The move for business to adopt more self-serve methods has been happening for a while. Gas stations, ATMs, check out counters… But I’m wondering if this is good customer service? If you define that service as getting what I want and having control over how fast I get it, then sure it’s providing you something. But does it add to your customer experience? Do you leave the store feeling like you were treated well and valued? It sounds more like a deliver system or assembly line than enhancing service?

A History of Self-Serve

Starting in Canada and the U.S. in the late 40s, gas station owners decided give their customers an option to pay less by getting the product themselves, removing the added cost of an employee doing it. That sounds reasonable, right? You get less service but you choose to pay less to get it.

The first Automated Teller Machine (ATM) as we know it, showed up in 1959 in Ohio. From a service perspective, offering an alternative to how you access your money or do other simple transactions, makes sense. It obviously removes the ability for the human bank teller to engage with customers or suggest services that might be of use to them, but it does give people what they want: quick cash.

But the new invention that really stood out to me was the inclusion of self-service checkout counters. You’ve probably seen them at Home Depot, Safeway or IKEA. It’s usually a bank of four to six stations where you scan your items’ bar codes, bag your items and pay by debit or credit. Oh, and there’s usually a staff member at a central station to help you with any confusion you may have. There’s usually a lot. Confusion, not staff.

What You’re Paying For

It’s been a while since these services have been introduced, so how are they doing now?

  1. Gas Stations – only seem to offer self-service (except in New Jersey and Oregon. It’s illegal) and I don’t think anyone would argue it’s cheaper. So businesses decided to provide less service for no benefit to the customer. And since it’s a product we seem to not be able to live with out, or rebel against, we let them.
  2. ATMs – have become just a part of life, except that a lot of the time, they have just as long of a line as the bank tellers. With the addition of online banking, customers have multiple avenues to engage with their money. Is the service better? I would say not better, but not worse. It’s just something we take for granted…but of course if that machine breaks…HELL TO PAY!
  3. Self-Serve Checkouts – these I don’t understand. They don’t add any value to the service experience. In fact, you’re actually just doing someone else’s job, who is five feet away from you. No benefit of saving money. No benefit of added convenience. At Home Depot, the cashiers will almost tackle you to choose them over the self-serve option. Why do these exist?

The Future of Self-Serve

There’s been a backlash around automated customer service, with many believe it takes away from the human part of the customer experience. However, that’s generally for services we get over the phone or online. Why are these face-to-face (or face-to-machine) exempt? Do we value convenience over service, or is convenience a form of good service? I know I enjoy checking into flights through the automated teller or online, which is a great way of saving time. And I think that’s it. Obvious value.  There’s nothing wrong with providing alternatives or less services, if there is an intrinsic value to the customer.

Now I need someone to explain automated checkouts again.

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