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The Self-Service Economy

I suspect it won't be long before I cross paths with hotel front-desk staffers as rarely as I do with bank tellers, gas station attendants, travel agents, photo clerks, and airline check-in agents — all the people who used to provide services that I now perform myself most of the time. Hilton, Sheraton, Embassy Suites, and Hyatt Regency are among the hotels currently adding or expanding kiosks where you can check yourself in. Although I look forward to the convenience of not waiting in line for my room key, I wonder what I'll be missing by trading customer service for self-service.

More than once, I've arrived late at my hotel and feeling beaten down by the airlines only to meet a night clerk whose charm and attentiveness turned my mood around. You can't put a price on that. And I can't imagine a machine having the same effect.

I know these kiosks can be good for business, and not just by lowering costs. Last year FC's Charles Fishman reported that people would order more from a McDonald's machine than they would from a McEmployee behind the counter. But what are the limits of these do-it-yourself solutions? In which industries does human-interaction trump automation?

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  • Bob Watkins

    There's a "tragedy of the commons" effect to self-service that's akin to teachers assigning homework. Each assignment by itself doesn't seem like much out of a child's day; but when all six or seven periods have assigned homework on a given night, the result can be overwhelming.

    I wouldn't mind pumping my own gas or doing my own banking at kiosks, if that's all it was. But as more and more shopping experiences fail due to poor customer service, and I take them on myself, pretty soon the combination is draining.

  • Rick K.

    Self-serve kiosks are the new, cost-saving alternative to hiring a human worker.

    The kiosk never calls in sick, requires no insurance, wages, or benefits. It can operate effeciently 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

    Companies love them.

    BUT, the kiosk takes a job away from a person who needs sustenence. Food, shelter, ect.

    The kiosk also receives no paycheck, so the profits saved go to the company headquarters, usually located in another state. The local tax infrastructure loses tax revenue to provide for local residents.

    I have been in a store where the store owners only had 2 humans manning checkouts, the rest were kiosks. There were long lines in the human-manned checkouts for one reason or another. Some had more items than the required maximum to use a kiosk. Others didn't like the kiosks, and refused to use them.

    There were 4 or 5 store managers, asst. managers, ect. standing around keeping an eye on everything instead of opening up another checkout line or two to help the frustrated customers waiting in line.

    This is service?

    Are we cattle to be herded into using the company monolith's idea of cost saving methods? It may save costs for them, but takes service away from the people who make their jobs possible...the customers.

    I do not like kiosks, will not use them, and make it a point to find a store manager and complain about them.

    Maybe if we all stood up and complained, then we could get good old fashioned SERVICE back.

    Corporate America has already trained us to pump our own gas. They've replaced your friendly bank teller with ATM machines.

    Now we bag our own groceries, pay with plastic or insert money in a little slot, load the groceries and go home?

    Screw that. I will shop elsewhere.

  • Mary Schmidt

    Firstly, I'd like to know the hotel where the staff was charming and attentive. Unfortunately, I tend to get the surly, sleepy ones who are irritated I'm taking time away from their 2 a.m. smoke break.

    Seriously, kiosks and other self-service options are great as options - key word being "option." Unfortunately, many companies do it as a way to save money - what I call "service avoidance" - not improve customer service. The other problem is that many firms automate processes that already broken (phone companies and airlines are just two examples) Thus, you have problems like lines at kiosks, badly designed web sites, and such. We should always, always have the option to talk to a live, truly empowered (versus corporate speak use of the word)employee that can help for special requests and problems.

    The only way the U.S. service economy will ever improve is for us to hold our vendors, service providers (and ourselves) accountable. Don't just accept it, write to the CEO, post on a blog, refuse to pay bogus bills, etc.

  • Matthew Leo

    The one thing that does bother me about kiosks is when I have to wait in line at the kiosk for longer than I would in the "human" line.

    One of the funniest uses I think is the airline's use of the self check in kiosk. There is always an attendant there that helps you check yourself in. A bit ironic. Why don't they just do it themselves then?

  • Dan Seidman

    Forced Self-service?

    It's 5:30pm, and I'm heading home but stop first for a couple quick buys at my local Jewel/Albertsons foodstore.

    The 12 items or less line is now "any size order" and the guy ahead of me has 43 little yogurts in his cart. Half a Reader's Digest later, I get my turn.

    The woman points to self-serve - "we're trying to get small orders to do their own."

    You can't FORCE customers to do this.

    I don't want to weigh my produce or bag my groceries or wait in longer lines to do all this work myself.

    Maybe if I get a discount, but there are no margins in food, so that'd be insignificant.

    C'mon Jewel! How can you do this to your customers?

    Guess which line I will wait in?

    Your closest competitor's.

    Dan Seidman,
    "One of the top 12 sales coaches in America" (Ultimate Selling Power)
    Sales Horror Stories now appearing on!
    Author, The Sales Comic Book
    There is nothing like it on this planet (possibly any planet)! 1-847-359-7860 (central time)

  • Kevin McDonald

    There is nothing wrong with the kiosks - if provided for the right reason. Kiosk solutions simply to cut expenses are likely to back fire. Kiosk solutions, as voluntary alternatives, give a consumer alternatives and the feeling their personal needs are being met. Expense reductions will follow but, more importantly, customers will be happy. You should be able to check in with an agent, if you want.

  • Eric Prescott

    Sometimes I don't want to deal with people, though hotels usually have pleasant enough front-of-house staff. I think the idea is better suited to motels, personally.

  • Steve Portigal

    This NYT op-ed is an interesting if cantankerous consideration of the Do It Yourself (instead of the staff) economy.