Is Automation Good or Bad for Customer Experience?

The discussion about automation often focuses on jobs.

A 2019 study by Indeed showed 60 percent of Americans think automation will put a significant number of jobs at risk. This certainly includes customer service jobs. You see machines replacing humans in parking garages, at supermarkets, and in customer service departments.

But is automation making customer experience any better? I recently took a trip to Seattle to find out.

Seattle is home to two of the largest companies driving automated customer service: Amazon and Starbucks. The travel industry is also increasingly automated, giving me more opportunities to experience automation through the eyes of a customer.

The hope is my conclusions are illuminating for both companies and employees.

A robot delivering a package to a customer.

Automation is already here

The transition to automation has been happening for a long time. 

Air travel is a great example. I bought my plane ticket to Seattle on the Alaska Airlines website, checked in for my flight via the airline's app, and used the app to pull up my boarding pass when I got to the airport. 

The TSA agent at airport security was the first human I interacted with on my journey. This is nothing new. It's been possible for more than 10 years:

When I arrived in Seattle, I bought my fare for the light rail from a kiosk. You had to buy individual subway tokens from a cashier when I lived in Boston in the mid-90s, but those days are long gone.

However, I did notice one helpful employee assisting another passenger.

A light rail employee helping a passenger pay for their fare.

You pass through the parking garage on the way from the terminal to the light rail station, where there are several kiosks where you can pay for parking. These kiosks were widely used by the mid-2000s.

A self-service kiosk in a parking garage.

In fact, there's a good chance you regularly use automation that has replaced a human customer service employee at some point in history.

  • Withdrawing cash from a bank

  • Making dinner reservations

  • Renting a movie

  • Buying gas

  • Paying bills

So automation isn’t new. It’s evolving.

Automation can remove friction

Waiting in line is one of the worst parts of the customer journey.

Airlines have already solved much of this (see above). My journey to Seattle gave me several opportunities to see how other companies are eliminating the line.

I checked in to the downtown Courtyard hotel via Marriott's Bonvoy app when I landed in Seattle. When I arrived at the hotel, I by-passed the front desk and used the app once again to access my mobile key. (Full disclosure: my wife works for Marriott.)

Screenshot of mobile room key on Marriott Bonvoy app.

It was a strange experience. 

On one hand, it was convenient to go straight to my room without waiting in line at the front desk. On the other hand, I somehow felt less welcome by skipping the check-in patter you typically get from the front desk associate.

The hotel's elevator had a security feature that doesn't allow you to select a floor until you insert a room key. Of course, I had no key since I was using the app, so there was a small moment of worry.

Elevator activated by guest key card.

Fortunately, the security feature was disabled and the elevator worked without a key.

I got to my room, dropped my bag, and headed back out. The afternoon fatigue was getting to me, so I decided to go to Starbucks.

Lines can also be a problem at Starbucks. Based on my own experiments, the percentage of customers who enter the store, see the line, and turn right back around increases dramatically once the line reaches eight people.

You can prevent this problem by ordering ahead via the Starbucks app. 

Screenshot of the Starbucks app.

The barista was setting my drink on the counter just as I walked in the door. There were four people in line, so I saved a little time by ordering ahead. 

The experience was convenient, but it was also disconnected from the Starbucks mission: "To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time." 

Nothing inspired or nurtured my human spirit. Two baristas were standing and talking by the counter when I picked up the drink. I looked at them and smiled, ready to exchange a pleasant greeting, but neither even looked my way.

The next stop was Amazon's cashierless market, Amazon Go. 

You enter the store by using the Amazon Go app to open an automated gate. I had downloaded app before my trip and was greeted with a helpful tutorial that showed me how the store worked.

Screenshot of Amazon Go tutorial.

My favorite part of the tutorial was the final screen. Amazon perfectly anticipated the feeling I would get when I had finished shopping and was ready to leave the store without stopping to pay for anything.

Screenshot of final Amazon Go tutorial screen.

