Why Great Self-Service is Backed by Humans

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Self-service technology is everywhere these days.

In Champaign, Illinois, you can go to the public library and check out a book from a self-service kiosk. Interacting with a human is entirely optional.

Library assistant Ruairi McEnroe explained, "We have self-checkout kiosks at the library where customers can checkout, make payments (using credit cards), and check their account status without the need for a staff person."

This is a win-win for both customers and the library. Customers can avoid waiting in line and are often able to check-out faster using the kiosk. The library is able to save money in an era where many libraries face chronic funding shortfalls.

That doesn't mean humans aren't needed. Great self-service is almost always backed by capable humans.

Ruairi McEnroe assists a customer at the Champaign Public Library.

Ruairi McEnroe assists a customer at the Champaign Public Library.

Nobody Likes to Wait

Think of all the places where self-service helps us avoid a line.

We use the Starbucks app to order our coffee ahead of time. Airlines allow us to check in and display our boarding pass on a smart phone. Even the grocery store may soon eliminate checkout lines with the advent of Amazon Go.

Nick Francis, CEO of the customer service software company, HelpScout, told me he initially struggled with the idea of offering self-service.

"I felt like we wanted to provide the greatest personalized service, but at some point, that's actually quite inconvenient."

Over time, he realized self-service was an essential customer benefit. Customers didn't like the hassle of waiting on hold to talk to a person for something simple like answering a basic product question, tracking a shipment, or resetting a password.

The realization that self-service can often be a better experience prompted Francis and his team at HelpScout to develop some really good self-service tools. HelpScout and other customer service software companies now strive to make self-service as convenient and accessible as possible.

That doesn't mean humans are no longer needed. McEnroe told me that humans serve as a sort of service lifeline at the library in Champaign.

"Generally there is one staff member on hand to clear up account issues, take cash payments, or direct customers to the area they desire. We are often now able to help customers a lot more rather than having to send them to a different desk. There are customers who would rather have a person check them out, so we can also do that.”


Where Humans Are Essential to Self-Service

There are several places where humans are the key to great self-service.



Kiosks at the airport, the grocery store, and other places often have a customer service representative standing by. These reps can dramatically improve the self-service experience when they are properly trained.

That's because self-service doesn't always work as intended. Sometimes it can get confusing while other issues can't be solved without a customer service professional.

The 2017 Customer Service Barometer published by American Express and Ebiquity revealed that just 23 percent of customers prefer to speak to a person over the phone or face-to-face for simple issues, like checking an account balance. 

That number jumps to 63 percent for difficult issues, such as disputing a charge.



Information drives a significant amount of self service.

For instance, let's say you're shopping for a pair of running shoes online. You spot a new model from one of your favorite brands and are about to order them in your normal size when you spot a helpful note suggesting you order a half-size larger.

You make the sizing adjustment, order the shoes, and they arrive a few days later. The shoes fit perfectly and you're very happy.

Think about what went into that experience. The retailer or shoe company had to collect sizing feedback from customers and then share that insight in a meaningful way to help guide other customers like you. If the sizing information had been wrong or out of date, you would have ordered the shoes in a different size and you would have been disappointed with the fit.

Humans are the key to identifying those insights and keeping self-service functioning.



Self-service sometimes breaks or fails to work as intended. 

Snack vending machines are terrific until your bag of chips gets stuck. It just sits there, suspended on the rack, taunting you. This is exactly when you need a human to fix a self-service fail.

Some failures aren't so obvious. A customer might search a knowledgebase for a solution, fail to find it, and then contact customer service. The customer service rep might never know about the customer's failed attempt or the 100 more customers who experience the same issue.

In The Effortless Experience, authors Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi detail a helpful exercise to help identify and fix broken self-service experiences.

It consists of three simple steps for customer service reps to follow:

  1. Identify customer issues that could have been solved via self-service.
  2. Tactfully ask customers if they tried self-service.
  3. Note any feedback about unsuccessful self-service attempts.

This information can then be collected so broken self-service systems can be fixed.

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.

How to Use Simple Video to Save Your Customers Headaches

Product assembly is a moment of truth.

For some customers, this is no issue. For others, its a potential exercise in frustration. If the assembly process doesn't go well, the product may be returned and that customer may never buy another product from your company again.

Hayneedle is an online home furnishings retailer. Many of their products require assembly. The instructions provided by the manufacturer often leave a lot to be desired.

The company solves this challenge using simple video. Here's how they do it and how you can do it too.

Let's say a customer purchases this Orbelle Contemporary Solid Wood Toddler Bed:

Image source:  Hayneedle website

Image source: Hayneedle website

There's a little bit of assembly required. The written instructions from Orbelle can be a bit confusing to most customers. (See the instruction booklet here.)

Here's a screen shot:

This may seem simple to you, given your innate mechanical ability and savant-like grasp of obscure terms like "mattress base mullion," but think like a typical customer.

When I was a customer service manager, I once had to walk a customer through how to operate a music box!

"Now, turn that key to the right a few times. To the right. The other way. Yes, now let it go. The key, let go of the key. Yes, that's it. Do you hear the music?"

Fortunately, Hayneedle provides a video explaining the assembly instructions.

This simple video is very clear and makes the assembly process look much easier!

Notice there's nothing fancy going on. You can shoot similar videos using basic equipment, even your smart phone. There are just a few keys:

  • Make sure the person on camera speaks clearly and slowly.
  • Get enough lighting so everything is well-lit. 
  • Zoom in on detail work so it's easy for your audience to see.

