Automated customer service has been a presence in our daily lives for decades but have we really begun to warm towards it?
Lost in the supermarket
The first self-service tills were launched in the 1980s, whereas IBM developed simple voice recognition technology as early as 1962. By the 1990s scanning your own groceries had become commonplace. And if you do your shopping online for delivery and have a problem, the chances are that when you email Ocado your message will be responded to by a chatbot rather than a call agent.
It is meant to make life easier. But the path towards widespread acceptance of a people-free shopping experience has not been an even one. Phrases like "unexpected item in the bagging area" have become the stuff of comedy routines when the performer wants to get their audience onside. "We’ve all been there right?"
Which makes recent research by SOTI Inc all the more surprising. They found that UK shoppers are becoming much more comfortable with what the industry terms "frictionless" shopping. According to SOTI, 79 per cent would be comfortable in a completely automated checkout scenario. It is worth pointing out here that it depends how you ask the question and what the customer actually wants. In a supermarket they want something for lunch. Over the phone they require an answer to their query and more often than not someone there to give it.
Rage against the machine
In the best of all possible worlds self-scanning should be easy. You scan the goods, you pay, you go. But it seems that this ideal situation is not how shoppers, and indeed store staff, experience it. First and foremost in the minds of the more high-status shopper is that they’re doing a good degree of the "heavy lifting" in the transaction for no reward. As the US academic Craig Lambert put it in 2011; "I see an attorney that I know is on $300,000 plus. She’s swiping her own groceries and getting nothing for it, not even minimum wage". And then there are the people, primarily the elderly, for whom the chat with the cashier may be the only human interaction they get that day.
For many though, frictionless shopping is a myth. Confidentially, the staff that help out on the self-checkouts will tell you that they found it easier to do the scanning themselves rather than sorting out reduced stickers that were put on crooked or checking the retired gent buying the Merlot is over 21. At least then they could sit down.
But, you may say, these are the savings that the big chains need to make to sell a tin of baked beans for 40p, right? Well, it seems that there a number of forces are at work eating into money saved from the reduced labour costs. In 2015, Professor Adrian Beck of The University of Leicester audited one million self-checkout transactions totalling $21 million - and found that $850,000 worth of goods left the store unpaid for, many times the normal rate of loss.
When digging deeper he found a number of motives at work for such behaviour. Primary to them all though is that there is at least the pretence of anonymity. It has long been known in studies of the internet that being invisible allows people to act in ways they would not otherwise. Essentially they’re in a hurry and think nobody is watching, so those croissants can just go in the bag. This is not to say that people don’t deliberately take the opportunities that are available. Ringing a high value item through as something else is known as “the banana trick”. When a practice has its own terminology it has become part of the culture, for good or bad.
Loving the alien
Despite these hazards it remains clear that automated customer service is not going away. The BBC reported last year that it is expected that there will be 325,000 self-service tills worldwide by 2021. And in the world of call centres, IBM, who started it all, also predict that by 2020 85 per cent of all customer interactions will be handled without a human agent.
So how can this future be better for business and its customers? It is worth pointing out that customer service is a catch-all term that ill defines what a customer actually wants. In a store environment many people are happy to get their shopping and get out in as frictionless a manner as possible. Self-service tills can do this if retailers learn from the golden rule of call centre practice, which is to head off trouble before it happens. If everything worked and barcodes were all understood and alcohol sales could be verified more easily people would be less frustrated and less likely to steal.
And in the call centres where AI is becoming more prevalent it must be accepted that nowadays when people contact their bank or mobile provider it is generally because they have a problem. Yes, simple things can be dealt with by chatbots but when there’s trouble people want to be able to get through to a human voice as easily as possible.
Despite the complexity and modernity of the technology we interact with, it still comes down to a rather old-fashioned requirement: give the customer what they want, how they want it.