Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Customer Service= You and Me!

Have you noticed lately that more and more, "customer service" means "serve yourself"?

Everywhere you look these days, you're asked to belly up to a kiosk of some kind and punch in or scan bar codes or enter a security code or ::shudder:: swipe a credit card to identify yourself so you can do business.

It started with banks. . . then came the gasoline pumps. . . then came airlines and e-tickets. . . and now places like Home Depot and Starbucks and the blessed LIBRARY! Where are all the people who used to help people? I like getting a smile with my latte! And I like handing my card to a clerk and chit-chatting while it processes. Heck it may be the only non-family interaction I get in a day! I'm a writer by trade, which ranks not far from "hermit" on the human interaction scale! When I go out, I need me some PEOPLE!

And you know what? It's only going to get worse. Fast food places are moving to phase out the folks at the counter who ask "you want fries with that?" In some places, they've introduced screens with pictures that you punch to place your order and out comes a bag or tray at the end. Libraries are going with automated self check-out. . . those librarians don't come free, you know. More and more grocery stores are going to self check-out for their Express Lanes. And try traveling anywhere without having to swipe and punch in. . . unless you're interested in standing in a record-length line to actually see a person.

Why are they doing this? Because for business "customer service" is one big headache. And costs money. And they figure that people will complain less if they do it themselves. And they're right. A big part of this growing industry is devoted to "training customers" to use the machines. It's a slippery slope, folks. Once you're trained, you can't go back. Take a lesson from the record of gas stations. How long has it been since you saw and employee pumping gas for someone? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Remember the days when you used to get a few pennies discount for pumping your own gas? You'd drive away with hands smelling of gasoline, but at least you had the satisfaction of knowing you'd saved money doing it yourself. Now if you want or need help at the pump ("full service" if you can find it) you have to pay EXTRA for it.

Giant Food Stores in Pennsylvania are now going self-check-out in a big way, even designing their new stores around "mobile scanners" that customers carry with them to tally as they go! I can't tell you now much I DON'T want to do this. First they take away the baggers and carry-out boys, then they take away the cashiers! Thank Heaven for Publix, here in the southland. Full service supermarkets. sigh.

And the automation industry says that even with the occasional glitch, it still saves companies money hand over fist. And the bottom line rules. Customer service is on the way out. . . even if it's just collecting money. They say it's faster, more confidential, and makes it possible for the store personnel to do other things. You also have fewer humans to blame. . . since you are your own check-out person.

Okay, I confess, the E-tickets make sense and have reduced lines at the airport. I use them all the time. And the automated gas pumps. And the ATMs at my bank. And now when I go to Home Depot, I usually use the self-check-out. I just never realized I was being "trained for a Brave New World.

And some things can't be automated. Despite the shrinking number of clerks in department stores, I can't imagine walking up to a kiosk and asking "Do these jeans make my butt look too big?" Or, "Do you think this will shrink much in the dryer?" Or "Is this navy or black?"

What about you? Any experiences with the shrinking world of customer service? What "kiosks" do you normally use? Do you like the trend, or does it make you feel lonely out there?

18 comments:

Blue Yonder said...

Oh yes! I just saw a new one this weekend. i was staying at a Hyatt and went down for the continental breakfast. They had a little at the counter where a person ought to have been. If you wanted a drink or eggs or anything besides toast and coffee, you had to use the screen to order! I didn't try it, but I guess you just punch, hope someone got the message and wait for the elves to appear out of the kitchen with your omelet.

I'm all for convenience, but I think where food is involved there ought to be a real person to say, "What can I get for ya?"

Cindy Gerard said...

It truly is a sad commentary on the way things are when we lose face time with other human beings for the sake of a few pennies in savings to the business. But I have to admit, I do like being able to use my cc at the pump at a self service gas station - especially when it's raining so I dont' have to make that sprint to building to pay.

Michele Hauf said...

I mourn the loss of customer service and yet, I do enjoy the self checkout lanes at WalMart because I believe I can scan and bag my things the best. BUt then I'm one of THOSE kinds of people. :-)

What kills me is the credit card machines. People are signing their names for what reason? Do you know when you sign your name to the machine at, say, Target, it doesn't matter. The machine doesn't read your signature. It simply goes out, check that the account number is open (no, doesn't verify if you actually have enough money in the account) and then approves it if the account is open. No signature check. Because, come on, how could it actually do that? Check it next time you go. Draw a slash through the line instead of your name. I always just punch the 'accept' button, without signing. That gives me a paper copy to sign, then I hold out my credit card to the clerk has to check the signature. It's a small thing. But if I dropped my credit card on the way out, Joe Schmoe could sign my name and it wouldn't matter.