Shopping was amazingly easy.

The app automatically tracks the items you remove from the shelf as you shop. It's also smart enough to identify when you put an unwanted item back. There are no cashiers—you just walk out of the store with your purchases once you're done.

Prices were also significantly cheaper than similar items at nearby convenience stores. Making the experience easier at a lower price is Amazon's specialty, and competitors should be worried.

Employees were the one thing missing from the experience. 

I didn't notice any employees when I first entered the store. After a moment, I spotted a couple of employees stocking shelves and talking to each other. Neither said anything to me.

Then I noticed another employee as I walked out. He was standing by the automated gate, I suppose to help people who were trying to figure out how to get in.

He gave me a curt nod as I walked out.

Automation is sure to continue replacing cashiers. It speeds up the process and makes the experience more convenient for customers. One study by QSR found that using kiosks to take orders in fast food restaurants increased the average check by 15 to 30 percent over human cashiers.

I also think cashiers can find more ways to add human value to their jobs.

A CVS near my home stood out in a comparison versus Walgreens and Right Aid in part because of a friendly, helpful cashier. He greeted customers on the way in, and took time to make each purchase a little more than a transaction.

The cashier at my local True Value will get a colleague to swap out my bbq propane tank while she's ringing me up, so I don't have to wait for it once I've completed my purchase.

Automation augments the customer experience

Years ago, I had a client in downtown Los Angeles. I took the train from San Diego to LA's Union Station, and then caught a cab to get to my client.

The trouble would start at the end of the day when I wanted to get back to the train station.

I had to call the cab company at least 30 minutes before I needed a cab to actually arrive. The driver frequently got lost, which led to awkward calls to the cab dispatcher. Once we got to the train station, it would always take a few minutes to settle the bill via my company credit card. 

In Seattle, I used Lyft to go from my hotel to the University Village shopping center. Another Lyft quickly got me back downtown. It was a far superior experience than taking a taxi.

Here are just some of the friction points that Lyft removes:

  • Finding a ride (or scheduling one)

  • Getting a ride quickly

  • Letting me know exactly where the driver is

  • Calculating the fare ahead of time

  • Paying for the ride

Screenshot of the Lyft app.

It's still up to a human to deliver great service and drive you to your destination once you're in the car. Lyft drivers are almost always friendly and interesting to talk to, which makes the trip go faster.

Of course, Lyft is hard at work to replace drivers with autonomous vehicles. This means ride hailing will be fully automated in the near future.

Back at my hotel, I decided I wanted to request a late check out for the following day. There was no obvious place to do this on the app, so a live human would be needed. I decided to skip the messaging feature in the app and go to the front desk.

I have a LinkedIn Learning course on how to get great customer service. One secret I can tell you is a special request is more likely to be granted in person than via messaging. My late checkout request was quickly granted.

There are many instances like this where automation and humans work together to create a better overall experience.

The thermostat at The Overlook, a vacation rental cabin my wife and I own, recently emailed me about a possible issue the day before guests were checking in. The message was part of Ecobee's automated monitoring system:

"There may be a problem with the Furnace. For the past 2 hours the thermostat has been calling for heat, but the room temperature has decreased by 3.0F."

The problem turned out to be a bad furnace motor. A new one would take a week to arrive, so our property manager provided our guests with extra space heaters to keep them warm during their stay.

Automation identified the issue, but it took people to fix it.


Back to the question at hand: Is automation go or bad for customer experience?

The answer is automation is generally good. There are many instances where automation markedly improves the customer experience by removing friction and making it more efficient. 

Yet automation is not a total solution. 

During nearly every part of my trip to Seattle, a human made the experience better, or would have made one better if a person had been available. Studies show that customers prefer to have a human readily available when using self-service, even if they choose not to contact the human for help.

There's insight here, too, for customer service employees worried about losing their jobs. Jobs that are repetitive, routine, and monotonous are likely to be automated sooner than later. This includes cashiers, drivers, and clerks.

