How To Assist Customers With Self-Service Kiosks

Note: This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared in 2014.

It's weird to see an employee standing by a self-service kiosk.

These kiosks are, by design, intended to be self-service. They're supposed to be cheaper than the humans they replace when it comes to handling basic transactions. 

(Side note: Check out this recent blog post on who is better at service, Employees or Robots?)

The reality is customers often need extra help, especially if they are a first-time user or use the kiosk infrequently. 

You see this at the airport where a mass of infrequent travelers are trying to check-in for their flights. It happens at the post office, where a postal worker is available during busy periods to help people figure out how to buy their postage from the machine. You also see it at the grocery store where there's usually one employee stationed in between a bank of four self-serve check-out lanes.

Unfortunately, the employees assigned to help customers use kiosks are rarely given any training on how to do this.

There really is an art to it. Do it wrong and you'll annoy your customers and actually slow things down. Do it right and you've convinced another person to join the self-service revolution.

Here are three steps employees should follow:

Step 1: Ask

The first step is to ask customers if they’d like assistance. Never assume they need or want your help.

It can be seen as an annoying intrusion if you just start offering assistance. Many times, your customers already know how to use the kiosk. Or, they'd really prefer to figure things out on their own.

You can even make it sound like an invitation.

When the Portland International Airport installed kiosks outside their parking garage to allow customers to pay for their parking, employees were stationed by the kiosks to help out. They invited customers to save some time by paying for their parking right there.

This embedded a clear customer benefit inside their offer of assistance.


Step 2: Guide

Avoid pushing buttons.

If a customer would like some help, guide them through the transaction using verbal directions and pointing to the appropriate buttons. This approach incorporates a basic tell, show, do learning approach into a mini-training lesson on how to use the equipment.

  • Tell: give the customer verbal instructions
  • Show: point to the correct button on the kiosk or visually describe it's location
  • Do: have the customer complete the transaction themselves

Two bad things can happen when employees operate the kiosk for the customer.

The first bad thing is it can be rude. I've experienced this several times where an aggressive employee just cuts in front of me and starts pushing buttons faster than I can even read the screen.

The second bad thing is operating the kiosk for the customer prevents the customer from learning how to use it. That means they'll likely need help again the next time around.


Step 3: Encourage

The final step is to encourage the customer. Making sure they have a pleasant self-service experience is key to getting them to do it again.

This can mean the difference between self-service kiosks taking off or being neglected. My local post office provides a great example.

During busy times, a postal employee is stationed in front of their self-service kiosk. He or she invites people over to try the machine, but this same employee frequently sabotages the process. The employee takes over each customer's transaction, shooting out rapid-fire questions and pushing buttons before the customer really understands what's going on.

Confusion and anxiety are apparent on most customers' faces. The self-service kiosk isn't a pleasant experience for them. 

Meanwhile, the employee adopts an aggressive attitude. It's clear their top priority is to process each transaction as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, their lack of encouragement actually slows things down.

This spills over to slower times. There is almost never someone using the kiosk when I go to the post office. People would rather wait in line because it's less stressful.

Meanwhile, I cruise over to the kiosk and complete my transaction in less than a minute. With nobody there to push my buttons, using the kiosk is a breeze.