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.