The secret is finding a way to bring something uniquely human to what you do.

I stopped by the world famous Pike Place Fish Company while I was in Seattle. It's not just a market, it's an experience that's powered by employees who go out of their way to connect with the people they serve.

Employees engaging customers at the Pike Place Fish Co.

Take a moment to think about your own job. How can you bring something uniquely you to the way you serve customers?

Companies Are Fixing the Worst Part of the Customer Experience

Walk into a grocery store early on a Friday evening and you'll encounter chaos.

There are lines several people deep for each checkout lane. People waiting in line spill into the aisles, making it difficult to navigate around the store. The trip seems to take forever just to pick up a few items for dinner that night.

Checking out or checking in is often the worse part of the customer experience.

We wait to pay for our groceries, purchases at a retail store, or our bill at a restaurant. There's a line to check in for a flight, check in to a hotel, or buy a subway ticket.

All those lines and waiting feel miserable. The good news is companies are making huge strides to fix this terrible experience.

The bad news? Customer service professionals need to adapt.

A hotel guest checking in.

Solving The Worst Part of Customer Experience

I'm anxious to try Amazon's new grocery store.

If you've not yet heard of it, the store is called Amazon Go. There's just one right now, located in Seattle, though more are expected soon. What makes it special is you walk in, select your items, and walk right out without ever standing in line for a cashier.

This short video provides a tantalizing preview.

Grocery shopping isn't the only place where the checkout is being eliminated or greatly improved. OpenTable is slowly rolling out its payments feature which allows you to make a restaurant reservation and then view and pay your check right from your smart phone. Imagine enjoying a great meal with friendly service and then leaving without having to wait for the check!

One of the major benefits of rideshare services like Lyft and Uber is the app-based checkout. As a frequent business traveler, one of the worst parts of a taxi ride is the time it takes to pay for the ride once you reach your destination. I used Lyft on a recent business trip and enjoyed the convenience of hopping out of the car as soon as we arrived. I could open the app on my phone and leave my driver a tip as I walked into the building I was visiting.

The opposite side of the coin, checking in, is also improving.

Airlines have allowed app-based check-ins for years. Now some airlines like Delta are eliminating the check-in process entirely and automatically generating boarding passes for confirmed passengers using the app. 

Hotels are slowly rolling out this feature as well. This is especially handy when you check in to a busy hotel for a conference and you can skip a check-in line that can take 20 minutes or longer.

Movie theaters get this right too. Most theaters in my area have automated kiosks that allow you to buy tickets or you can buy your tickets ahead of time via an app so you can skip the long box office line.

Even mass transit systems are getting in on the game and starting to allow passengers to buy tickets via an app rather than wait in line at a kiosk or a ticket counter.


Humans Need to Step Up Their Game

All this automation creates both a challenge and an opportunity for humans in customer service.

The challenge is the check in or check out is the primary point of human interaction in many customer experiences. Eliminate that and you remove a big opportunity for people to shine.

The Starbucks app is a good example. You can order your drink and pay for it via the app which allows you to skip the line. I frequently see people pick up their drinks without so much as a nod or smile towards the human making them.

This experience seems to run counter to the Starbucks mission: "To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time."

This is also the opportunity.

Freed from the transactional nature of checking customers in or out, people have a chance to add more human value to experiences.

Lupe at my local Starbucks store greets customers by name, even if they are picking up a drink they ordered via the app. He can actually greet more people since he says hello to both people waiting in line and people coming in to pick up a drink they ordered via the app.

I've really enjoyed using Lyft because the app handles the transaction, freeing me up to have a pleasant conversation with my driver. My experiences have been incredibly positive and the ride always seems to go faster.


Tips to Help You Stay Connected

Building rapport is a foundational customer service skill. Automation is making rapport more important than ever before. 

Here are just a few tips:

  • Greet everyone enthusiastically. Yes, we all know this. No, we don't always do it.
  • Try to personalize your interactions with customers.
  • Use the five question technique to create thoughtful conversation starters.

