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.