Wednesday, 20 April 2005

Service or self-service?

I must admit to having a slight fascination with the human-computer interaction perspective of how technology is used to serve customers in supermarkets. A visit to the United Kingdom in the middle of last year gave me a chance to see how supermarkets there were experimenting with different variations of self-service checkouts. During that time a number of large chains were piloting different systems and I saw first hand how a couple of different approaches were being used by Waitrose and Sainsburys.

I asked the assistant at Sainsburys about who was using them and she commented that she had been surprised as people of all different ages were choosing to use them. This Gartner article gives some insights into why:

"Retailers generally assume self-service checkouts will be used by shoppers with few purchases, to get through the checkout quickly. In fact, this option was most popular with older people and adults with children, no matter how much they were buying. Parents thought it would be easier and faster, and some even remarked that their children could do the scanning, speeding up the checkout even further. Conversely, many older people actually want the process of shopping and checkout to be slower. They like the idea scanning goods and packing them at their own pace, rather than having to keep up with a checkout assistant."

More recently Megan Santosus has written a couple of challenging articles (Life In The Not-So-Fast Lane and The Price of Nice) in CIO magazine where she questions the value of self-service to customers. A worthwhile discussion as it highlights what I think is an important distinction between automation and empowering customers – have a look at my own short article, Empower customers with self-service, not automation (PDF, 77KB) where I suggest the following points to consider when introducing a self-service system:

  • Look for bottle necks in the way you currently serve customers and aim to automate a task or process that already needs to be done;
  • Keep in mind that empowering customers with a self-service system is quite different from automating a standardised process to reduce costs; and
  • Try to identify how a customer will really benefit from this approach – can you answer the “what’s in it for me" question from their perspective?
BTW The myth of self-service applies equally within organisations, for example access to information can empower but form filling by knowledge workers can end up just being an unproductive distraction.

1 comment:

  1. James,

    That quote from the Gartner article brings up an interesting point. You can't always rely on automating things with clients to reduce the resources required by that business process.

    In the case of self-scanning, the queues may actually get longer during those peak times (e.g. pension payday) when many older people are scanning their own products. The required response may be to have more staff on at those times to handle other customers.

    Automation that gives customers more control will probably win you more customers at the end of the day - after all, everyone likes to have their needs respected - but it won't necessarily save you money or resources.

    Thanks for posting these links, there is some interesting reading there.


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