You get find even more suggestions when you subscribe to the Customer Service Tip of the Week email. It's one email with one tip, once per week. 

How to Stop Automation From Stealing Your Job

The woman walked into Starbucks, glued to her phone.

She never said hello and wasn't greeted. Eyes fixed on her phone screen, she strode over to the counter where you pick up your drink and waited without saying a word. She continued staring at the phone until her drink appeared on the counter.

The woman grabbed her drink, turned around, and left without ever engaging with another human being.

You may have guessed she ordered her drink via the Starbucks app, a technology that allows customers to by-pass the cashier line. It may eventually eliminate cashier jobs.

Other positions may not be far behind. Computers, bots, artificial intelligence, and other forms of automation are threatening customer service jobs everywhere. 

But what about the barista who made the woman's beverage at Starbucks? That person was voluntarily giving up her job to automation because she never once brought something that was uniquely human to the service interaction.

That's the key to staving off the rise of automation — humanity.

The Rise of Self-Service

Look everywhere and you'll see machines doing customer service jobs that were once performed by humans.

Banks are replacing tellers with ATMs. Hotels are starting to offer mobile check-in options, a feature airlines have had for years. Contact centers operate automated phone menus, self-help websites, and use bots to respond to text messages.

The IBM Watson artificial intelligence platform is being tried out in multiple customer service roles, such as retail salesperson. Uber might soon offer a fully autonomous car service, right after Amazon cuts out delivery drivers and sends your order via automated drone.

Andy Puzder, the CEO of the CKE Restaurants, the parent company of the Carl's Jr. and Hardee's fast food chains, has openly talked about opening a fully automated restaurant in response to rising wages. Puzder is also Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Labor.


What Drives Automated Customer Service?

It's helpful to understand why businesses might want to automate your job. There are three pressures businesses face that drive this trend: speed, cost, and quality.

Speed is crucial because you can generally serve more customers faster in an automated environment. Do you remember waiting in line at a highway tollbooth? Now you can whiz past an array of sensors that automatically deduct the toll from your account.

Cost tends to decrease with automation. You have to pay customer service employees for every hour worked, and that cost is ever-increasing. In my hometown of San Diego, minimum wage just increased to $11.50 per hour and many businesses, such as restaurants, are struggling to absorb higher labor costs. You typically pay less for automation over time.

Quality is another concern. Automation leads to greater consistency since machines can repeat the same task over and over. There are also several studies that show customers spend more in fast food restaurants when they order via a kiosk, so machines may be outselling humans.


The Big Risk: Employees Who Act Like Robots

If automation will eventually win on speed, cost, and quality, the only area where humans can continue to excel is being human.

People like human-to-human interaction. When we talk about great customer service, we still inevitably talk about people. 

Perhaps it was someone who was extra kind or engaged us in some way. It could be a person who solved a persistent problem, or maybe it's just someone who has become a friend over years of service.

A lack of humanity is where many customer service employees routinely put their jobs at risk. 

When I go to the post office, I usually use the kiosk because it's faster than waiting in line. I'm always amused at the end of the transaction when the screen reads, "It's been a pleasure to serve you." Unfortunately, at my local post office, I'll likely to get just as robotic a thank you from a live person. Why wait longer to get the same level of interaction as the machine?

Supermarket cashiers are another example. Too many fail to engage their customers. Or they don't know what to say when they ask, "Did you find everything OK?" and the customer says, "No." We're all excited to see how the Amazon Go grocery store concept works out because the supermarket checkout adds no perceived value to the customer.

Contact centers are seeing an increase in complex phone calls, primarily because customers are handling simpler transactions on their own. This means phone agents need to be empathetic, problem-solving humans who engage customers and make them feel better. All too often, agents instead sound like monotone robots and who either lack the caring or capability to resolve an issue.

If you want to save your job, you need to bring humanity to service.


