Human touch still matters in some customer interactions

A number of chain stores in the US are back-pedalling from their deployment of Self-Service checkout, highlighting the challenges of rolling out Self-Service solutions in certain market segments and industries.

February 28, 2012

A number of chain stores in the US are back-pedalling from their deployment of Self-Service checkout, highlighting the challenges of rolling out Self-Service solutions in certain market segments and industries.

Walmart and Albertsons are among the high profile chains that are either cutting back or completely doing away with Self-Service checkout because it is not meeting their expectations in terms of efficiency, customer satisfaction and cost-savings. They say that Self-Service checkout systems have proven to be slow and error-prone.

Kevin Meltzer, co-founder of Consology, says that this trend highlights the importance of planning Self-Service deployments around the business environment and the needs and expectations of customers. “Self-Service is not right for every business process, customer or company,” he adds. “In some interactions, the human touch is still important.”

According to reports, one concern the retail chains have highlighted is the customer perception that those stores with Self-Service checkout are less service-oriented than those with human cashiers. This underlines the importance of backing Self-Service up with processes that allow customers to get help from a customer service representative when they need it, says Meltzer.

“It is important in any Self-Service deployment to keep a flavour of personal care, which means that human help must be accessible,” he adds. “Customers should feel that Self-Service is about their convenience rather than see it as way for companies to save money and keep them at a distance.”

Meltzer says that another of the lessons to take from the US is that Self-Service systems need to be designed for usability and convenience. If a Self-Service process cannot be made quicker and easier than a manual interaction, then it is probably not worth considering.

“The experience in the US shows that consumers will probably not be as quick and adept at checking out items in a supermarket as cashiers trained do the job,” says Meltzer. “They will probably make more mistakes, slowing down queues and requiring constant intervention by a floor manager.”

In South Africa, low labour costs and high crime rates mean that Self-Service checkout will probably not be an ideal solution for most retailers for some time to come, adds Meltzer. They should instead be looking towards other Self-Service opportunities, such as online shopping and in-store kiosks.

“Allowing customers to look up inventory or research products in-store at a kiosk is one way retailers can add value to the customer while freeing up time for their staff,” says Meltzer. “Allowing customers to check and pay their accounts online, change address details on the Web, and query their bills is another way of enhancing the customer experience with Self-Service.”

Meltzer says that the move towards a Self-Service society is gathering momentum, despite the hiccups the US retailers have experienced. South Africans are already serving themselves through an array of automated electronic channels such as websites (including online banking), kiosks and automated phone systems rather than needing help from a cashier or call centre.

“Self-Service enables companies to become more efficient and allows consumers to avoid time-wasting queues and call centre calls,” he concludes. “The benefits for both sides are impressive when Self-Service is implemented intelligently and appropriately. The concept of Self-Service is still fundamentally sound, growing globally and reaching mainstream adoption.”