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Ruminations on the Culture of "Self Service"

When asked to name the single most important aspect of business, you might as well be asked to name the most important ingredient in a cake: Is it the flour? After all, flour gives a cake its substance. How about the baking soda, which makes it rise? The egg that binds things together? Or the sugar that makes it sweet?

As for business, is LEADERSHIP the most important? Leadership gives a business structure and direction. What about MARKETING? Successful marketing creates a want for your product or service. Or SALES. Selling the product to make profit keeps employees – sales employees, marketing employees, and management – paid.

Like a cake, all are necessary and work together. You can't leave out one ingredient and expect success. Skip the baking soda and the cake doesn't rise.

But is a flat cake – a failed cake – an inedible cake, even a cake? Is a cake really a cake until someone eats it?

For anyone who has baked a cake, let me ask: When do you feel your cake lives up to its definition? When it comes out of the oven? When you cut it? Or when your guests take a bite and say it's delicious. I would argue the latter.

In the same way, a business can't be a business without customers, and customers require CUSTOMER SERVICE. I'm not a retailer, but I work closely with small businesses and I am a patron of small business too. One of the biggest differences I see between giant retail corporations and small businesses is the customer service. It is a difference to capitalize on, but expectations and the reality of "customer service" have evolved significantly and still continue to change. The culture of "self service" has added another dimension to this topic in ways we might not consider or expect.

My grandmother, though she doesn't drive anymore, remembers a day when gas station attendants would fill the tank, wash the windshield, and send you on your way. She never learned how to pump gas because of the full-service treatment most vehicle-owners came to expect. Nowadays unless you live in Oregon or New Jersey, you pump your own gas as part of the self service culture.

This option allows drivers like me to have control over what type of gas to select, how much to fill the tank, what form of payment to use, and how closely I can run the dollar amount to a double-0 for the ease of balancing my checkbook. I don't have to waste my breath and explain: "Regular Unleaded, between 10 and 12 gallons, and no more than $30 on my Mastercard."

On the other hand, I always drip gasoline on myself, I have to stand out in the rain or cold, and maybe I should be using a different type of gas for my car's health or better mileage, but I don't know because there's no one to ask.

We see other examples of self service all around us: ATM's are nothing more than self-serve banks. Kiosk machines at the airport print boarding passes while others at the Post Office expedite the process of mailing a package. A restaurant's buffet has customers serve their own food, and the "Self Check Out" at Wal-Mart prompts customers to scan and bag their own groceries.

Self-service in today's consumer environment means interacting more with technology and less with actual people. As studies show, de-peopling the exchange of goods and service is not without merits to the bottom line: Taco Bell saw a 20% increase in digital app order profits versus those taken by human cashiers, liquor stores with self service technology described an 8.4% increase in select imported items1, and rental car companies like Alamo reported greater satisfaction in customer surveys when kiosks reduced check-in times by half2. Why?

Taco Bell customers found it easier to add ingredients and personalize their order3. Sales at liquor stores increased because customers bought specialized items without "fear of […] appearing unsophisticated in front of the clerks."4 Alamo customers avoided the hassle of 'waiting' when the whole point of that commercial exchange was 'transit.'

These examples show that profit can increase with self service for large companies. They also emphasize instances in which customers respond favorably to self service. These instances involved personalization, the avoidance of embarrassment, and convenience.

Of course, downsides to self service also exist. The ATM eats your debit card if you leave it in too long. You still have to stand in line at the airport if checking luggage. You also have to stand and wait if buying a pack of gum at Wal-Mart, which the Self Service scanner swears you "didn't bag."

Gretchen Gavett of Harvard Business Review imagines much greater implications with automated self service options obscuring the work being done, which consequently obscures the value of that work. As Gavett explains, self service technologies are designed to "obscure" work from customers as a way to highlight the supposed ease and simplicity of the self service system5. She further maintains, "We strip away the customer's view of the effort that is going on behind the scenes. When customers aren't able to see that effort, they appreciate the service that's being deliver less, and they value the service less."6

The phenomenon is similar to what I call the "freezer epidemic": When you ask a child where their food comes from, how many will say "the grocery store" or even "the freezer section?" They do not see the farm-to-table work going on behind the scenes; they do not understand the process.

Similarly, a veil between work and service teaches customers to devalue service itself until only "product" and "self" remain with nothing in between. How can retailers satisfy the customer if this happens? How can the independent retailer make a stand?

Can customers value self service AND person-to-person service? Can independent retailers appreciate self service and still offer stellar customer service? Are we asking them, and ourselves, to play by two different sets of rules? I don't have the answers, but we can learn from the rules of self service to better the game we play.

In the Vac and Sew industries, we know that an increasing number of people are learning to sew via video tutorials on YouTube. To provide a better learning experience, many stores offer free sewing lessons with the purchase of a machine. How does this act of customer service score in the fields of personalization, avoidance of embarrassment, and convenience – three top reasons why customers favor self service?

Having a real person teach you how to sew is, without a doubt, more personal than a video. The instructor can tailor their lessons to what the student is learning quickly or having difficulty grasping. However, when learning a new skill, people feel less embarrassed when they fail in private without the teacher watching. Being self-conscious causes anxiety that newbies of any skill or sport want to avoid. And for many with busy schedules, stopping and starting an online tutorial anytime of the day is a lot more convenient than driving to a secondary location at a set time.

Armed with this information, you can show customers why – after first glance – your sewing classes really are more convenient and less embarrassing. The classes might be more convenient because they save time. Rather than watching a video tutorial 10 times in a row for 2 hours and being none the wiser, an instructor might explain things clear as day in 30 minutes. That frees up 90 more minutes of the student's time. The learning process might also be less embarrassing in a group setting; flailing and floundering together is a lot more enjoyable, even comical, than going it alone.

Self service is here to stay, but so is good old-fashioned customer service. No machine can replace a smile, a handshake, a conversation, or a relationship. Knowing why people choose self service options can help you integrate new technologies or frame your existing practices in such a way that shows customers how you – the independent retailer – can provide some of the same benefits of self service, like personalization, in a more meaningful and valued way.

Reprinted from Floor Care & Central Vac Professional, March 2017 and SQE Professional, April 2017

Collier, Joel E. and Sheryl E. Kimes. "How Customers View
Self-Service Technologies." MITSloan Management
Review, 15 Sept. 2015, sloanreview.mit.edu. Accessed
18 Feb 2017.

Gavett, Gretchen. "How Self-Service Kiosks Are Changing
Customer Behavior." Harvard Business Review, 11
March 2015, hbr.org. Accessed 15 Feb 2017.


1. Gavett
2. Collier and Kimes
3. Gavett
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