Sigh... Okay, you hit a hot button, Betina!

Playground Monitor said...

I use the self-service line at stores if I have a few items, but if I have a whole cartful, I use the regular line and make them put my groceries in my recyclable shopping bags. It's funny how they put 2 items in each plastic bag but they'll pack those recyclable ones absolutely full.

I don't mind the ATM machine either or paying at the pump (though it'd be nice in winter to have someone else pump it). And I too like the e-tickets. Makes life easier.

I haven't seen these other things. But we're slow here in Alabama about a lot of things, even in the Rocket City, the town that put man on the moon. I still get a smile with my Starbucks so I hope that doesn't change.

I just hate calling someplace and having to wade through fifty-seven options before getting to a place where I can speak to a human. A while back I spent an entire day on the phone with 3-4 different companies trying to work out a computer problem. Not fun, and definitely not customer friendly.

Marilyn

Debra Dixon said...

Oh, Betina!

I'm split on this one. I want access to customer service but I'm often just as happy to serve myself.

I can remember being highly annoyed to find out I have to hold on a phone instead of just having a website to use quickly and efficiently!

Love paying bills online. If the scanner at the grocery works, love it.

What I hate is being delayed because their equipment is broken and no one is there to fix it.

I do love talking to someone on the phone, in English-as-their-first-language, when I have a real problem.

What I hate is 42 phone menus to get there. Give me a website and a direct line for real problems.

Wait...what was the question? (g)

Helen Brenna said...

What Deb said!

Christie Ridgway said...

Yeah, what Deb said too. I like the self-serve aspect most of the time.

My Macy's doesn't have self-service purchasing, but they do have these little machines conveniently placed where I can scan the price tag and get the price. This works great if something's on a sales rack and you aren't sure if it's there by mistake or you have to work out the math yourself because it's an extra percentage off. I appreciate not having to stand in line for a salesperson to get that info.

Liza said...

I like my ATM machines and the pay at the pump, but I want someone to check me out in most grocery stores and Wal-Mart. I don't work in these places, but someone is being paid to do this job. Everytime I try the self check at Walmart it takes twice as long. I always have to verify at least 3 items with the cashier, who is always on her cell phone.

JoAnna said...

Okay, I work at a bookstore that is contemplating putting in self serve Kiosks at their stores. Some of the stores have them on a trial basis and our competition have them. So, when a customer comes up to ask if there is somewhere that they can look up a book and we ever so nicely tell them we would love to look it up for them and assist them... THEY LOOK PUT UPON!
Heave a great sigh, as if we would not know the first thing about looking up a book! AARRGH!

Fine. Look up your own book, half the time customers dont know the correct title and author anyway! "Well...I know it had a blue cover with gold writing"

Well with that wealth of information I am sure to find it. Half the time they cant even tell you the plot! Okay I am done ranting.

I really dont think self serve Kiosks are all that helpful, speaking as someone who has tried them in several different situations and they have never worked/helped me.

Betina Krahn said...

Okay then-- are we agreed that where food is involved (ready to eat, like a restaurant) we'd like to see real people? I haven't done any push button fast food myself, but I hear that it's coming. I'm not sure I'll like it.

But a big yes to E-tickets, ATMs, and cc's used at gas pumps. In other words, some places it makes life easier for us and we're happy to use those automated check-outs. Sometimes we just need to see people.

A mixed review (with positive leanings) on the self-checkout lines at Wal-Marts and Targets and Home Depots and the like. Hmmmm.

Anyone else wonder if the customers are scanning ALL of their items or maybe slipping a freebie in there occasionally? I wonder how store security squares with all this technology.

Betina Krahn said...

Okay, Joanna, I see your point about the put-upon customers. Clearly more "training" is needed there! LOL!

But in bookstores, a little customer service is expected and a lot of books are "hand sold" to customers. This is an interesting problem. . . whether taking people out of the sales equation will cut the sale of books.

