Self-Service And The Digital Economy: What’s The Right Way?

Danielle Beurteaux

Self-service customer service has been on the increase for a while. It’s cost-effective, efficient, 273501_l_srgb_s_gland a joy to use—so intuitive and easy.

In theory, at least. But is it making our lives hell? (Apologies for the hyperbole).

Okay, there continue to be growing pains. The digital economy is here to help, making it easier for self-service to create an experience that’s better than the in-person equivalent. It’s not about simply replicating the same experience, but creating an experience that’s above concierge level.

Research included in the book The Effortless Experience found that the majority of customers are just as loyal whether their customer service needs are simply met as they are if their needs are exceeded. In effect, there’s no reason to expend effort and resources to go above and beyond. Just enough will do nicely, thank you. Not every company can be—or should be—the Ritz-Carlton.

Don’t confuse self-service with self-support

“Self-service optimizes what’s supposed to happen; self-support deals with what’s not supposed to happen,” writes Michael Schrage on HBR.org. Too many companies confuse the two, and that’s where problems begin. You check in at an airport on your smartphone and go straight to security—life is good. Maybe you give props to the airline. You’re trying to check out your shopping cart at a grocery store but all you’re getting is an error message, and no way to fix the situation—your frustration quickly escalates to seething rage at the store, and a potentially good experience turns into a bad Yelp review. According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, self-service check-outs didn’t work 30% of the time, which was exacerbated by the 22% of instances when there were no staff members on hand to help.

The digital economy allows for next-level personalization

Personalization is now easier than ever, and companies are starting to make use of it to win over customers.

Hotel chain Hilton Hotels & Resorts surveyed some of its customers and discovered that lack of personalization was a big complaint. So now the hotel allows customers to do things like select their own rooms. The technology that the chain was using internally has now been pivoted to be available for travelers. Not that this was simple or inexpensive—it cost the company $550 million, just to start—which is likely an indication why this level of personalization is going to take a while to become common.

And technology, including IoT, will allow for preemptive service and predictive assistance, according to a Forrester Research trend report.

But eventually, customers be able to bypass the reception desk completely. (Or interact with a robotic dinosaur, although you’ll still be checking in by using a kiosk).

Large corporations like McDonald’s are seeing the value of customization in another way—making self-service kiosks available where customers can create their own sandwiches. In these situations, research has shown that the final total is markedly larger than if the order had been placed at the counter.

Hybrid model

According to a survey by aviation industry service provider SITA, 49% of travelers still check in at a service desk, 23% on a computer, 12% use a kiosk, and only 8% on a smartphone. The company predicts those numbers will even out by 2018, with 20% still heading to the desk, 20% using their smartphone, 20% their computer, and 17% will use a kiosk.

What we’ll likely have for the foreseeable future is a hybrid model—a mix of technology and human help.

Consumers tend to value an interaction when they can see the work that goes into it. Technology isn’t good at that—it’s not flexible and adaptive (not yet, anyway). Which is why we’ll still have bank tellers counting out your bills and uniformed staff at airports helping you figure out what to do with your luggage.

To learn more on the Digital Economy, check out our latest research.


Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.