A helping hand

Last year, I did my taxes with the help of an online wizard. I went line by line through every question and at the end offered up my digital signature and waited for my refund.

Though the process was really simple, I couldn't help feeling that I wasn't getting as much back as I could. So this year, I went to a professional service and let them do my taxes. But when they started going through a wizard-driven program that looked very similar to the one I had used last year, I felt duped. But in the end, my tax return was larger and they seemed to know some "tricks of the trade" that legitimately increased my return.

Tax time is just one example of how assisted offerings still hold value in the face of self-service programs. Another example of this is the travel industry.

There are hundreds of sites on the Web right now that allow you research and book travel anywhere in the world. You can find hotels, cars, flights, cruises, etc., without ever speaking to someone in person. But here again, I find that talking with a professional travel agent adds something to the experience. You can ask questions and offer information about your likes and dislikes that result in a better travel experience.

For instance, I took my nephew on a cruise last year and tried booking it online. But I wanted to know which cruise line was more geared toward teenagers and what destinations offered what sightseeing. I talked to the agent for a while and during the course of the conversation she asked what the occasion was. I told her it was an early birthday present for him. Based on that information alone - something a Web site would not gather - she was able to get us an incredible discount and cabin upgrade on the Royal Caribbean cruise line. The choice of cruise line and destination was greatly improved by talking with her on the phone.

Though there is a strong push for self-service in everything we do, I argue that we still need some interaction. We need to ask questions to feel better about our purchases or the service being offered. Trying to streamline every aspect of e-commerce may save in personnel costs, but it could take away from the bottom line.

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