Is self service good for customer service?

Over the past few decades we have seen technology replace more and more people as we buy and use the things that keep us going. From the ubiquitous self-service gas station to self-service check-in at airports, we have more opportunities than ever to deal with machines rather than people.

Is this good for customer service?

Or maybe a better way to put it is: Does this help customers get what they want better, faster or cheaper?

At Smarter Travel, Carl Unger writes about this trend in the travel business.  He cites a survey that suggests 70% of airline customers want more self-service throughout their journey. And he concludes this trend is a good one:

Financial implications aside, self-serve is a win for consumers. Airlines can deploy rows upon rows of kiosks at airports, a move that would cut down on wait times and could actually improve customer service by freeing up employees to focus on customers who really need help.

Unger makes a good point.

As a customer I love self-service. It means I can usually get what I want in less time and with less hassle than if I have to wait in line or rely on a poorly motivated employee.

But there are (at least) two problems with self-service replacing customer service.

One is that some people simply don’t like it. They’d rather have a living, breathing person helping them.They might have questions. They might not be comfortable with the self-service technology. Or maybe they just want someone to talk with for a moment.

Two is when there is a problem the machine can’t handle. It might malfunction. Or maybe it doesn’t offer the option a customer wants. Perhaps the situation needs to be escalated. A gas pump is ill-equipped to give refunds or say “I’m sorry”.

Home Depot handles their self-service checkout well. The machines are easy enough to use. But, just in case, there is a friendly helpful employee in orange standing close by. My experience there has been 100% positive.

My conclusion:

Self-service can be a good thing. But don’t rely on it exclusively. You need to offer backups, escalation routes and alternatives.  If it’s just one option, one tool in the customer service toolbox, then it can be very effective in helping customers get what they want.

What do you think? Are companies doing self-service customer service well? Or is there room for improvement?