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?