Opinion: Self-service with a smile

Recently, it's felt as if my entire life has been spent in airports. The airline I take most often is one of those low-cost peanut tossers that specializes in self-service. After logging over 80 flights in the past year, I remain a fan of this airline. It's been just about a year since I've had to interact with anyone at the entire company other than to give my drink order or to wish someone a good day as I deplaned. It's been great.

Well, except for the time I arrived an hour after my flight had left. The next plane was scheduled to leave in 12 minutes; the one after that would land at close to midnight. The customer service agent asked me if I was willing to run through the airport.

Running seemed better than missing dinner, so after he quickly rebooked me, he grabbed my bag, and off we went. We cleared security in record time by using the special employee line. My gate was at the far end of the terminal (of course). Once we passed into his airline's area, the other gate agents started cheering him on: "Go, Bradley! Go, Bradley!" He got me to the plane with three minutes to spare.

As the door closed behind me, I was nearly out of breath but happy at the thought that I'd be home for dinner.

Exceeding expectations is a challenge in today's automated world of self-service. If Bradley hadn't been overseeing the self-service kiosks, my experience on this trip would have been very different.

My grocery store has replaced its express lanes with self-service checkout stations. The first month the stations were available, only a few brave shoppers used them.

The first time I tried it, the station got stuck in some infinite loop, and I ended up grabbing a clerk to help me. It turned out that because the previous transaction had been for beer, the station needed to know whether I could legally purchase alcohol before it could proceed. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing that I'm clearly over 21, but the clerk entered the code, and I continued scanning my groceries.

A few weeks later, I was back in the store and saw an employee station located in the middle of the self-service area. The same clerk who had helped me was now darting among the stations helping shoppers.

I also noticed that a lot more people were using self-service; a long but quickly moving line had formed in front of the four stations.

As a customer, I like self-service; it's faster and I'm in control. And as a CIO, self-service is one more way I can help my company reduce expenses by using technology.

But the reality is that customers sometimes need someone else to take control. At some point, the cost of programming for each possible customer interaction outweighs the cost of inserting an employee into the transaction. Assuming that the folks in marketing want high levels of customer satisfaction, creating ways for skilled humans to intervene is required.

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