice of either calling to place an order and paying one price or use their web site to place and order and paying a reduced price. I doubt my supermarket will charge me less for checking out my own groceries!
So what is the point of all of this? Since the advent of the ATM we have seen technology used to shift work usually done by the company on to the customer. The advent of the web means that every home with a computer and Internet connection has a potential ATM in it and thus the customer can be expected to do more and more. We have become so accustom to the idea of the self-service that we have convinced our selves that customers prefer it. The point is customers only want to service them selves when doing so is easer or faster then the vendor to do it for them. We use ATMs because the lines at the back are to long or the bank’s operating hours to short. If we believe people are working longer hours and have more pressure on them then ever before can we realy believe they want to take on add tasks such as checking them selves out at the market if it is not going to gain them any time?
While shifting responsibilities on to the customer reduces costs it also reduces the companies control over the customers experience, remember your customers are not your employees. This is how we end up like those managers in the IBM advertisement sitting around a table asking for a catchy song that will stop our customers from hating us, maybe if we play it in the background while they check them selves out?
Companies need to be very careful when adopting the “self-service” model and weight the cost savings against the possible backlash from costumers who have been asked to do too much.