The idea came to Frank Ulrich in 1947. It was way ahead of its time. It arrived, as good ideas often do, in the form of a simple question:
What if people could pump their own gas?
How strange that notion must have sounded in an era when elevators had operators
and sodas had jerks. Yet when Ulrich offered customers of his Los Angeles gas
station a discount of a nickel per gallon to man the pumps and fill er up,
he doubled his business, selling $500,000 in gasoline in the first month.
It would take another 25 years for his strategy to catch on across the country.
Even then, motorists and social commentators were suspicious: Youre asking
customers to share the workload?
Now look at us. We pump our own gas, bag our own groceries, pour our own Slurpees.
We check ourselves in at the airport and out at Wal-Mart. We use ATMs to get cash.
We wrap, weigh and mail our own packages at the post office. We rent DVDs, buy
movie tickets and process photos from machines. We navigate solo through websites
to buy products, pay bills, and do our banking, or weave our way, often painfully,
through telephonic, automated voice-message systems to do the same thing.
Soon, judging from technology that has been field-tested, well routinely
walk into a hotel lobby, bypass the front desk, and use an automated kiosk to
select a room and receive a card key. Well pull up to the drive-through
lane of a fast food restaurant, and there, using a multicolored 3-D computer screen
currently being field tested by NCR Corp., we will ask and then answer the eternal
question: "Do you want fries with that?"
Analysts say a third of all "service interactions" are self-serve. Within
four years, it will rise to better than 50-50.
The pervasiveness of self-serve technology represents a cultural sea change, one
that has crept up on us, like a real-life version of all those science-fiction
films and movies featuring evil machines that take over so gradually that no one
notices them until its too late.
Sometimes life imitates art. Just pick up a phone and try to work through the
mouse-maze circuitry of an automated customer-service line to reach a human voice.
What may come as a surprise is that some machines can recognize your pain.
Though automated phone lines rank among the most aggravating self-serve devices,
the speech-recognition systems that handle calls from consumers are growing more
sophisticated. Some have been designed so that "at some level, emotions can
be understood," says Peter Mahoney, vice president of Scansoft Inc., which
designs speech software.
The newest generation of machines can respond, he says, to "certain words
and the volume level." Take, for example, a customer who has lost baggage
and is trying to get help through an airlines automated response system.
If the caller says "I am angry" or uses a number of other words
including those of the unprintable variety he might be quickly relayed
to a human attendant, Mahoney says.
The technology is here to stay: Having computerized systems handle customer queries
and complaints costs a 10th of what it would take for a company to staff the lines
with humans. So improvements, when they come, will come through technological
"Youre going to see these systems become more and more adept at understanding
variations in human speech," he says.
If they dont, there is always the "cheat sheet" approach.
Paul English, a software engineer, became so frustrated with computerized voice
systems that he created a website (www.paulenglish.com/ivr/) that customers can
use to learn to bypass the computerized voice system and reach a human attendant.
(For Capital One, dial zero three times. For Diners Club, dial "2.")
There is a learning curve in the new technologies, for consumers and merchants.
A key: Keep it simple.
Sometimes, particularly as the devices were being introduced, the self-serve aisles
in grocery stores could be a frustrating logjam of customers, who were unsure
of how to use scanners. It wasnt uncommon for them to give up, leave their
groceries and walk away.
But customers have adapted: "I just use the self-serve when I have a few
things," says Beverlye Neal, emerging from the self-serve aisle of an Albertsons
with a single shopping bag in her arms.
Soon, supermarkets may feature a "smart cart" being test-marketed by
Fijitsu Transaction Solutions. A customer would log in to a computer attached
to the cart. The computer would access the customers previous purchases
and based on that, alert the customer to sale items.
"If it knows you buy cat food, it will tell you theres a special on
cat food when you get to that aisle," says Don Paschal, director of Self
Check Solutions at Fujitsu.
No matter how sophisticated the technology becomes, its unlikely that merchants
will stray from an early lesson of self-serve: Be sure that staffers are always
on hand in case snags arise.
At one Home Depot, cashier Brian Delawder mans a single monitor, watching four
self-serve kiosks as a trickle of afternoon customers slip past. Delawder is alert
to the Achilles heel of the kiosks: If a customer scans a purchase
but doesnt put the product down immediately on a scale that checks its weight
as an antitheft measure the system grinds to a halt.
When that happens, Delawder can simply take over the controls, like a co-pilot
bailing out an errant trainee, without even moving from his station. Often, customers
dont even realize he has stepped in.
A number of expensive self-serve efforts have flopped, including a device that
customers of a greeting-card shop could use to design cards. Experts say the system
failed because it was just too complicated.
"The secret of self-service is four words: Dont Make Me Think,"
says Francie Mendelsohn, president of Summit Research Associates, which researches
customer reaction to self-service kiosks.
Mendelsohn might have added a corollary: People want to be queueless.
Americans hate waiting in line, which helps explain one of the most successful
self-help devices: the airport kiosks that enable people many of whom have
made their reservations through automated, online systems to check-in faster.
A recent study found that 38 percent of airline passengers use check-in kiosks,
waiting half as long for boarding passes as passengers who use an airline representative.
"I dont need to burn calories telling somebody who I am, where I am
going and what seat I want," says Paul Schweer, a software developer who
travels frequently. "And theres none of the ambiguity and inefficiency
when youre trying to talk to somebody in a crowded airport."
Apart from the frustration of dealing with automated systems behavioral
scientists have long understood that consumers grow angry at machines faster than
they get angry at human attendants isnt there a sentimental factor
involved here? Arent we losing something important, the more and more we
rely on machines, and the less we have "face time" with our fellow human
In a word, says Ulrike Schultze, "no."
Schultze, associate professor of information technology and operations management
at Southern Methodist University, studies the effects of our growing reliance
on self-serve technology. "In most cases, its not as though you are
sacrificing a valuable human experience," she says.
"Take the example of ordering a hamburger at McDonalds," Schultze
says. "The person you are talking to is just rattling off information from
a script: Do you want a large Coke with that? Do you want this or that special?
"An electronic interaction isnt going to be much different. When was
the last time you had a conversation with somebody at a checkout line that changed
© 2006, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Culture: Pre-2/21/2007 [Self-Serve Phenomenon]
Self-Serve Phenomenon: Technology Rewriting the Book for Consumers
By Michael Mcleod
Article posted on 1/23/2006
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