• Aarron Spinley

Self-Service v Customer Service

Did you notice? Something changed. We stopped debating a once brutal battleground in CX. Can we get our customers to keep buying from us, even if we give them a little less service - all in the name of declining margins? Well, some are still waging war. Let's unpack it.

Twenty years ago when you pulled up at a petrol station, enthusiastic attendants would bound from the sidelines like tennis boys in training to wash your window and inquire how much you would like. Allegedly, they even smiled.

"Fill it please". And ever so dutifully they would.

If you're reading this and you're under 25, trust me. It actually happened.

You could stay in your car out of the rain, or pop into the station to browse through convenience products, before paying.

Somewhere along the line, that industry trained us to get off our backsides, alight the nozzle from the bowser, and stand in the rain ourselves.

Sensational for their cost base, but which is the better customer experience? And so a debate began which still consumes many in the service industry today. 

To Serve or not to Serve, that is the Question

In other industries like department stores and super markets with dedicated self-payment kiosks, banking with ATM's, and airports at check-in; the self-service model has also become the norm.

Whilst its origins lie in de-risking and lowering the cost of business, its proponents also point out that customers would rather self-serve and be able to leave quickly, than to stand in a queue while the guy in front unloads the mountain of groceries it takes to feed his nine children, or as a pensioner fumbles for her coupons. Fair point.

That being said, the young mother standing in the rain fueling the car as her toddler screams for her in the backseat, would tell you not to pretend that it’s all about her…

But I submit to you that the debate is dead. Or should be.

In the era of digital customer insight and personalisation, it is perhaps an irony that the cost saving self-service model is actually enhanced by modern customer service. And deeply so.

What were once mutually exclusive, are now logical bedfellows. Today, in order to make the self-service model work, a brand now needs to "know me”.

To start with it needs to know a whole lot about what products and/or services I like to buy from them (and their competitors), at what price points I engage at, when I’m likely to, where I’ll likely want it from, how I will probably want to get it, and so on. Think: personas, buyer life-cycle, preferences, context etc.

For instance, whether I selected my goods off the shelf, or off the website, from an aggregators website, from an app, or even through a combination; my channel selection gives a brand insight into my behaviors. Where and how did I want it delivered? More insight.

If I was in store, and scanned and confirmed the items from my phone, surely I could just leave safe in the knowledge that the bill was already charged to my account or credit card. Right?

Uber did this well. Payment became frictionless. For both parties. A perfect marriage of self service and customer service in one.

The point is this:

Brands that work to deeply understand its customers, enable themselves to position the mechanics of self-service in a manner which they are most likely to use - for no other reason that it makes their life easier, their experience better.

And I've only touched on rational, conscious preferences. Understanding the non-rational, such as consumer bias, opens up whole new insight.

There can be no argument that self-service is now genuinely empowered by deep customer engagement, and vice versa. So what does this mean for the modern business model in the retail and service sectors? Well, the economics can be compelling.

The original arguments for self-service still stack up from a traditional cost reduction perspective. But now, the loyalty and retention outcomes from getting the customer engagement aspect right drive long term revenue.


Simply put, there is just so much upside to the marriage of self-service and customer service in the digital era.

Service is dead. Long live Service.

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