Customer Service


When Self-Service Goes Horribly Wrong

McDonald’s used to have a hamburger called the “McDLT.” The peculiar selling point of this burger was that it was served in a two-compartment Styrofoam container that “kept the warm side warm and the cool side cool.” The diner would then put the two halves together.

I was blissfully unaware that warm tomatoes and lettuce were causing a crisis in the hamburger world. I can remember venting to friends: “Hey, look! They’ve figured out a way to charge you more for the honor of putting together your own hamburger!”

That’s still the way I see a lot of customer self-service efforts. All too often, they aren’t conceived with the customer in mind — they’re done not as a cheesy gimmick, as in the McDLT, but as a way of cutting the cost of customer service.

Who’s Helping Whom?

Customer service continues to gain in importance — not just among customers, but with businesses. The realization that customer retention is at least as important as customer acquisition was spurred by the economy, and that’s helped investment in the area of service.

There’s a grain of veracity to the idea behind customer self-service: For many normal, ordinary things, customers do indeed prefer to help themselves. Applying for a loyalty program, changing an address, looking up basic questions, finding addresses of outlets — all of these can certainly be handled by the customers themselves, and the experience is better than if they’d had to talk to a representative.

Once that concept was established, far too many managers of service operations grabbed the wrong end of the stick and started beating around the bush with it (to paraphrase Eric Idle). Instead of focusing on how customer self-service helped the experience for the customer, they focused on how it helps their bottom line. If the customers take care of service on their own, you can reduce costs internally.

Instead of seeing the cost savings as a handy by-product of creating a better customer experience, the pendulum swung too far. Too many service organizations started viewing customer self-service as a means to offload service tasks from their service employees (and then remove those employees from the payroll). The simple mathematics of cost-cutting was allowed to trump the more complicated real-world calculation of creating customer experiences.

Rise of the Poorly Designed Machines

This misplaced idea was thrust rudely into my face last week at the local grocery store. My wife and I had a small pile of groceries, and the store had two crowded checkout stands, so against my fervent warnings, she went to the self-checkout area. There were four empty self-checkout stations, with a bored-looking clerk standing lookout over them.

We started the checkout process with no problems — my wife scanned the groceries and I tried to bag them. At some point I lifted the bag off the stand to fit something into it — and the terminal told us to wait for the attendant. See, the bagging area was also a scale, and apparently in an attempt to foil shoplifting would sound a warning and stop the check-out process if the scanned groceries were lifted off the scale’s surface. The clerk came over, pushed a button and stalked back to her podium — and came back twice more for the same problem before my wife gave up and walked out, leaving the groceries behind.

This effort at customer self-service used an interface more complex than what the actual checkers used, failed to explain its process to users, and pushed work (bagging groceries) back onto the customer. It also resulted in the translation of an online metaphor (the abandoned cart) into the real world.

Furthermore, it eliminated an opportunity for the store’s employees to build friendly face-to-face relationships with the customers. Indeed, by reducing the checker to the equivalent of a bored, surly IT guy, the system sets the employees up to sabotage those relationships.

What Is This Doing Here?

I later spoke to a checker at the store about the system. She complained that it rarely worked properly, often required employee intervention, and made no one happy — not customers, not managers, not checkers.

All of this raises the question: Why is it still there? Well, probably because someone far removed from the customer experience insists that it should save money. In reality, it costs customers.

Any consideration of moving a service process into the self-service category should be based on how it impacts the customer experience, not on how happy it makes your CFO. Service should not be geared toward minimizing costs — and service should no longer be viewed as a cost center. That needs to apply to self-service efforts as well. If the driving force is cost-cutting, you’ll also cut a chunk out of your loyal customer base, and if you do that math, the cost of that is far greater than the cost of doing service right.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at Forecasting Clouds. He has been a technology journalist for 15 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he’s not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he’s wearing his airplane geek hat; he’s written two books on World War II aviation, and his next two are slated for publication in 2010.

1 Comment

  • The author speaks to a truth all too well known to most if not all consumers; Service is king. And the best weapon when dealing with these types of gaffes is to be a well informed consumer. Like the author, I too have experienced frustration at the grocery store automated check out stand. However, when you learn how it works then it does make the experience better. You don’t use it when you have more items than the bagging area can comfortably accomodate. In that case use the regular checker. Nothing worse than standing in line behind someone who doesn’t know how to use the technology!

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

CRM Buyer Channels