retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The Harvard Business Review writes that “most customers these days demonstrate a huge — and increasing — appetite for self-service, yet most companies run their operations as if customers prefer to interact with them live ... we've found that corporate leaders dramatically overestimate the extent to which their customers actually want to talk to them. In fact, on average, companies tend to think their customers value live service more than twice as much as they value self service. But our data show that customers today are statistically indifferent about this — they value self-service just as much as using the phone. And guess what? By and large, this indifference holds regardless of their age, demographic, issue type, or urgency.”

And, the Business Review goes on:

“What is it that makes self service so appealing? Maybe it's the efficiency of the interaction — the airport kiosk is probably faster than interacting with a check-in agent — but that wouldn't explain why we go out of our way to take care of our service needs ourselves.

“On a psychological level, it might have more to do with the unique element of control that self service affords. Or, maybe this self-service love affair is a product of our infatuation with gadgetry and electronic communication. All fairly benign explanations, to be sure.

“But here's a hypothesis that would be concerning if it's right: maybe customers are shifting toward self service because they don't want a relationship with companies. While this secular trend could be explained away as just a change in consumers' channel preferences, skeptics might argue that customers never wanted the kind of relationship that companies have always hoped for, and that self service now allows customers the ‘out’ they've been looking for all along.

“For managers hell-bent on deepening relationships with their customers, that's a sobering thought.”

Now, I hate to argue with the Harvard Business Review. The folks there obviously are a lot smarter than I am.

The premise is an interesting one, but in some ways flawed.

I’d suggest that maybe it is not so much that customers do not want relationships with the companies with which they do business, but that they want relationships that are 1) relevant, 2) relevant, and 3) relevant.

Which is to say, relationships that serve the customer, not the business.

Do we like using self-service kiosks at the airport? Do we prefer ATMs to bank tellers? Is the use of self-checkout lanes at various retailing venues proving to be popular with many shoppers?

Sure. Why not? They are replacing interactions that generally were not very pleasant, not very rewarding, and not very relevant. Most people would agree that checking out of a supermarket is the least pleasurable part of the shopping experience, so why wouldn’t we want to replace it with something impersonal, inoffensive and technological?

Maybe businesses simply have to do a better job of interacting with customers in the first place, providing them with usable information and a relevant connection.

If checkout personnel actually were trained and encouraged to talk to customers - and maybe even more important, listen to them - as opposed to chatting among themselves, maybe things would be different.

Let’s face it. A lot of self-service options have been created to save money for the service provider, not just to provide better service to the shopper. It seems to me that if self-service were viewed as a tactical option within a broader, service-driven strategy, then companies might take a different approach, and customers might want to have a relationship with them. A relevant relationship.

And that’s my Tuesday morning Eye-Opener.
KC's View: