The Perspective 
Monday, 27 November 2006
There’s a very nice lady who works at the grocery store up the street from my house. I’ve never seen her when she wasn’t smiling, and I’ve never talked to her when she didn’t ask how my children are – by name.
Here’s the interesting thing: She wasn’t always like this. She has worked there for years, but until about a year ago, I never spoke to her, even though I often went through her lane.
What happened? The store installed self-checkout, and this wonderful human being got assigned to oversee four of the new lanes.
Before, she was too busy scanning and bagging items, usually with lines backing up and her helpers wandering from lane to lane. She didn’t have much time to talk or be friendly – she had her hands full moving people through.
Now that customers are doing the scanning and bagging themselves, she has time to make conversation, to answer questions, to ask about the kids.
It’s an interesting wrinkle to a story that many retail prophets got all wrong. Self-service, they said, would have a negative impact on customer service, causing people to become more inward than ever. It was going to remove the human touch from industries that were already becoming less and less human, less personable. It was going to be the end of the traditional customer/retailer relationship.
In the coming months and years, we will begin to see that the opposite is in fact true – self-service removes impediments to great service by taking routine, mundane tasks and removing them from the equation. It creates operational efficiencies that make great customer service, the kind our grandparents received from the corner store, possible once more. And it creates technology opportunities to identify customers by name, give them preferential treatment and special offers, and carve out a one-to-one emotional relationship that simply was not possible before.
It’s part of an emerging notion that I’m calling the “everybody concierge” effect – the fact that exceptional, above-and-beyond service can no longer be extended to just the rich and the famous. Smart customers will no longer stand for the fact that Paris Hilton gets treated better than they do. In today’s economy, everybody demands “special” treatment, and the business that learns how to extend that treatment will be the business that survives.
James Bickers edits Self Service World Magazine. This column appears in the current print edition of Self Service World.
Posted by: James Bickers AT 02:38 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  
Tuesday, 21 November 2006
Digital signage is weighing into the self-service and kiosk industry more deeply every day. Many semi-custom kiosk manufacturers are selling sleek new units with digital signs mounted on top. Meanwhile, companies like Nanonation brew flashy new iterations of digital signage that can respond to customers’ product browsing via RFID monitoring, or change content in response to text messages.
Last week, I received a crash course in digital signage, at the second “Building Your Successful Digital Signage Business” conference in Chicago. As conferences go, it’s not huge. It’s also not cheap, costing attendees about $1,500 for two days worth of in-depth of lectures. But it’s worth it, especially to someone in the kiosk industry wanting to learn about digital signage.
Lesson #1: It’s not the kiosk industry. I attended the conference with my kiosk industry perspective in tow, thinking “Retailers use digital signs to sell more stuff, as they use kiosks.” This is true, but it’s only a small part of the story. The missing link in my knowledge was that the sign content is often outsourced to third-party networks, who then sell space to advertisers, often the manufacturers whose goods reside on the shelves. And when it’s not outsourced, stores usually sell advertising on proprietary networks. Somewhere in this mix, co-op dollars may or may not fit, depending on the arrangement. These dynamics makes the digital sign industry a lot less like something a retailer does, and a lot more like something television executives do.
Lesson #2: Kiosks and digital signs communicate in two completely different ways. I’ve often thought of a touchscreen in its down time as functioning exactly like a digital sign. It runs an in-store marketing message which is normally either an advertisement or call to action for the kiosk. The first person I met at the conference was the first person to correct my notion. CAP Ventures digital signage analyst Norman McLeod told me that the difference between a kiosk and a digital sign is that a kiosk pulls in an individual, whereas a digital sign reaches out to a crowd. I thought about this for a few days and realized that I can’t recall the message on any Target kiosk, though I pass by their gift registries and photo kiosks frequently, but I can perfectly envision the Dell digital signs in my local mall.
Lesson #3: Concepts from Internet marketing are transferring directly to digital signage. For example, what pay-per-click advertising is to the Internet, pay-per-text advertising is becoming to digital signage. Correlating with this is the industry’s struggle for analytics, a familiar story to many in the kiosk or online marketing industries. Digital sign networks and manufacturers are struggling to prove the value of the signs’ audiences in a commonly understood measurement – the digital sign equivalent of unique visitors or impressions.
