Customer Service – The Rise of the Machines

What links a celebrity shoplifting incident, the UK’s biggest retailer Tesco and a Channel 4 program called “On Hold”? The answer is automatic customer service (hopefully you weren’t thinking this was a review of the latest Michael Bay movie). In the UK this week customer service and customer experience has just become a hot topic.

First of all a celebrity TV chef Anthony Worral Thompson was arrested for stealing from Tesco while using a self-service check out till. The following day this was followed by a Tesco announcing their poorest trading figures in 30 years and blaming, among other things, poor customer service for their woes. This confluence of customer service related debate was brought to a close with the screening of the documentary  “On Hold” Channel4 Monday 15th Jan 2012 which investigated the rise of automated customer services in the UK and questioned whether they provide any customer benefits?

The Worral Thompson incident initiated the debate on the growing use of self-service checkouts in UK shopping while the Channel 4 program torpedoed claims about the “convenience” of self-service within supermarkets. In the program four tests were carried out on supermarket self-service tills and in every case the shopper who checked out with a human finished in half the time. For anyone who’s ever used supermarket self-checkout and experienced the “unexpected item in the bagging area” effect, this is hardly surprising.

With self-service tills, supermarkets have outsourced some of their work to their customers creating a significant cost reduction however for businesses the down side to automation can be significant.

Is it surprising that Tesco is having problems with customer service when increasingly the face of their organisation is a pre-recorded voice and a camera suspiciously trained on their customer’s every move? Would Tesco not prefer the face of their organisation to be a local employee who’s able to recommend other items they’ve personally used and let their customer know if you’ve missed out on a special offer?

Another issue is generational. Many older, less tech savvy customers are uncomfortable using self-service. Automated self-service treats every customer as identical ignoring some very basic marketing rules and thus poorly designed customer service automation runs the risk of alienating some of your customers.

It’s clear that many companies are deploying automation from an inside, cost benefit, perspective without considering what impact this has on the end customer experience. Coming from a BPM and Case management background  I am of a firm belief that automation has an important role to play in customer service not only for reducing service delivery costs but to deliver better customer service as well. For example I quite like not having  to speak to a CSR to get my bank balance (considering the state of my account it’s best to do this anonymously) or to purchase goods and services without pressure from a sales assistant.  In addition automation can help businesses reduce manual errors and speed up the processing of for example claims, invoices and service requests.

It seems obvious to state it but businesses need to consider customer service automation from the outside customer perspective. In the case of supermarket self-service this has obviously not been the case as it delivers little of no benefit to the customer (apart from my kids who love the opportunity to play shop with real food and money). Businesses need to consider the needs of all their users and not simply tech savvy younger customers. Older customers have more time on their hands than younger customers, view shopping as more of a leisure activity and have an expectation of personal service. It’s basic marketing not to treat all customers identically. Finally where customer service automation occurs businesses have to make it easier for customers to break out of the self-service loop and speak directly to an employee.

The Tesco Virtual Supermarket - "My mum isn't gonna fancy shopping here!"

1 thought on “Customer Service – The Rise of the Machines

  1. Brilliant, we need these here in Australia, but then again yes, it takes away from the personal touch and “going shopping” where you touch, feel, impulse buy!.

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