A metaphor too far: self-service, supermarkets and staisfaction

By Chris Bucholtz

Customer self-service is frequently cited as a key to driving down support costs – and for good reason. For certain applications, it can divert significant traffic away from interaction with your staff – especially those ordinary informational inquiries that typically comprise 80 percent of calls to service.

The problem with ideas like self-service is that they are invariably carried to fat and applied to customer-facing situations that aren’t really appropriate. Just as interactive voice response (IVR) systems have been over-used and now are synonymous with customer frustration, self-service has been taken too far as well.

The most visible manifestation of this is the supermarket self-service checkout line. While in the UK last week, I chanced upon a survey by the British market researchers Him! that revealed that more than two-thirds of customers intensely disliked self-service checkout at supermarkets. (Another survey found that 30 percent of shoppers admitted to shoplifting via the self-service lanes thanks to the confusion and technological shortcomings of self-service.) Despite this, an entirely self-service supermarket recently opened in Kingsley, Northampton, which supermarket chain Tesco says can be staffed by a single employee.

And why wouldn’t customers dislike self-service checkout? The process of getting out of the store takes longer for a customer, who may scan groceries a few times a month, than for a checkout clerk, who does it repeatedly over the course of a day’s work.

Not only does this run counter the customers’ desires – and create a shoplifter’s paradise – it also limits the customer’s exposure to the people who are really the supermarket’s brand ambassadors. At my local supermarket I actually know the people working there, and they know me; the last thing I wish to do is to avoid them and scuttle off to the self-service aisle.

The explanation that supermarkets often give for self-service checkout is that the savings in employee salaries can then be passed on to customers in the form of price savings. However, I’ve never actually seen that, nor have I seen a grocery chain articulate what that means for customers. However, I have no doubt that shareholders are informed of the impact of self-service on profit margins at their annual meetings.

That’s one example of how self-service is used inappropriately – but there are plenty of instances where customers are more than happy to help themselves. Those instances cannot come in situations where the expertise of an employee makes the experience better, or at a touch point that allows your brand and the customer to have a good face-to-face interaction. Keep self-service where it belongs and you should avoid ending up on the wrong end of a British market research poll.

One thought on “A metaphor too far: self-service, supermarkets and staisfaction

  1. Here! Here! I agree. I am all about self help, but I do not go to a store for it. I prefer good old customer service. That shrill drone voice used in the self check out drives me up a wall. No smile. No interaction. It is like working with a dead fish.

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