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Is self-service still a race to the bottom?

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Paul Scott | Global Consulting Executive

Paul Scott | Global Consulting Executive

In a recent article in The Economist, Schumpeter describes self-service as a ‘race to the bottom’, as organisations find new and more inventive ways to make customers do the work for them. Now, there are self-service checkouts in supermarkets, self-service pumps in petrol stations, FAQ’s and community groups on company websites, self-service telephone lines for mobile phones, online check-in facilities for airlines, and even social media channels internet service providers. To actually talk to someone about a customer service issue, you have to be determined, desperate, or both! Providers say these channels exist because customers prefer to use them – but do they?

The American store Piggly Wiggly® was the first retailer to put customers in charge of serving themselves, in 1916. By 1932, its nascent supermarket model had grown to over 2,600 stores in the US. Today, it has less than 600. It’s the classic story of an early adopter who failed to keep up with customer preferences and was overtaken by the likes of Walmart and CostCo.

Of course, if you do want personal service you can have it. Many low-cost airlines will happily provide more tailored offerings, but at a price. Goods bought in plush department stores inevitably cost more because they offer a degree of personal attention from their shop assistants or personal shoppers.

It’s created a two-tier economy: those prepared to pay extra to receive service, and those that are herded together with instructions to help themselves. Of course we often choose self-service, but not always. More often than not it’s about competitive price pressures and an unwillingness to differentiate on service.

In the digital age it’s quite possible for businesses to never meet their customers, and this too has its consequences. The collection of online customer data goes some way to understanding their needs and wants based on behaviour, but there’s no substitute for either verbal or face-to-face communication.

As one online retailer recently explained, ‘we get context when customers contact our call centre for help, it gives us a 3D understanding’.

I recently had cause to complain to Uber, the online taxi firm, for three instances of poor service. No phone number was offered and although I’ve received a series of template emails, I still don’t feel that I’ve been heard. What has otherwise been a flawless customer experience on three continents has been ruined, and here I am writing about it on my blog.

Companies have to realise that there is no substitute for customer intimacy, and that means talking to customers and meeting them. Customer service in the digital age still needs to include voice-based customer service. So, although customers are increasingly choosing self-service, as we’ve seen in this years Global Contact Centre Benchmarking Report, its vital that organisations don’t lose the human touch. Only then can they ensure that there will be some appreciation of the value of self-service.

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