By Mark Cambridge (pictured), CEO at Zytronic
After a long, hard day, hearing those fateful words at the supermarket checkout can be the final straw. “Unexpected item in the bagging area!” chimes the self-checkout. There’s nothing wrong, of course, but I’m unable to complete my purchase. Looking desperately around for supermarket staff to help me, there’s nobody to be seen.
In businesses across public-facing sectors, this is a common story. With self-service devices becoming increasingly accessible, and growing numbers of businesses looking to cut corners and costs amid inflation, self-service devices are taking over.
Whether at the bank, the doctors or the supermarket, you’ll usually have the option to use technology rather than speak to a real person. When this technology is implemented correctly – i.e. alongside a well-trained human workforce – it’s brilliant. When it’s done wrongly, however, the customer experience suffers.
I take a look at the pros and cons of self-service, and the measures that businesses can take to ensure the success of their self-service strategy…
How do the public feel?
Today’s customer wants autonomy. Flexibility. More than a specific desire to use self-service technology, most self-service technology is aimed at streamlining the customer experience. In fact, a 2022 survey on LinkedIn highlighted a very close split between those who prefer manned tills in supermarkets and those who would rather use a self-service checkout, with 52% voting to use the automated option.
Another UK survey revealed that 66% of people think self-service increases efficiency when shopping. The same survey found two-thirds of respondents calling for more self-service tills. So, there’s definitely a demand for self-service options. But, there are plenty of other benefits for businesses installing self-service terminals to reap.
A commonly-cited argument – particularly used by the older generation and tech-illiterate when refusing to use self-checkouts – is that the rise of self-service totems is reducing the number of service roles. Receptionists, retail assistants and other customer-facing roles are being replaced by machines, leading to higher unemployment rates and a sense of discontent amongst staff.
However, this technology need not replace staff. Instead, it should be utilised to make their lives easier and provide a more efficient experience for customers. If you’ve ever worked a service role, you’ll know how hard it is – you’re constantly rushed off your feet with endless busy work, whilst the important tasks languish at the bottom of your to-do list.
Installing self-service devices in places such as supermarkets and train stations means that staff no longer need to perform tasks that customers can complete themselves. This can positively impact the customer’s experience, as they are empowered to complete transactions and find answers to common questions themselves.
Staff, meanwhile, are free to help with more in-depth queries. This allows for a more personal experience when the customer needs further guidance, which in turn can increase job satisfaction for staff who feel they have made a real difference for their customers.
For instance, a self-service option at train stations enables customers to complete their payments and receive their tickets quickly and easily, freeing up staff to deal with more complex passenger requirements.
Mental health implications and accessibility
Understandably, when self-checkout is the only available option, the public are entitled to rue the lack of human contact and personality in their experience. A PwC survey found that 78% of UK consumers wanted to interact with a real person more as technology improved.
There might be an element of ‘uncanny valley’ involved as technology becomes more and more capable, but the fact remains that human interaction can, and does, boost mental health.
If you’re dealing with loneliness, a friendly cashier can be all it takes to lift your mood. And, certain groups within society are more at risk of poor mental health due to a lack of human interaction, such as older people or those belonging to ethnic minority communities. .
Neurodivergent people may also struggle with the rise of self-service technology. Dyslexic people may find it easier to speak to a staff member rather than selecting written options on a screen.
However, when implemented alongside a dedicated team, self-service tech has the capacity to increase accessibility. Within the travel sector, a self-service check-in or ordering system at hotels and restaurants can allay fears about not being able to speak the language or understand a request. Both customers and staff can easily subvert language barriers with the addition of a ‘select language’ button on interactive room service and menu screens.
For other members of the neurodivergent community, technology can make simple tasks like ordering a meal much less daunting. Interacting with a person directly, particularly in a busy restaurant, can be difficult in any case, let alone if you’re an autistic person who is overstimulated or hypersensitive.
Any of your customers could have unique needs, which makes flexibility even more important for modern businesses. By providing both human and automated payment options, you can accommodate all your customers’ requirements.
Optimising for use
It feels like many of the perceived issues around self-service payment terminals are linked to the technology being implemented incorrectly, or a lack of public understanding around the safety and security of the machines themselves.
The customer experience is at the forefront of the self-service movement, so businesses choosing to implement self-service terminals should ensure they’re optimised for use in the correct environment and situation. This is a key element of the self-service installation process, which is overlooked all too often, and, if used correctly, can make self-service more viable than ever.
When it comes to the privacy of self-service devices in settings such as banks, some customers are concerned. Dealing solely with a machine, when sensitive or personal information may need to be inputted, can be difficult, particularly for the older generation. The proximity of bystanders can be off-putting without the reassurance of a staff member or the ability to discuss issues in a separate room.
Privacy filters can be installed in self-service devices to allay consumer fears, preventing displayed information from being viewed from certain angles. The viewing angle can be aligned to ensure only the person using the device can easily see the information.
Durability and outdoor use
The durability of technology can be a concern, particularly with devices that need to be installed outside and run the risk of facing bad weather. Damaged and inefficient technology is difficult for the customer to use but may also incur extra cost to the business. For example, weather-damaged devices may need new costly components and may be weakened, needing more frequent repairs in the future.
Potential downtime also has to be considered – PwC found that 32% of all customers would stop doing business with a brand after a single negative experience. The potential for reputational damage and reduced profitability to occur, particularly for businesses with point-of-sale screens, should be enough warning for businesses to protect their screens for outdoor use.
Brands whose interactive screens and touchpoints work even under difficult weather conditions will stand out amongst the competition. For instance, interactive outdoor maps that can still be accessed when the user is wearing gloves and are made with anti-reflective glass to prevent glare from direct sunlight will provide the customer with a much more efficient and enjoyable experience.
To surmise, the viability of self-service should be explored by all relevant businesses. It can save time and money as well as increasing efficiency, customer and staff satisfaction. Although concerns surrounding mental health impacts and privacy remain, it is clear that the option for human interaction alongside this technology can minimise the issue and create a balanced experience for the customer.