The other day, I was talking with my friend on Xbox live, and we got into the topic of grocery stores. I hate grocery stores. I hate walking in as people try to give me free samples, having employees try to sell me things, listening to their horrible background music, having random strangers ask me questions about the effectiveness of the tissues I’m buying — I even hate that incredibly awkward interaction at the end where you have to make conversation with an employee who, in at least 50% of cases, looks and acts like they don’t want to be there.
“The best thing that ever happened to grocery stores was the automated checkout. Now, I can just wear my headphones, walk through the store, pretend I can’t hear any of these people trying to talk to me, check out with the robot, and walk out without ever having to talk to a real person. And if I need help with anything, I can take out my headphones and ask someone,” I told him.
I like to imagine that my friend’s jaw dropped progressively farther and farther toward the floor as I talked. When he replied, he was incredulous:
“What in the world are you talking about?! You’re ridiculous! Grocery stores are, like, one of my favorite places in the world to go! I love talking to random people in the store!” (when he said this, in my head, I thought ‘Oh God, he’s one of the ones I hate the most!’) “I love getting the free samples! I love just wandering around and talking about the stuff they have! I love chatting it up with the employees! And I absolutely hate those self-checkout machines! You’re missing out on the best part of the experience! And those things never work how they’re supposed to half the time! You’re crazy, man! I can’t believe you actually want to avoid all the good stuff and focus on that garbage that’s ruining our society!” (OK, maybe I embellished his last few sentences a bit, but that’s the impression I was getting).
And then we continued battling aliens and moved on to other topics, but this conversation stuck in my head for a reason — it was a reminder that there are two very different types of customers in the world (and a wealth of variation in between). This isn’t just my pet theory — the research into customer retention bears this out.
Learning to Love Technology-Based Self-Service
The example I presented above contains two opposite poles on a complex spectrum of reactions, but the research has found that this isn’t as far from reality as we might think.
A longitudinal study that looked at the long-term effects of self-service technology reposts that if you try to go full throttle on the self-service technology at the expensive of human interaction, your strategy is doomed to fail—but, by the same token, if you ignore self-service technology completely, you’re also doomed to fail.
And no business can afford to ignore self-service technology (or just complete automation). For many businesses, like manufacturers or distributors, automation is just something that reduces business costs, makes headlines, and becomes a talking point for politicians, but it’s also something that’s absolutely unavoidable — you can’t compete in those sectors if you don’t automate.
But the same is becoming true in other industries — take customer service. The robots are coming, they’re probably on their way faster than we thought, and customers are increasingly coming to expect some level of automation because, in many cases, it improves the customer experience (when handled correctly).
While there is some difference between “self-service” technologies and full automation, from the customer’s perspective, there’s often little difference. It’s going to be a while before my beloved self-checkout stands in Walmart are going to have little robot arms with which to bag my groceries, and it’s going to be a while before the self-driving Uber vehicles are able to open and shut my door, light my cigarette, and help me carry my bags up to my hotel room.
If you are selling to consumers in any way, shape, or form, you’re going to have to bring on this technology at some point, and not because your customers have come to expect it, but because you’re going to find it pretty hard to survive without it. The guy who can drop $200,000 on a fleet of automated self-service kiosks is going to save an extraordinary amount of money in the long run on operating costs because of the massive drop in his staffing costs.
But he’s still got to keep a person or two around to keep customers happy…
Robot Overlords and Humans Must Work Together
To dive a bit more into that longitudinal study I shared above, one of the key findings was that the effect of self-service technology gained and lost effectiveness in a U-shaped pattern:
“…the ratio of self-service to personal service used affects customer defection in a U-shaped manner, with intermediate levels of both self-service and personal service use being associated with the lowest likelihood of defection.”
In non-scientist language, that means too much automation is just as bad as too little, that some level of human interaction is necessary to balance the automation, and, some level of automation is necessary to balance the pesky humans.
In my little story at the beginning of the article, I hinted that, at least when it comes to grocery stores, I’m a misanthropic human hater who only wants to deal with our soon-to-be robotic overlords, but the truth is, I need a human to help me from time to time.
Too much automation is a bad thing until it can be perfected, and perfection is probably several hundred years down the road, so, for the moment at least, we need the humans.
Even in grocery stores.
Because the truth is, when I can’t find that brand of spaghetti sauce that my wife told me to get that I can’t remember the name of for the life of me, but I’m pretty sure has a B in the name somewhere, and is it Brego? No that can’t be right…
What do I do?
I ask a human being of course. And they say “Uhhh… you either want Prego or Barilla.”
And I smile. And I say “That’s it! Barilla. Thank you so much!” And suddenly, I’ve just had a nice little customer service interaction that’s going to endear me to the brand and keep me coming back — and I certainly couldn’t count on that stupid self-checkout machine that I love so much to tell me literally anything about the type of spaghetti sauce that my wife wants me to buy for dinner.
I suspect that the majority of people, when you really start to dig, will tell you that they like a mix of human interaction and automation, and I also suspect that the majority of people will have a better customer service experience (and will be more likely to stick with the brand) if the experience you provide leans toward the human side of things.
Another study on human-computer interaction found that “…consumers perceived higher levels of reliability, assurance, and empathy from human agents compared to SSTs, but did not perceive a significant difference in responsiveness.” And another study found the same to be true in the luxury hotel industry. And another study found the same thing… starting to get the picture?
This has everything to do with customer retention. In an age where Uber drivers are engaging increasingly worrisome behavior and Airbnb hosts are openly racist, the more automation a business can employ, the higher the level of human professionalism it can offer. In ways you haven’t even imagined, in ways none of us have even imagined, self-service technology and automation is going to improve the customer’s experience by allowing us to hire the best human beings for the most important customer-facing roles, and by letting us combine the two intelligently to provide the optimal customer experience that each customer expects.
But, for some people, there needs to be a human being around to rescue them (or just handle their interaction entirely). If you told my wife or my aging parents that there would no longer be a human being at McDonalds to help them in any way, that the entire process, from ordering their food to getting it cooked to having it handed to them in little greasy paper bags, that the entire process was automated, they’d probably never go back to Mickey D’s again.
The Unmanned Gas Pump
I’ll leave you with this. There used to be an unmanned gas pump in the city I work in. I thought it was great — you pull up, get your gas, and take off.
Then, one day, it wasn’t dispensing gas. I swiped my card three times, but no dice, so I drove away. Then, I looked at my bank account, and I saw that I had about 1 dollar in my account. That’s a problem.
Turns out that pump charged me each time I swiped my card. I called their customer service department, and they said the pump auto-charges you something like $80 each time you swipe.
If there had just been a human being around to tell me that the pump wasn’t working, or who could take my card inside, or even just put a damn sign on the pump saying it’s broken, I wouldn’t have lost basically all my money and had to eat ramen noodles for a week.
Guess how many times I went back to that gas station?
If you guessed more than zero, you’re wrong.
Self-service, for a while, kept me on as a customer at The Unmanned Gas Pump, but the second it failed and there wasn’t a human nearby to help, I stopped being a customer.
The Unmanned Gas Pump isn’t around anymore.
But the Manned Gas Pump still very much has the ability for you to swipe at the pump and drive off without ever dealing with a human.
And they retain their customers, I think, because of their combination of self-service technology and humanity.
I’d suggest you do the same.