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Service without the service
July 11, 2016
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by Ivan Raconteur

The connection between businesses and their customers becomes more remote every year.

I’m old enough to remember when ATMs were a new phenomenon.

Prior to that, when we wanted to transact business at a bank, we actually went to the lobby and spoke to a person.

There was a time when a customer went into a shop and the owner, or one of his employees, assisted the customer.

When we went to a gas station, an attendant pumped the gas, cleaned the windshield, and maybe even checked the oil.

Then the concept of self-service took over.

Motorists began pumping their own gas and cleaning their own windshields. With the introduction of pay-at-the-pump, customers don’t even see a station employee in some cases, much less talk to one.

In the grocery business, supermarkets emerged, offering a plethora of choices. Customers were expected to find goods on their own, and then took their carts to a cashier who rang up the purchase and collected the payment.

In recent years, larger stores have been installing self-checkout lanes.

By implementing this system, the retailer can save the $8 per hour he was paying the cashier, and get the customer to ring up and bag his own groceries for free. It’s brilliant, from the retailer’s point of view.

They pitch it as convenience, but what it really is, is free labor. I bet there were some good laughs in corporate boardrooms when they figured that one out.

Self-checkout lanes don’t seem very popular with customers yet, but I’ve noticed stores are carefully and very gradually reducing the number of employees working at any given time in order to make the lines for cashiers longer, and make self-checkout more appealing.

Previously, all we had to do was avoid the lane with the chatty cashier who is incapable of ringing up products and talking at the same time, and who is oblivious to the 15 customers waiting in line.

Now, we also have to beware of the self-checkout lanes with the first-time self-checker who is struggling to figure out the system.

The stores assure us there will be someone on hand to help us with our self-checkout if we have difficulties, but these employees seem to disappear more quickly than witnesses at a crime scene at the first sign of trouble.

It’s not just the big box stores doing this.

I remember a few years ago when I learned it was possible to purchase items at an Apple Store using an app.

With Apple’s EasyPay program, all I had to do was scan an item using the camera on my iPhone, and in a couple easy steps, pay for the purchase using the credit card linked to my Apple ID account, without ever having to speak to a store employee.

That just seemed weird.

Self-service restaurants are nothing new, but the industry seems to keep finding new ways to get customers to do things themselves.

There are restaurants in which customers pay upon entering, and then are left on their own to help themselves from a buffet.

Even fast food establishments, which seemed about as simple as things can get, have changed.

There was a time when counter staff assembled beverage orders along with the pre-wrapped burgers and sides.

Now, they bung an empty cup on a tray and leave it up to the customer to find the dispenser at which he has to pour his own drinks, as well as collect his own napkins, straws, and condiments.

After the feast, customers are expected to bus their own tables, throw away their trash, and stack their trays neatly in the space provided.

In view of this model, it’s not surprising that young people think stories about the old days – when burger joints employed people who actually went out to customers’ cars to take orders, delivered meals (including frosty mugs of root beer), and then came back to collect the trash – are nothing more than fairy tales.

I might not mind so much if I thought some of the money these businesses are saving was filtered down to the employees who are left, or used to reduce prices. I suspect however that the people at the top are getting most of it, and the income gap is continuing to grow.

With more and more of our routine transactions being completed online, through self-checkout, or using unconventional means, I can’t help wonder what’s next.

It wouldn’t surprise me if someday all our business transactions were completed with chips embedded in our bodies.

The further we stray from the model of transactions involving real live people, the closer we get to the day when someone will be called upon to write the epitaph for that fine old concept of customer service.


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