Article | 3 min read

Do People Really Need People? The Humans vs. Self-Service Kiosks

Last updated September 30, 2010

There’s a funny little dual occurrence that I’ve been witnessing lately.

Just the other day I was at the airport, waiting to check-in on a flight. There were half a dozen or so people waiting to use the online check-in kiosks and almost none waiting at the counter with a real person on it. The same thing happens at banks, supermarkets and, other consumer outlets. People, it appears, prefer not working with people, at least not when it’s in-person.

In contrast to this, we often hear of customers screaming obscenities at an automatic voice recognition system (go on, admit you’ve done it, I surely have!) just in order to speak to a real person. As an aside – I’ve found that shouting, “I want to talk to a f%$#ing person,” at an AVR always results in a swift transfer to a real live agent.

So what’s going on here, and what does it mean for customer service businesses?

A recent Harvard Business Review article looked at this very issue and detailed some research that had found that regardless of age, demographic, issue type, or urgency, people are ambivalent to whether they use live service or a pure self-service approach.

So what’s the real driver for customers?

The authors of the HBR article suggest that:

Maybe customers are shifting toward self service because they don’t want a relationship with companies…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.

Or in other words consumers, hell-bent on avoiding an interaction that is tainted by faux-niceness, prefer to use the cold hard interaction provided by a machine.

I disagree. I think the basis for these two trend comes down to something very simple – efficiency.

I’m an example of both approaches discussed in the article – I’ve sworn blue murder at an AVR in an attempt to reach a real person, and I’ve also made a beeline for the self-service check-in at an airport, despite a manned counter being available.

Both of these seemingly dichotomous examples seem to aim for one thing – efficiency. I’ve suffered the ignominy of having spent hours answering stupid questions on an AVR before finally being put through to the right place to solve my issues. Similarly,I’ve spent plenty of time talking to stupid counter staff who don’t have any understanding of what my issue is and what I’m trying to achieve.

In both cases, I’d be equally happy to use a self-service offering that allowed me to quickly achieve my outcomes as I would to speak to a well-informed customer service agent who was aware of my situation and could provide timely help. I really don’t care about the medium I use, and I suspect most people who call a service desk think similarly – it’s not about process, it’s about outcomes.

It seems to me that service desk managers are trying to place solution-focused customers within a process-focused framework – and that’s where the disconnect occurs. All this might seem like a strange perspective from a blog that is all about finding the best customer service process for your organization – but there’s a method to the madness.

Customer service is all about outcomes, Zendesk as a tool and Zengage as a destination are both trying to help you reach the best outcomes for your customers. If in doing so we make you focus on tools and processes instead of outcomes, we’ve done you a disservice.

So go forth and think about the outcomes you want to deliver and providing the most efficient way for your customers to achieve that outcome. If your customers achieve their aims, we’ll have achieved ours.