Five Ways to Bring Humanity to Customer Service

This isn't an exhaustive list, but these are five things you can do to make yourself indispensable to your customers and your boss.

Build Rapport: Customers like feeling special, and people can do that in a way that no robot can. Find ways to develop rapport with your customers like learning and using their names. You can search the Customer Service Tip of the Week archives for more rapport-building tips.

Listen Intently: We've probably all yelled "Live agent!" at a phone menu. The frustration comes because the machine isn't listening. You can transcend that by becoming a good listener. It's harder than you think. Our listening skills erode with experience. We also find ourselves robotically using stock phrases like, "How are you today?" which causes us to miss amazing opportunities.

Empathize: Machines don't express genuine empathy, but you can. Try to understand and acknowledge your customers' feelings, especially when they are annoyed or frustrated by a problem. You can find some good empathy tips using this guide.

Develop Expertise: Find ways to solve problems that automation can't. My local UPS driver once brought a package to my house that had the wrong address on it. He explained he knew it was mine because he recognized my last name and it was wine. He succeeded as a human because he understood his delivery route and his customers better than a machine.

Find Icebergs: Help your customers avoid getting stuck in an infinite loop by finding and fixing recurring problems, called icebergs. I recently had to contact Time Warner Cable 23 times to get new cable, phone, and internet service. It was a frustrating experience because everyone I encountered was so heavily scripted they couldn't see the root cause of the problem until I connected with Rich, a Tier 3 specialist who spent several days unraveling the mess that Time Warner's automated system had created.

Let's go back to the Starbucks example at the beginning of this post. It's inevitable that some customer service functions will become automated, like ordering via an app instead of a cashier. That doesn't mean that the people in the service chain should act like robots too.

It's up to us to create such a fantastic human-to-human experience that companies will recognize the irreplaceable value of having people involved with the process.

Employees vs. Robots: Who Is Better At Service?

This is a real question.

According to a recent report from Execs In The Know, 47 percent of companies are trying to shift traffic from traditional channels (phone, email, etc.) to lower cost channels such as chat and self-service.

It's self-service that's really grabbing headlines. 

Companies want to lower costs. With California leading the charge towards a higher minimum wage, executives feel pressure to spend less on service. Carl's Jr. and Hardee's CEO Andy Puzder recently speculated about building a fully automated restaurant with no employees. (No word on whether it will be called the Skynet Cafe.)

Customers are demanding faster, more frictionless service. That often means self-service. There's even a rumor going around that Millennials are causing this ruckus because they don't like to talk to people.

So, can robots really serve better than human employees? This post examines both sides of the discussion. 

Note: I'm using the term "robot" loosely to mean any aspect of automated service or autonomous self-service.

The Case for Robots

Imagine booking a airplane ticket in the old fashioned days.

You had to call the airline to make a reservation, which required an expensive employee to take your call. Or, you made your reservation through a travel agent, who took an expensive commission out of the price of that ticket.

Either way, you spent valuable time calling, waiting on hold, and then explaining your travel needs to the person on the other end of the line. That person needed to be compensated, and that compensation added to the price of your ticket.

On your day of travel, you had to wait in line to check-in at the airport. If you got to the gate and decided you wanted to change your seat, you had to wait in line for that too. 

Today, you book your ticket online or via a mobile app. You use the app to check in and download your boarding pass so you can by-pass the check-in counter. You can also use the app to change your seat.

Thanks to automation and self-service, air travel is much more convenient than it used to be. It's also cheaper to fly today than it was 20 years ago (in inflation-adjusted dollars).

It's not just air travel. Robots increasingly deliver better service for a lower price. 

Uber is disrupting ground transportation with it's ride sharing app. You can do your taxes on TurboTax or TaxAct using their simple, question-based system. Or, you can deposit a check using your smartphone without ever having to step foot in a bank.

Netflix recommends movies you might like using an amazing/creepy algorithm. Amazon recommends nearly anything you might like using an amazing/creepy algorithm, and then gets it to you in two days. Or, you can just install an Amazon Dash button and use it to re-order supplies with one click. 