Joanna, do you think it hurts your sales or helps?

Susan Kay Law said...

It's the automated phones that make me nuts, too. I usually have a question that doesn't fit neatly into the options and it takes me forever to get through to someone who can help me . . . if at all.

I can never make it through the self-service grocery checkout without screwing something up. Don't know why.

But I LOVE not having to go in the bank and stand in line to get money or deposit a check.

Susie

JoAnna said...

I think it does depend on the customer, some are completly self sufficient and would rather spend all day looking through ALL the sections to find James Patterson becasue they think he should be a mystery author but the store says, nope fiction.

I think a majority of our customers would still need help to find books with or without self help kiosks becasue when you use them in a book store this is an example of what would come up on the screen-

Patterson,James-Fiction/Lit., Section 23 Row B. 3 On Hand. Promo. New fic. Bay.

Helpful? Anyone? Anyone? Buler? So, asuming the customer knows the difference between a fiction book and a nonfiction book (trust me you would be surprised at the amount that dont) Then they have to decifer the code to figure out where the computer just said their book is located.
The problem with that is even when a customer comes into the store and knows what they are looking for-They walk around the store and cannot find the section they are trying to locate.

So, our customer has looked up the book, found where it is supposed to be, but cannot find the section :( bummer.

I see it causing problems. I will just put it this way. Even if they install these at my store, I am not worried about job security:)

JoAnna said...

Oh and I dont know about sales for sure. I think it will probably be helpful to the people who dont want to ask for help becasue they prefer to just "web browse" for the title, because they have no real idea what it was and think they can get close by playing around on the kiosk, but really I think where we make out money like you said is with hand selling, suggestions and browsers. So, I dont see the Kiosks really haveing that great of an effect other than maybe freeing us up a little more than usual to do projects.

Oh, and I do love the self serve thingys at the movie theatre though. I can just skip that whole line and buy a movie and get a good seat:)

Amy Addison said...

;) I live in Oregon. We're not allowed to pump our own gas. EVER.

And as far as fast food: if it means I get the order the way I ordered it, I'll take the machine any day.

What I really, really, really HATE is when I call customer service and I have to go through 42 automated menus before I even have a choice of talking to a person and then 1) I have a 45 minute wait and 2) they are difficult to understand because they either don't speak English, mumble or talk really fast.

Betina Krahn said...

Joanna, good points, all! I'm glad to hear that you think "hand selling" won't become obsolete! The personal touch and knowledgeable booksellers see way more books than mere racks!

And Amy-- yikes! I didn't realize there's no self-serve gas in Oregon! Really? Shows how provincial I am-- I assumed it was everywhere in the US. Also shows that I've never been to Oregon! (Though I'll probably be going soon-- my nephew and his family just moved to Eugene.) Thanks for the info!

Chris M. said...

*sigh* Again with the chiming in late. Sorry, I have a rather insane life right now.

I have to say that I agree with just about everyone above. I love using my cc getting gas as I usually have at least two of the four boys in the vehicle. Do you know how hard it is to keep a hand on each child who is determined to check out the candy aisle? Yeah, like it when I can leave them in the vehicle while I pump gas.

I have another point to make. I think it's not just adding kiosks that's killing customer service. Recently the big name pharmacy that we used went out of business and their records were bought out by another big name pharmacy. Now, I loved the one we were originally going to... the pharmacist remembered my name, she was incredibly helpful, if my insurance didn't fully cover a prescription - I got a phone call asking if I still wanted them to fill it or if they should call my doctor and have a different med prescribed. Now, the one that currently has my records is not my favorite place to go. More than once I have gone in to pick up a prescription and no one had informed me it would cost me way more than I thought it would. Uurrgghh... I just don't like the new place and now I have to find somewhere else to go, but I know that customer service doesn't make money so I probably won't be happy.

*sigh* Ranting done now.

Betina Krahn said...

Chris, you're so right about the pharmacy thing. When I moved to Florida, I never expected to be so put out of joint by the problems of finding a pharmacy. It was as bad or worse than having to find a new doctor and dentist. And when I finally found one where the pharmacists would actually talk to me and smile, I was delirious!

Then my group insurance changed and I have to send away for routine meds now. Talk about a bummer! It's automation with a computer interface! Aghhhhhh!