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pexels-photoIn 2010 I was asked to speak at a meeting in Cambridge on customer service. The audience consisted of 50 or so retired bank managers who met quarterly to debate business topics.

The first two speakers earned hearty applause by ripping to shreds the standard of customer service in the ‘modern age.’ One kept the audience highly amused by recollecting the trials and tribulations customers faced when dealing with a local authority in South London. I have to admit it was a brilliant line of attack; describing the Herculean effort tenants had to make to get a rent refund or council tax error corrected. It was also a surprising approach given he’d been Customer Operations Director at the council for the previous fifteen months.

The other speaker said things were better when banks had managers in branches and that cost cutting and customer service were natural opposites. There were lots of nods and friendly questions and enthusiastic applause.

I remember being quite nervous as I was going to argue that customer service standards had risen. Just before my turn came, there was a rotten moment when I was convinced I’d drafted the wrong speech. The argument in my speech? – self-service; things had to be better if customers were doing things themselves. There was no longer the requirement to wait in line to get a bank balance or send money abroad and no need to stand in a queue at the post office to renew your car tax. Of course things were better.

And so the self-service revolution has rumbled on.

In his new book, ‘Shadow Work,’ Craig Lambert makes an interesting argument. The reason so many people feel overworked and stressed today, says Lambert, is that they are constantly being asked to do the things that, in the past, were done by someone else. Scan your passport, print your boarding pass, tag your own luggage – and that’s just the travel industry. With the introduction of the ‘Smart’ Watch, even the hotel room key will soon be redundant.

But it’s not all one way traffic. Customers are rebelling against their extra and expanding work load.

The fact that customers complain about speaking to computers has meant the re-introduction of more people at the end of the phone. Supermarkets are having to train staff to work on check outs due to feedback and absent shoppers and tax payers are fighting back against getting their questions answered through online help facilities with questions being asked in Parliament.

There are three issues with the rise of self-service.

Firstly businesses lose touch with their customers. If an organisation isn’t competing on service (and given that all product features are equal or thereabouts) they will eventually drive their customers to buy on price alone. The clear implication of this digital marketplace is that customers have little loyalty to one provider and switch as soon as a cheaper option becomes available and companies simply won’t stand for that.

Then there is the issue of what we call the ‘rituals in buying habits.’ The fact is it’s easy to computerise many consumer transactions; but in the real world the buying ‘ritual’ means there are things that are simply not going to work this way. For example, it would be easy to sell wedding rings online; but the ritual determines that the couple go to the jewellers and look at the rings together.

It’s the same with buying a house; it’s part of the ritual for buyers to go to the estate agent and discuss the ‘pros and cons’ and facts and figures of their perfect residence. If that wasn’t the case, there wouldn’t be seven estate agents on my local high street. Rituals are widespread and engrained deeper than many organisations realise; no matter how bright and shiny or easy to use their web-site or in branch machines are.

And finally there’s the simple issue that customers won’t enter into high value or complex or tricky transactions without knowing who to speak to when things go wrong. Yes, you are more likely to know someone who has gone through a divorce than has changed their bank even though switching banks is ‘easy online’ and there are ‘service guarantees.’

So, next time someone tells you the self-service revolution is unstoppable, reflect on why two of the newer entrants to the UK banking market, Metro Bank and Virgin Money, are building sizeable branch networks.

Image – ‘Free Digital Photos.net’