Everyone wins with self-service, but the human touch is key

Although it’s transforming the customer experience, without the right support, automation can do more harm than good, says Sally Alington, Managing Director, Blackjack Promotions

In the last few years, we’ve seen some amazing advances in customer automated technologies – and mainly welcomed changes that make life easier and more efficient. As Brits, although we quietly accept queues and will happily join in when we see one, many of our everyday experiences, particularly shopping and travelling, have undoubtedly been enhanced by the growth of self-service technology.

Take UK airports, for example; Operations are far more smooth and efficient as a result, whether departing and speeding our way through the check-in, bag drop and security processes, through to the arrivals experience, which has been drastically improved – originally by IRIS technology and more recently by the introduction of e-passport machines and trusted traveller programmes.

It’s a win-win situation. The consumer has a better all-round experience, enjoying more free time to treat themselves in shops, cafés and restaurants, or on other products and services, while reaching their destination in a more relaxed frame of mind.

For airports, self-service helps boost the ancillary revenues that are becoming increasingly important as airlines fight back against ever-growing charges, putting added pressure on already fragile margins. Plus the airlines gain from the reduced labour costs that automation brings.

Brands also win, benefiting from more time to engage with customers, and greater scope to develop more effective experiences, such as in-store skincare consultations or entertainment to get passengers in the mood to treat themselves while in transit.

Our reliance and love of mobile technology also makes changes like this possible. Innovative technologies are enhancing the self-service experience – my own personal favourites being contactless payments, used particularly effectively by Transport for London, and smartphone boarding cards. Going forward, iBeacon innovation is leading the charge, with wearables imminent. However, self-service is only effective if people have access to the required technology, are able to understand the necessary processes (such as instructions for auto-check in machines) and, of course, the device or machine actually works.

This is where real people hold the key to self-service success. Without human help at hand – in the form of a customer service ambassador – the moment the technology fails, or a process is not understood by the user, hold-ups and frustration result. This creates a terrible customer experience. There’s no question about it, people like to engage with other people – it is the characteristics and nuances of human behaviour that are essentially the make or break of successful interaction. It’s the personal touch.

Furthermore, marketers should beware of viewing self-service as an answer in itself. It should be seen as a way of enhancing customer experience in partnership with other existing techniques, not as a replacement. This approach gives consumers more options in the way they transact or interact, improving brand perception and loyalty, and importantly allowing brands to compete by adding perceived value, rather than price-cutting.

So there needs to be a meeting of these worlds – the human and the automated – to create a truly memorable and effective self-service. It’s a balance.