You can find some basic tutorials on lynda.com, such as this one for shooting video with an iPhone. (A lynda.com account is required, but you can get a free 10-day trial.)


Applications & Benefits

Video like this can be a great self-service option for customers. It can help your company in a few ways:

  • Reduce customer contacts
  • Reduce product returns
  • Improve repeat business

Keep in mind that many customers don't complain about a poor experience. They simply give up and take their business somewhere else.

These videos also give your customer service agents another tool to help customers. Verbally walking customers through instructions over the phone is difficult and time consuming. 

Much better to direct customers to the video, which provides a clear visual reference. Customers can also stop, rewind, and re-start the video to review key parts.

There is one thing that Hayneedle can do a little better. The video link isn't always obvious. Let's look at the product page for that toddler bed again:

Customers may not see the link to the video, or they may not realize that it's a product assembly video. And, you won't see the videos mentioned if you go to Hayneedle's customer help page.

You'll make your videos even more useful if you can put them right where customers go looking for them.

This could mean your help center, your product page, or even your customer contact page. Better yet, put a conspicuous link in all three places since you never know how your customers will navigate in search of help.

The Undeniable Power of Using Experts to Get Better Service

Coppa seemed all wrong.

It's an Italian tapas restaurant in Boston's South End. That's a neighborhood I avoided when I had lived there in the 90s.

They didn't have any reservations available. My wife and I didn't like that uncertainty. We had other things we wanted to do that night and didn't want to get stuck waiting for an hour.

It was tiny. I've been in a lot of tiny places in Boston. Tiny usually equals cramped, crowded, and unpleasant.

Coppa turned out to be perfect.

They had amazing food, a wonderfully cozy atmosphere, and great service. The restaurant was crowded, but they found a comfortable spot for us at a small bar looking out the window.

We never would have gone there if we had relied on Yelp. Good thing we asked an expert instead. When it comes to getting great service experiences, a knowledgeable person is still the go-to option.

The Limits of Yelp and AI

Yelp makes recommendations based on two things: algorithmically-culled recommendations of an anonymous crowd and the searcher's ability to enter appropriate search criteria.

It generally does a good job. 

Just last week, I was traveling and needed to find a place to get a haircut. Yelp was able to narrow down my search to a few highly rated places that were all within walking distance of my hotel. A quick scan of the reviews helped me pick a winner. It worked out well.

But, there are a few problems with how Yelp delivers its recommendations.

First, how do I know that the anonymous crowd shares my interests and tastes? Coppa has over 500 Yelp reviews and a strong four star rating, but I really don't know who is rating them. 

There's been plenty of times when the crowd has absolutely loved something that I just couldn't get into. For example, I've tried many times to love The Godfather movies and still don't like them.

The second problem with Yelp is the user. It's limited by whatever search criteria you use. So, if you decide to exclude the South End, then Yelp won't recommend anything in that neighborhood. That's why Coppa didn't appear in my Yelp search.

The problem, of course, is customers often don't know exactly what they want. Or, they think they do, only to be delighted later on by an option that didn't fit their criteria at all.

I experienced a similar challenge when I tried to use IBM Watson to pick out a jacket. Watson was limited by the search criteria I thought matched my needs. I received better service from an in-store sales associate who could interpret my criteria and think laterally to suggest options I hadn't considered.


The Power of Experts

My friend, Patrick Maguire, had suggested Coppa. 

Patrick knows a lot about restaurants in Boston. He writes the popular I'm Your Server, Not Your Servant blog about hospitality service. He also consults with Boston-area restaurants on PR, promotions, and hospitality. I definitely consider him an expert.

I had told him my wife, Sally, and I were looking for a place for dinner. He asked a few thoughtful questions that led to his recommendation.

Patrick used his extensive knowledge of area restaurants to make his suggestion. He used his perceptiveness to interpret my criteria and understand what was truly important to us. And, he used his relationship with me to effectively persuade me that things I saw as obstacles (South End, no reservations, etc.) weren't really obstacles at all.

Yelp couldn't do that. 

The other thing that Yelp couldn't do is validate my choice. Getting some insider information makes me feel good. Heck, look at the title of my blog and you can tell this is something I obviously value.


Accessing Experts

I wrote a little about connecting with experts in this blog post about Do-It-Yourself Learning. 

Chances are, you know a lot of people who are an expert in one thing or another. The thing I've learned is you have to approach them directly.

So, if I had made a general post on Facebook asking for restaurant recommendations, I might have gotten several suggestions from well-meaning friends who may or may not have been on-target. If I was lucky, Patrick would have seen my post, but there's a good chance he wouldn't have. 

The direct approach worked much better. I went to him because he's an expert in that area.

This means you have to think about who's in your circle that knows something about what you know. Check up on your friends' profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks if you can't remember who knows what.

Employees are often experts too.

They've received specialized training. They spend a lot of time answering questions and familiarizing themselves with their company's products and services. And, I can tell you that most customer service employees love getting the chance to share their knowledge.

This means your restaurant server knows the inside scoop on how menu items really taste. A retail employees knows the ins and outs of their products.

As I noted in a recent blog post, self-help tools like Yelp are gaining in popularity, but employees (and your friends) still hold the edge when it comes to nuanced or complex requests.

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.