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Is Self-Service good or bad?


Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe had a column “Self-serve and slave” (that I saw in the San Jose Mercury News as “In a self-serve nation, work gets dumped on us“) in which she rails against self-service and compares it to the outsourcing of work from paid employees to us consumers. As she says:

For every task shipped abroad by a corporation, isn’t there another one sloughed off onto that domestic loser, the consumer?

This perspective was interesting. Speaking personally I often prefer self-service – I don’t like to have to wait for someone to serve me in a shop and I find it irritating to talk to someone who is using an information system rather than using the system myself. Indeed I find many circumstances to be much more efficient when I can self-serve. I suppose that an infinite number of staff available 24×7 might work as well as an ATM say but well designed self-service can make machines (PCs, kiosks, ATMs) do something that otherwise a person would do. Each such automated channel then adds to the number of available staff (typically finite) and so makes it easier for everyone. For a good example, take the check in kiosks at airports. Where there are plenty of kiosks the lines for staff are shorter and I think most people are happier.

I guess you could consider me as a glass half-full person when it comes to self service while Ellen might be described as a half-empty person. So, this week’s question is “What do you think – is the self-service glass half-full or half-empty?”

Regardless of the perspective you have on this I believe that Enterprise Decision Management has a role to play. Being explicit about the decisions that customers want made makes it more likely that they can get done what they want done (because it is explicitly automated). Because personalization makes it easier and more pleasant to use automated systems, explicitly identifying the decisions that can be personalized i also helpful. Lastly it helps as it allows the expertise necessary to make a good decision to be embedded so you are not making decisions based on TV shows and google searches or the uninformed new hire on the other end of the phone.


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  • David Greer July 19, 2008, 2:14 pm

    I thought this was an interesting post on self-service.   I’m like  James in that I’m  a half-full kind of guy.   We’ve worked with  financial institutions to automate scheduling of phone appointments with certified financial advisors.   The idea is that employees of their institutional 401(k) customers would go to a special web page where they could click on a “Schedule an Advisor” button.   The employee would then give a date range (much like booking a flight online).   Behind the scenes our scheduling engine would do the necessary skill set and availability match, returning solutions to the employee who can then select the one they want, or change the date range (again like online flight bookings).

    In a recent blog posting on customer time  I talked about how some enterprises take an average of 12 minutes per call to the call center to book appointments.   If you could do it online, you should be able to get the average to less than 2 minutes.   If I was a customer, I’d prefer the 2 minute choice rather than the 12 minute one, even if I don’t get to talk to a person.

    David Greer