Lesson #4: Digital signs don’t just exist in stores. This doesn’t seem like the most profound observation, given the myriad digital signs seen in places like Times Square, but it makes a difference to those in the industry, particularly when content developed for one often needs to be developed for all. If stretching content from a 17-inch monitor to a 42-inch display seems like a jump, consider that some companies now need it blown up for a 12-foot wide billboard.
The best thing to observe at this conference had little to do with the industry and more to do with the people in it. Attendees were focused and energized. Presenters were very up-front with their company’s stories and methods. In all, it was an open exchange of information among people who believe strongly in a growing industry. It will be exciting to watch them succeed.
Posted by: Bryan Harris AT 02:36 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  
Monday, 06 November 2006
The retail market is changing rapidly, servicing a new breed of consumers who are increasingly knowledgeable and savvy. With Web-enabled cell phones, iPods, BlackBerries, and portable computers, consumers can access information at their convenience.
Armed with information on prices, features, services and consumer ratings, these customers can be a very tough crowd for retailers to please. Businesses must find ways to create shopping experiences that are interesting and relevant to not only a specific customer’s needs, but for that customer’s needs during a particular shopping trip. In today's environment, it takes strong differentiation and a compelling value proposition to compete for these consumers’ wallet share.
Advances in kiosk technology offer a wide range of opportunities to satisfy this new age of consumers. Powerful, compact kiosk units that are cost effective and can be placed almost anywhere have come into their own, offering both retailers and other businesses the opportunity to provide a technologically satisfying experience to their customers. Kiosks are now appearing in unexpected places – in store aisles for guided selling and gift registry, in hotels for self check-in, as music preview and download devices, in quick service restaurants – all of which can fundamentally improve the consumer experience.   
How about employees? Offering self-service for employees is an option that more and more businesses are pursuing. In fact, many businesses are now finding that the best way to service their fickle and demanding customers is to offer their employees kiosk solutions. Providing "self-service" solutions for their employees opens up virtually limitless possibilities to improve training, boost productivity and enhance service.
Kiosk technology is helping one popular restaurant chain improve the efficiency of meal preparation and food order delivery. Fuddruckers, one of the first known restaurant chains to use interactive kiosks in its kitchens, now uses kiosks to provide its general managers and cooks with easy access to recipes to help reduce training time and deliver orders faster and more efficiently. By replacing paper-based procedure and recipe manuals, these kiosks allow the restaurant chain to provide accurate and up-to-date food preparation instructions quickly and easily. A process that was cumbersome and used to take weeks to implement can now be done simply by sending online updates to the kiosks.
Employee turnover has always been a concern for retailers and businesses, with some establishments experiencing a rate of greater than 100 percent. How do you keep such a changing workforce well-informed on the products, accessories and services that you carry? A large office supply chain has piloted a kiosk solution that allows employees to look up information about their complex inventory while servicing a customer. They can provide the customer with real-time information about an item, as well as recommend accessory sales. The results of the pilot showed several important benefits: improved employee satisfaction with their job responsibilities, an increase in revenue from accessory sales, and more than 30 percent decline in returned goods.
These compact, portable kiosks can also be used to help ensure employees understand their benefits, company policies, and general HR information. A growing number of companies are piloting these types of applications to help educate their employees easily and quickly.
Advances in kiosk technology, and a growing number of application solutions aimed at the employee, can provide businesses with a cost effective way to differentiate and significantly improve customer service. Kiosks offer businesses opportunities to help train, inform, educate and boost the productivity of their employees. Results can be well worth the investment, by gaining knowledgeable, motivated employees who can serve customers better.
So next time you hear the term self-service solutions, remember that self-service solutions can be a viable option for employees as well as for customers. Providing a simple, unique, differentiated experience for your employees can result in enhanced customer satisfaction, higher revenue and improved operating costs. It’s hard to find fault in that equation.
Norma Wolcott is a kiosk business executive for IBM Corporation
Posted by: Nancy Wolcott AT 02:34 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  
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