How to Make Human-Friendly Customer Service Automation


There’s a myth out there that helpdesk service companies perpetuate about automation – that it will save your business money, that it’s stupid not to have it, and by the way, you can jump right on board this train if you buy their product.

It’s a very profitable selling point. It’s quite difficult to say no once someone paints that picture of you turning a labor-intensive function like customer service into a simple, predictable set of rules. Now you can go away and do other things with your time, right?

Except if everyone can just buy automation, you’ve stamped out any competitive advantage you were hoping to win. Automation is still the technology part of the timeless trio of people, process and technology.

That is, any awesome new use of technology still requires equally awesome people and processes to build it into a meaningful competitive advantage. Take the people and process out of it, and I’m sorry to say that you’ve arrived at the modern-day self-checkout.

The scourge of self-checkout

There’s a great sketch on that FOX sitcom, The Mindy Project, that perfectly captures humanity’s sentiments about the self-checkout. Mindy’s childhood love comes back to New York City after a long stint in the army, miles away from any supermarket innovation. Things have changed. There is now self-checkout.

Yea, if the future is a fiery dystopia.

She fumbles around looking for the barcode on her box of toothpaste. Stupid barcode.

She puts it in the bag like the machine tells her to.

Then the machine totally melts down.

It’s like automation gone rogue: the machine is going nuts, there’s no store associate around to help. And the customers never end up getting what they came for – Seth and Mindy finally end up bailing without the shampoo.

Why customer-centric automation is better

I can’t speak to whether self checkout is a scam, but this certainly isn’t a subtle or clever use of automation. How could you really explain this as a benefit to the customer anyway?

“Good afternoon customer, we are replacing the privilege of human contact at the checkout counter with robots. You will now interact with a robot that you’ve never been trained to use. We will task a single associate to supervise the whole self checkout section, so if you run into a problem while checking out during rush hour, you’re on your own.

Good luck thumbing through our massive directory of fruit and vegetable codes to find ‘heirloom tomatoes’. You would think it’s under H, but it’s actually under T. Thanks for shopping with us today.”

Around 52% of consumers prefer self checkout. That means the other 48% could very well feel the way tech writer Farhad Manjoo does about automation at the grocery store:

The human doesn’t expect me to remember or look up codes for produce, she bags my groceries, and unlike the machine, she isn’t on hair-trigger alert for any sign that I might be trying to steal toilet paper.

Best of all, the human does all the work while I’m allowed to stand there and stupidly stare at my phone, which is my natural state of being. (WSJ)

Just look at how differently Whole Foods manages its checkout lines at some of its busy urban locations:

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At these Whole Foods checkout lines, customers stand in one long line and walk to their color-coded counters when it’s their turn. This is a great example of how automation can be used to assist – not replace – human employees.

You still get greeted by a store associate and more importantly, they don’t make you to work the register for you to walk out with your groceries. As far as line (or queue) management, the Whole Foods approach (aka “serpentine line system“) looks way better than your average convenience store.

The automation principle

There are really only two primary motivations behind every automation decision: either self-serving (i.e. to save labor costs) or customer-centric (i.e.  to create a better customer experience).

Some businesses believe that automation exists to free up their time. But better businesses use automation to reinvest their new free time in better human-to-human service.

In fact, there’s a general principle that successful customer-centric businesses tend to follow (and that you can too):

Every time you automate a task, you must reinvest your newly acquired free time with a higher level human task.

In other words, you can carve out a competitive advantage for your business when you make automation decisions to build better processes for your customers. It just doesn’t come out looking the same when you approach it as a way to save yourself time.

You don’t have to look very far into history to know that shortcuts like that don’t work. Customer service is exactly the kind of labor-intensive function we’re all tempted to automate, but stick to your principles. Or don’t, because it’s a slippery slope back to the outsourced call center of 2003.

customer service automation

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