IBM is poised to shake up the world of retail with their Watson artificial intelligence technology. In one experiment, they partnered with North Face to use Watson to help customers pick out a winter jacket.

In short, robots make service easier, faster, and better.


The Case for Humans

Automation is great, until something goes wrong.

Take air travel as an example. American Airlines used an automated system to rebook my flight when a delay caused me to miss a connection. That would have been great, except the dumb robot booked me on a flight to the wrong airport. I needed a human to fix it.

Guess who ultimately drives you when you order up an Uber? Autonomous vehicles haven't yet arrived, so you still need a human to drive you from A to B.

Last year, I discovered a bug in TaxAct's software. Getting past it required a full manual workaround by this human.

Order something online and you still need a delivery driver to bring your purchase to your door. My local UPS driver once delivered a package that had the wrong address on it. Some robot screwed up and he fixed it because he knew where I really lived.

Watson may win on Jeopardy, but it's not ready for retail. I tried to use Watson to find a North Face jacket. It didn't do nearly as well as the helpful, in-store sales associate.

Don't even get me started on Interactive Voice Response or IVR. That's the annoying automated phone menu that never understands anything you say.

Robots also can't do warm and fuzzy.

Sure, the automated kiosk at the post office displays "It's been a pleasure to serve you" at the end of each transaction, but I don't really feel it.

OK, so robots can fumble the service bit at times. But, what about cost reduction? Certainly, robots can save money, right?

Not so fast. In her book, The Good Jobs Strategy, Zeynep Ton profiles how low-cost retailers like Trader Joe's and Costco offer low prices by counterintuitively spending more on their employees.

These employees drive both operational excellence and outstanding customer service. They do it by making decisions that simply can't be automated. For example, spotting that "I'm lost" look on a customer's face and then expertly recommending products that customer never even knew existed.


The Winner

Calling a clear winner is tricky.

That's because it's not one or the other in a perfect world. When service is done right, robots and humans can co-exist perfectly.

Here's how I see it:

  • Robots are good at: simple or transactional work.
  • Humans are good at: complex or relational work.

The challenge for companies is getting both robots and humans to do their jobs, and do them well. Here's one more example. 

I recently had to call a certain satellite radio company to merge two accounts into one. This problem occurred because a I had bought a new car, and the new car automatically created it's own account (robot fail). 

Even worse, the only way to fix it was to call.

So, I called and spoke to a helpful and friendly customer service rep whose only problem was he had limited English skills. We both worked patiently through the issue and he was eventually able to fix everything the robot couldn't handle.

While I was on the phone, repeating every third sentence, I noticed that my account had an old credit card number attached to it. So, rather than fumble through this simple transaction over the phone, I updated my account with the new card number myself.

Human + robot for the win!

Automation Fail: How @ATTCares Stumbled Into a Tweet Chat

Automating customer service can be like playing with fire.

On Tuesday, the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) hosted it's regular Tweet chat at 10am Pacific (1pm Eastern). Things got a little weird when AT&T stumbled into the conversation.

ICMI's Tweet chat is a great way to connect with contact center leaders and discuss customer service. The beauty of a Tweet chat is anyone can join in just by following the #icmichat hashtag.

We were enjoying a lively conversation about the importance of delighting customers versus making things easy when Becky Levy sent this Tweet:

Other participants chimed in to voice their support and share their perspective:

I couldn't resist poking a little fun:

That's when AT&T's Twitter team wandered into the conversation. Their automated social listening program responded to several of us using the @ATTCares Twitter handle.

A few of us responded to the Tweets. My guess is that was the point when an actual person read our messages because nobody responded.

But, that didn't stop the automated responses.

Karen never responded. I guess we'll never know where she comes out on customer delight vs. ease of service.

So, we all had a good laugh at AT&T's expense. All thanks to automation. Sadly, AT&T has played the role of psycho ex before.